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First thing to do for a UPC...

Getting a Universal Product Code is probably not the first thing you think about when going into business. (A UPC is, of course, that familiar pattern of black bars and numbers you find on just about every consumer product that's scanned at a store check-out.) But if you aspire to a certain level of consumer product sales, a UPC will be critical because most good-sized retailers will expect you to have a bar code on your product to adapt to their in-store computer system.

While UPCs aren't essential if you plan to limit your sales to small boutiques, independent retailers or the internet, it's to your advantage to purchase a bar code and incorporate it into your packaging design from the start. Then, once a major retailer comes calling, you'll be prepared, and you won't miss out on a great opportunity.

To get the ball rolling, go to the GS1 US website ( formerly known as the Uniform Code Council Inc. There you can apply for your own UPC. Once they've accepted your application, your bar code can be used on up to 100 products, which means there's no need to apply for additional bar codes if your first product spins off into multiple offerings. The fee you'll pay is determined by the number of unique products you need to identify and your company's gross sales revenue. That means if your company is small and you begin with a single product, you won't be charged the same as, say, Pepsi when it registers a new drink offering. Still, the very lowest fee is $800, so it's good to be prepared for this cost.