Inventory label basics

If you run a parts ecommerce website of any kind, odds are pretty good that you’re juggling a lot of data that’s sort of nebulous. For example, if you’re selling after-market parts:

  1. You’ve got the manufacturer’s part number (or brand SKU)
  2. You’ve got the UPC number on the box that the manufacturer’s part comes in
  3. You’ve got the SKU that your distributor/wholesaler uses
  4. You may or may not have your own internal SKU

Fun, right? This article will help parts ecommerce newbs understand what these different numbers are, and offer some suggestions for dealing with this mess.

Inventory label basics

What Are UPCs and SKUs?

Many people use the terms “SKU” and “UPC” used interchangeably, but they are not the same. The SKU — or stock keeping unit — is typically an alphanumeric designation for a specific part that’s created for a retailer’s or manufacturer’s internal use. It can be whatever you, the part manufacturer, or the distributor want it to be. SKUs are not consistent from one manufacturer to the next, retailer to retailer to retailer, etc. SKUs can mean whatever anyone wants them to mean. It’s wide open.

A UPC – or universal product code – is a number that identifies a specific product. UPC’s are registered to a specific product by a registration company called GS1 for a fee. This registration process ensures that UPC numbers are unique, and that a UPC can be a universal “language” all retailers can use to identify products. While it doesn’t always work this way (many companies re-sell their UPCs online), the theory is that a UPC is a completely unique identifier.

Along these same lines, there are GTIN’s (global trade identification number) and EAN’s (Intl. article number), which are used globally and which – like UPCs – are registered and supposed to be unique to a specific item.

Suffice to say, if an auto part is sold by a reputable company, it will have a UPC and/or a GTIN, and that number will be 100% unique to that part. Therefore, these numbers are helpful to retailers trying to track whatever they sell at a retail counter. But for ecommerce companies that manually pick, pack, and ship, these numbers aren’t super helpful.

Still, the knowledge that UPCs and GTINs are unique (or at least they should be 99% of the time) might be helpful when you’re trying to track inventory.

Hey Baby, What’s Your SKU?

As mentioned above, SKUs (and manufacturer part numbers) are a free-for all. There is no consistency, and it’s not at all unheard of for two completely different manufacturers (or distributors) to use the exact same SKU for completely different products. For this reason, many ecommerce retailers use their own SKU system rather than try to adhere to a SKU created by some other entity. That way, confusion is prevented.

If you decide to use your own SKU for your operation, we have some suggestions:

  1. Come up with some rules/guidelines for creating SKUs that you and your staff can reference whenever a new part comes in
  2. Use a mix of letters and numbers
  3. Think about ways to include essential specs in your SKUs, like part brand/manufacturer, part finish, part type, item count, location in the warehouse, etc.
  4. Try to keep it short enough to remember so that you don’t have to immediately write it down when you see or hear it, assuming you’re manually picking, packing, and shipping

For example, the SKU AFE-SAT-5.4-1283-E could refer to an AFE air intake with a SATin part finish that fits on a 5.4L V8 with the internal stock number of 1283 that’s stored in section “E” of the warehouse.OR, that SKU could be simplified to AFE-SAT-1283 or just AFE-1283. Whatever makes sense to you.

Some More Auto Parts SKU Examples (For Inspiration)

Example SKU: SSTAIL1015

  • Part: Tailpipe
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Date Purchased: 10/15

Example SKU: WPSILV60

  • Part: Water Pump
  • Fits Vehicle: Silverado
  • Engine Size: 6.0L

Example SKU: ENG-GM-72

  • Part: Engine
  • Manufacturer: GM
  • Displacement: 7.2L

Fake Example SKU: YUR2SLO

Anotehr Fake Example SKU: OU812


Finally, SKU Do’s and Don’ts

Having fun yet? We’re just going to keep going on and on about SKU’s until you fall asleep…

SKU Do’s

  1. Keep it simple, so that you can train new hires to read them quickly
  2. Keep it short…but not so short that it doesn’t contain helpful info
  3. Start with letters to make sorting easier
  4. Use letters and numbers only
  5. Document the SKUs somewhere important, and make that info available to everyone who works with your inventory
  6. Document the SKUs in your accounting system

SKU Dont’s

  1. Reuse SKUs for different parts…if you have a SKU for a part that gets discontinued, that SKU should be discontinued as well
  2. Use the letter “O”, the letter “i”, the letter “L”, or any other characters that can be easily confused for the number 1 or zero
  3. Use non-standard characters, like &, ~, ^, $, |, etc. The problem with these characters is that they’re not always easy to say or type into a computer
  4. Use a SKU that’s so detailed it become unwieldyLast but not least, don’t let anyone change your SKU system without good cause. Once you set a SKU system up, changing it can be a lot of work, and it can make historical analysis/records look-up that much harder.