• Barcode Ireland Team

SKU codes vs. UPC/EAN barcodes.

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Shirts on hangers in retail.

Comparisons, contrasts and best practices.

SKU and UPC/EAN barcodes are different but have many of the same uses and best practices.

Often used interchangeably, it’s important from a business standpoint to differentiate these terms.

Basically, SKU numbers are internal product inventory codes unique to a particular company, while UPC/EAN barcodes are external product tracking codes that are standardised for universal use by any company.

SKU codes

SKU (Stock Keeping Unit, pronounced “skew”) numbers are alphanumeric codes used by businesses to track units of products in inventory and sales. Not only can they be assigned to physical items but also to intangible products that are billable for example, units of repair time, warranties and product assembly. In other words, codes assigned to a company’s billable entities. The valuable analytical data derived from SKU’s enables companies to build strong relationships with vendors and customers.

Each company assigns its own SKU numbers. They are distinct from product model numbers assigned by manufacturers but which may be included in the SKU for product identification purposes.

SKU’s are used in warehouses, stores, catalogues and eCommerce sites. An example of which is Amazon, who assign items for sale a 10 character SKU number, known as an ‘Amazon Standard Identification Number’ or ASIN. These numbers are distinct from manufacturer model numbers and from SKU numbers used by other sellers in their supply chain.

SKU numbers represent relevant product information in descending order of importance such as manufacturer, colour, type, size, gender, material, season, price etc. They are tailored to represent the most commonly asked questions asked by vendors or customers about the companies inventory and should be meaningful in structure to employees.

SKU’s may be printed on a store-specific website, product page or shelf pricing.

Keeping SKU’s to fewer than 12 characters avoids confusion and the risk of data/shipping input error. Eight to twelve characters is considered optimal and should be a mix of letters and numerals.

SKU numbers should be started with letters as opposed to numbers making them easier to read and never with a zero or characters/symbols that could could be confusing or misread by humans or software. Readability may be enhanced by printing SKU labels in human readable and machine scannable formats.

Best practice is to create SKU numbers that are unique to your business, avoiding the use of manufacturer serial or SKU numbers which can be very long and cryptic. This avoids the risk of your numbers becoming meaningless should your manufacturer change their codes or you change manufacturer!

Because SKU’s must be unique to each product in inventory, trying to generate them manually would be onerous. Businesses should use an inventory management system or point-of-sale system that generates SKU’s automatically.

There are also many free SKU generators online to streamline inventory.

UPC/EAN barcodes

UPC (Universal Product Code) barcodes, invented by George Laurer 111 in 1974 were first introduced in the US to assist retailers track increasingly large numbers of trade items. (https://www.barcodeireland.ie/post/george-j-laurer-iii-inventor-of-the-upc-barcode). UPC’s are numeric codes containing 12 digits and predominantly used in retail in the US and Canada.

EAN (European Article Number) barcodes are a superset of UPC’s comprised of 13 digits and predominantly used in Europe (although with modern scanners both barcodes can be read worldwide) for the same purpose.

These are the familiar barcodes used in retail and scanned at the POS.

UPC barcodes are created and administered by GS1 (Global Standards 1) an international standards organization (previously called the Uniform Code Council). Once assigned to a product, a UPC/EAN barcode number remains constant for that product throughout it’s shelf life and across multiple retailers.

UPC/EAN barcodes are only required for products being sold through the retail supply chain and can be used to locate a product across multiple websites or retail establishments.

Comparisons and Contrasts

  • SKU numbers are unique to individual retailers, UPC/EAN barcodes are universal and remain constant for a product across all retailers. Therefore, a product will retain one unique UPC/EAN barcode even though it may be assigned different SKU numbers by different businesses.

  • SKU codes are alphanumeric, whist UPC/EAN barcodes are numeric. UPC/EAN barcodes are 12 and 13 digits respectively, while SKU numbers can be any length desired by the retailer. UPC’s are most commonly printed as barcodes on product packaging, whereas SKU’s appear in a variety of other locations and are not usually translated as barcodes.

  • SKU numbers are created for internal use by companies, whereas UPC barcodes are universal and administered by GS1. Businesses can create their own SKU numbers, whereas UPC barcode numbers must be purchased and licensed from GS1. Alternatively, there are a number of legitimate barcode resellers of genuine, unique, GS1 barcodes such as Barcode Ireland, where barcodes may be purchased as a once off legally.

In conclusion and simply, SKU’s are for internal use, and UPC/EAN’s are for external, or universal, use.

Our barcodes work internationally. Should you require barcodes for your products, please visit our Buy page www.barcodeireland.ie/buy, or contact us on info@barcodeireland.ie or through the contact form on our website www.barcodeireland.ie/contact and let Barcode Ireland help your business.






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