Why distributors should accommodate both EAN and UPC identifier codes

What are identifier codes, and what purpose do they serve?

To facilitate electronic communication with trading partners, manufacturers assign unique numeric identifier codes to their products. These identifiers are then used as the structure to create a barcode symbology for each product, tying physical products in a business system to corresponding e-business information. This connection assists with logistical and warehouse management system scanning and POS transactions.

 

What product identifiers are there?

  1. UPC (Universal Product Code; GTIN12): a 12-digit identifier used primarily in the United States and Canada to create the UPC barcode symbology.
  2. EAN (International Article Number; GTIN13): a 13-digit identifier used primarily outside the United States and Canada to create the EAN barcode symbology.
  3. GTIN (Global Trade Identification Number; GTIN14): a 14-digit identifier based on the GS1 international standards. It can be used across the globe and its’ structure is large enough to accommodate the two smaller identifiers, UPC and EAN. 

IDEA's IDW can accommodate all three types of identifiers, so manufacturers may use whichever type they have assigned to their products. Some global manufacturers have product coded with a UPC sold in the United States and Canada, and other product coded with an EAN, originally sold in Europe but now also sold in the United States and Canada. 

 

Are the codes interchangeable?

Although manufacturers may use any code structure, the identifier codes are not interchangeable and cannot be swapped out for one another. No single product should be identified with more than one type of code! 

For example, a manufacturer may use a 13-digit EAN, but what if the distributor's system can only accommodate a 12-digit UPC? In this scenario, one of the following situations may occur: 

  • The manufacturer and distributor are unable to continue doing business with each other. 
  • The distributor asks the manufacturer to recode their products to the smaller UPC to conform to the structure of the distributor’s business system. The manufacturer must then maintain both a UPC and an EAN for each of their products to satisfy the trading partners' individual requirements, even though no product should have multiple identifiers. 
  • The distributor accepts the larger EAN and removes the single check digit at the end of the code to fit their existing system. However, this digit is calculated based on the code's previous digits to ensure data integrity, so its removal invalidates the identifier. 
  • The distributor accepts the larger EAN and removes digits from the beginning, believing that to be the manufacturer prefix. However, because prefixes are of variable length, the distributor may remove the wrong numbers. Furthermore, a prefix may be the only distinguishing factor among identical product identifiers across multiple manufacturers, so now it is unclear which product belongs to which manufacturer in the distributor's system. 

 

How to avoid these issues?

To avoid these issues, distributors should update their business systems to accommodate a 14-digit GTIN (available since GS1's Sunrise initiative in 2005), which can also accommodate the smaller data structures. Such flexibility provides room for growth, facilitates global trade, and allows for lower cost and faster speed to market. 

Distributors that are unable or unwilling to update their systems must at least avoid shortening the product identifier code provided by a manufacturer, or else they run the risk of storing incorrect information. They also should not expect the manufacturers to recode products or maintain multiple codes for the same product. The best plan: Work together to update business software to accommodate the 14-digit GTIN.