Making Sense of a SKU vs. UPC vs. PLU

Box with a UPC sticker

Difference Between SKU, UPC, and PLU

Knowing how to differentiate between different product codes can help your business streamline its inventory and provide great customer service.

Product codes are not all equal, the different codes are used to differentiate different product characteristics and are assigned by different organizations depending on the function of the code.

What is a SKU Number?

A SKU is a Stock Keeping Unit that is used to differentiate between different products at the retail, or store, level. SKUs are the only one of the three product codes discussed in this article that you can assign to the product yourself. Because you can assign SKUs yourself, the numbers are not universal, so they will only be applicable to your products and stores. However, this does mean that you can customize your SKUs so that you can easily tell specific information about a product by looking at the number.

Using custom SKUs is a great way to organize your product catalog and manage your company’s inventory. For more information on how to create an easy to use product catalog with SKUs check out our blog article on the topic.

What is a UPC Number?

UPC stands for Universal Product Code, these 12-digit codes are assigned by the Global Standards Organization (GS1 US), as the name suggests they are universal so all retailers with the same product will have the same UPC code to reference.

universal product code stamped on a product

By referencing the UPC, you can easily determine specific information about the product including brand name, item size, and color whenever the item is scanned by a barcode reader. Like SKUs, UPC codes are useful for managing inventory. They can also improve your organizations’ productivity because you simply need to scan an item to get the product details, instead of manually looking up or entering them into the company’s system.

Because UPCs are assigned by an organization, you won’t be able to make up a UPC code at the store level and assign it to a product. However, if you’re a manufacturer, you can join the organization to have GS1 US assign UPC codes to your products. Then, whenever someone purchases a product from you, all those retailers will reference the same UPC in relation to the item.

What is a PLU Number? 

Finally, we get to PLUs, this stands for Price Look-Up and references the 4-5-digit number that is most commonly used on fresh produce items versus a UPC which is usually reserved for packaged products. If you’ve purchased fruit or vegetables at the supermarket, then you’ve probably seen this code included on the little stickers on your items. 

price look up number stamped on lemons

PLUs help retailers manage inventory, process customer purchases faster, and they help the IFPS manage and improve the supply chain for the fresh produce industry. The codes are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) so much like UPC’s you can’t assign a PLU yourself. The IFPS does allow retailers to use a Retailer Assigned PLU Code if there is not a PLU code for the item in the database, or the retailer can apply for a new PLU code.

Final Thoughts

Whether your business is using a SKU, UPC, or PLU, it’s important to maintain a clear organizational structure for inventory and tracking. Knowing what each of the codes means, and how they can be used, can help your business identify and track which products are in stock and which ones you need to re-order.

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