Every grocery coupon has a barcode - a series of vertical black lines with numbers. The barcode is read by the grocery checkout machines and tells the computers how much to deduct from your total.
Old-style coupon barcodes (UPC-A) are being done away with, and new coupon barcodes (GS1) are here. If a coupon doesn’t scan at checkout, it could be that the store hasn’t updated their computers to read the new barcodes.
Here is a summary of the different grocery coupon barcodes, along with tips on how barcodes can affect your shopping.
Only UPC-A barcodes were found on coupons before July 2008. These barcode numbers are in the format:
0 00000 00000 0
- The first digit has to do with coupon doubling. If it is a “9” the coupon should not double.
- The next 5 digits identify the manufacturer. For instance, Heinz is 13000, Quaker is 30000, etc.
- The next 3 digits identify the product. If the number is “000”, it should work on any of the manufacturer’s items. A “992” code tells the computer not to check whether the right item was purchased. This was meant for broad coupons like “when you buy any seafood”, but was abused, so now “992” coupons often beep at stores and require cashier help.
- The next 2 digits tell the coupon value. For instance “50” translates to 50 cents off the item, while “51” means buy 2, get $2.00 off. You can search on the internet for lists of all coupon value codes for coupon UPCs.
- The last digit is a computer check to make sure the number scanned correctly.
The UPC-A coupon barcodes had drawbacks: only limited information could be stored in the numbers, and some couponers who learned the codes abused the coupon system. So a new type of coupon barcode came to be (GS1 – see below).
To ease the transition, both types of barcodes were required on product coupons between July 2008 and December 2010, and both are still permitted today.
If you have a coupon with both barcodes that doesn’t scan, it’s possible the computer system can’t yet read the new GS1 barcode. Try holding your hand over (or folding back) the GS1 code, and your coupon may go through.
The old UPC barcodes could be removed from coupons starting January 1, 2011, leaving only the new GS1 databar code (right). These complex barcodes allow more information to be coded (like coupon expiration dates). They are also harder for humans to interpret, making coupon fraud less likely.
In theory the UPC codes should have been dropped from coupons starting July 1, 2011. However most coupons still have both codes, since some store systems cannot yet read the GS1 coupon barcodes. If you have a coupon with only a GS1 code and it doesn’t scan, you are probably at a grocery store that hasn’t updated it’s computers. Your cashier will need to type the coupon value manually into the register.