In our last post, we discussed what UPC codes were.  You may have skipped it, and that’s fine, we suppose.  Here’s the meat of the matter—where and how you get those codes.  Read it before you buy a code or two from the first company that came up when you Googled “UPC.”

The UPC code system is managed by the non-profit organization GS1.  GS1 is actually an umbrella organization for country-specific organizations that manage codes originating within their countries.  In the United States, the organization is .  GS1 US doesn’t “sell” codes per se; they run the UPC club.  There’s no hazing or initiation ritual; you just pay an initial fee and annual dues based on how many codes you’ll be using.  If you’re going to need between 1 and 10 codes, it’s $250 to join and $50 per year to maintain your membership.  If you need between 11 and 100, it’s $750 to join and $150 per year after that, and so on.

Most breweries will be using between 11 and 100 codes, as we explain below.  Joining takes a few of minutes on the website (and a credit card number).  Within a business day, GS1 issues you a “prefix,” which becomes is the first set of digits that will print on your 12 digit code (we’ll explain the 11-digit vs. 12-digit issue next).  Once you have the prefix, you log onto the GS1 website and register codes for your products with their “Data Driver” system.  You give your codes to your distributor as you set up your account (or your retailer, if you direct-distribute), and it all goes on from there.

The UPC code is has two parts:  a series of bars readable by the machine and a series of numbers readable by humans.  The UPC code is an 11 digit number, but you might notice that there are 12 digits on the UPC codes you see on products.  The 12th digit is called a “check digit.”  It is calculated by applying a mathematical formula to the first 11 digits, and it serves to check the scan.  If your product is mis-scanned, and the point of sale system’s math doesn’t match the check digit, then it blurts out the disapproving beep we’ve all heard to signal that the checker needs to rescan the item.

There are a couple of key points to know:

First, you should get your UPC codes directly from GS1, not from a reseller.  If forking over $750 to GS1 sounds like a lot of money right now and you’d rather spend it on hops, you’ll probably be tempted to buy just a couple of UPC codes from some of the other websites that came up in your Google search.  These companies “buy” a bunch of codes and then “sell” them individually to folks who only want one or two at a time.  As far as GS1 is concerned, they’re really not “sold” to you—they’re lent, and there are at least two potential problems in “buying” them.   The most likely glitch will come when you get your big break and land in Kroger or one of the other big chains.  Those chains will require you to have your own prefix—that is, that you be directly registered with GS1.  Less likely (but even more damaging), is the problem of your code reseller going out of business, or failing to pay its annual GS1 dues.  In that case, “your” code won’t work anymore.  As GS1 is concerned, the prefix in your code belongs to the reseller, not you.  In either case, you will end up with thousands of labels or carriers in your warehouse that have a worthless code.  You’ll be reprinting the labels—there’s no good way to fix those—and  you and your crew may be hand-applying new barcode stickers on an entire pallet of six pack carriers, which are too expensive to throw into the recycle bin.

We are not saying anything inherently bad about the UPC resellers:  there are probably some cases where they make sense.  But they aren’t recommended for a brewery or beverage maker that has invested many thousands of dollars in its packaging and has product in hundreds of stores.  In the end, getting an inexpensive code or two from a reseller as you get started might cost you tens of thousands of dollars in rework and lost sales in the long run.

The second point is that you need a separate UPC code for every SKU (that is, every “stock counting unit.”)  It’s not enough to have a code for your Goatmeal Stout.  Best practice is to up a code for your Goatmeal Stout 12oz bottle, your Goatmeal Stout 22oz bottle, your Goatmeal Stout 12-oz six-pack, your Goatmeal Stout 12-oz twelve pack, and probably your Goatmeal Stout mother case.  Even in just the 12oz bottle realm, the larger retailer needs to be able to scan receive mother cases, separately scan and sell six packs or twelve packs, and even scan and sell individual bottles in their mix-and-match program.  We’ve recently had some customers redoing their bottle UPC codes in order to meet retailer requirements along those lines.  Trust us, it’s just easier to get them set up that way to begin with.    Granted, it will probably put just about any package brewery over 10 codes, and result in another $500 being sent to GS1, but it will save hassles and expense later.  Discuss your UPC code plan with your distributor in detail before you order your packaging.

A final point—and this comes down to proofing your packaging materials.  At Atlas, we pay attention to UPC codes.  If there is a code, we keep it in our records and our customer service reps and prepress folks check them along the way.  But we aren’t perfect.  We like to think we can catch 99.5% of our own mistakes (on customer jobs, if not on this blog).  And we’ll grovel and make good on the ½ % we might miss, but we’re not in the best position to catch mistakes that happened before we get the project.  You are.  We’ll do our best to help spot problems, of course, but when it comes to confirming UPCs (just like ABV percentages and other copy) we don’t know what we don’t know.

One of the most important things you should do when you get a proof is check the UPC code.  Don’t just check the code against the art you sent us.   Unless there was a big problem with the art and we had to rebuild it, we haven’t messed with your code.  The UPC mistake may have occurred long before we saw the art, and we would be ne’er the wiser.  Check your UPC code against the original documentation from when you set the product up with GS1.  Once you’ve confirmed that, get out your iPhone (or Android or whatever), download a scanner app if you don’t already have one, and scan the proof.  Make sure it sure it comes up the way you want it to!

If you’ve read this far, you’re most likely in the planning stages for a packaging brewery (the folks who are already packaging went back to work after the first couple of paragraphs, we’re sure).  If you are planning a package brewery, we suggest you spend some time on the GS1 US website (or the GS1 website for your own country) early in your planning process.  And we suggest you sit down with your distributor or your key retailers to really understand UPC codes from their perspective.    If you have any UPC questions or other label issues that we might be able to help you with, don’t hesitate to call us as well.  If we don’t have the answer at our fingertips, we can probably point you to someone who can help you find it.