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Why brands should never change their UPC codes

Hand scanning a UPC code
...and one time it might be a good idea.

One of the biggest no-nos for any brand is changing the UPC code on a product. Why? If you ask Dan Richard, vice president of sales and marketing at NOW Foods, changing a product’s UPC code essentially erases its entire history. “Let’s say you sell online,” he explains. “If you achieved a certain rank or starred review, those will not transfer to the new SKU.” All that work and time? Lost.

Another practical reason not to change UPCs is that it costs time and money. First, many retailers will charge new placement fees for a change like that, even if they carried the product under the old UPC. Plus, internally, “it’s a huge process to change UPC codes,” Richard says, especially for a brand like NOW, which has over 1,500 SKUs and a thorough review process that starts with R&D and requires a number of sign-offs even for a minor change. “For us, a new UPC is basically like creating a whole new product,” he says.

That’s why NOW won’t change the UPC of a product if it goes from gelatin to vegetarian capsules, or if a product attains a certification like Kosher or USDA Organic. The only time NOW makes a change is when they’re changing sizes—going from 60 caps to 90, for example—or potency. Sometimes, the brand may offer separate natural and organic versions of the same product, in which case two unique UPCs are required to appeal to different price points. But, other than that, Richard emphatically believes that keeping the UPC code is essential to building the history of a product. “The bottom line is that we’d rather make changes within the same SKU,” he says.

The only time you may want to erase that history? “If you’ve had a recall and don’t want the reputation of having a tainted product,” he says. “In that case, you may keep the product essentially the same, but hit the restart button by changing the UPC.”

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