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Spotlight on... GTIN

Date: December 09, 2014

Category: Opinion piece

Enabling this is at the heart of what we do – removing the risk of ambiguity by providing a common language for trading partners to speak through.

This post, the first in a new series on our standards, outlines what our most commonly-used identifier – the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) – does and why.
GTIN is the technical term for what you probably just think of as ‘the barcode number’. You may also have heard them referred to as EAN or UPC numbers – which were their former terms in Europe and North America respectively.

What’s the point of a GTIN?

You can use them to uniquely identify all your trade items – products or services that are priced, ordered or invoiced at any point in the supply chain.
It is a standard, which means it represents an agreed industry-wide format for expressing something – in this case the number that identifies an item. Standards are essential, as without them supply chain processes, which involve many companies trading with many others, simply cannot operate efficiently.

Consider this issue for example. A manufacturer supplies glass products into a retailer. In times past he might have used a description to identify them but now computers need codes.

It is possible for the manufacturer to use a proprietary code to identify one of these products, but this may clash with an internal number already used by the retailer or a product code supplied by another manufacturer. As there is no guarantee the code is unique, the potential for ambiguity leading to delays, ordering inaccuracies and added cost is always there. 

GTINs are issued to brand owners centrally, who then have the tools at their disposal to generate identifiers that are globally-unique. 

What can you use a GTIN on? 

Companies can use them to uniquely identify trade items. All trading partners worldwide are then able to uniquely identify that item and easily communicate information and instructions about it.

The number is divided into three parts that identify where it was issued, the company it was issued to and finally the item itself. It is important to understand that GTINs do not actually convey information about the product identified, but are used as a key to look up data – which may be descriptions and prices in a database for example.

GTINs come in different lengths – the general rule is as follows:

  • 13-digit numbers are usually used to identify consumer units (such as a six-pack of lemonade cans sold by a retailer to a customer)
  • 14-digit numbers are usually used to identify traded units (such as case of 12 x 6-packs of lemonade cans supplied to the retailer by the manufacturer)

Clearly what is being identified in these two examples is very different, so the identifiers have to be too. Getting these mixed up would cause serious issues in stock management. 

There is also an eight-digit number for use on products with very small labels. 

Where is the GTIN used?

You see it all the time – it’s most commonly encountered underneath the barcode that carries it on any product in a supermarket. This is not its only use though – a GTIN is data and as such can be communicated through any data carrier technology. You can also use them in RFID tags for example. 

Other places you’ll find them being used include product catalogues, online, in electronic messages such as purchase orders and invoices, and work is underway on a standard to enable them to be embedded within webpages to greatly enhance general search results by accurately linking disparate and in-depth product datasets.

Is a GTIN forever?

GTINs are created from a unique company prefix that is licensed to you from one of the national GS1 organisations, such as GS1 UK.

A change in a product may require a new GTIN and there are rules covering when a change in, for example height, weight, design, colour, ingredients and so on need to be considered as a different item. If a product is increased in size by 25% for example, it is different and needs to be identified as such.

It is not always the case however – you can find out whether changes you make will necessitate a change by checking the GTIN Allocation Rules.

Getting the most out of the standard

The GS1 global site contains all kinds of useful information around getting maximum benefit from using GTINs, or you can speak to us directly on +44 (0)20 7092 3500.

Alternately, why not attend one of our training courses?