Streamlining e-Commerce Business Operations Through GS1 Standards

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • What does GS1 US do, and what do Amazon sellers need to know about it?
  • Michelle Covey talks about buying UPCs from GS1 US versus third-party sellers like eBay
  • Why some Amazon products have multiple UPCs and how to remove hijacked listings
  • The changes Michelle saw in small businesses in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Michelle discusses the ins and outs of GTIN vetting
  • How product identification has evolved over the last decade and what to look out for when changing a product’s packaging
  • The problems that GS1 US plans to solve for online brands in the future
  • Michelle’s thoughts on innovation on Amazon, from augmented reality to robotics automation

In this episode…

Why are UPCs and GTINs so important for Amazon sellers? According to Michelle Covey of GS1 US, not only do these codes help brands ensure compliance with Amazon’s ever-changing policies, but they also help customers accurately identify an online product’s information. Because of this, UPCs and GTINs are essential for providing a valuable customer experience on Amazon and other e-commerce platforms.

However, in order to reap their benefits, it is important that sellers obtain these codes from the right source. Buying a UPC or GTIN from eBay or other third-party sellers could result in stolen, recycled, or fraudulent codes. As Michelle says, the best way to avoid any negative impacts to your product listings is to seek help from GS1 US.

Michelle Covey, the Vice President of Partnerships at GS1 US, joins James Thomson in this week’s episode of the Buy Box Experts podcast to talk about the ins and outs of Universal Product Codes (UPCs) and Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) on Amazon. They discuss the benefits of obtaining these codes as a private label seller, how GS1 US works to remove hijacked UPC codes, and Michelle’s thoughts on the future of innovation and standardization on Amazon. Stay tuned.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

Buy Box Experts applies decades of e-commerce experience to successfully manage their clients’ marketplace accounts. The Buy Box account managers specialize in combining an understanding of their clients’ business fundamentals and their in-depth expertise in the Amazon Marketplace.

The team works with marketplace technicians using a system of processes, proprietary software, and extensive channel experience to ensure your Amazon presence captures the opportunity in the marketplace–not only producing greater revenue and profits but also reducing or eliminating your business’ workload.

Buy Box Experts prides itself on being one of the few agencies with an SMB (small to medium-sized business) division and an Enterprise division. Buy Box does not commingle clients among divisions as each has unique needs and requirements for proper account management.

Learn more about Buy Box Experts at BuyBoxExperts.com.

Podcast Episode Transcripts:

Disclaimer: Transcripts were generated automatically and may contain inaccuracies and errors.


Intro 0:09

Welcome to the Buy Box Experts Podcast where we bring to light the unique opportunities brands face in today’s e-commerce world.

James Thomson 0:18

Hi, I’m James Thomson, one of the hosts of the Buy Box Experts Podcast. I’m a partner at Buy Box Experts and the former business head of the selling on Amazon team at Amazon, as well as the first account manager of the Fulfillment by Amazon program. I’m the co-author of a couple of books on Amazon including the recent book Controlling Your Brand in the Age of Amazon. Today’s episode is brought to you by Buy Box Experts. Buy Box Experts takes ambitious brands and makes them unbeatable. When you hire Buy Box Experts, you receive the strategy optimization and marketing performance to succeed on Amazon. Marketing on Amazon is very difficult. So hire an agency like Buy Box Experts to provide you executive level advisory services with expert marketing management and execution of your Amazon channel strategy. Go to buyboxexperts.com to learn more. 

Before I introduce our guest today, I want to send a big shout out to the team at eComEngine. We’ve been partnering with eComEngine since the early days of Buy Box Experts. eComEngine’s FeedbackFive is designed to help you get more reviews and seller feedback while staying compliant with Amazon policies. RestockPro helps FBA sellers forecast demand, stay in stock, manage sellers and much more. Go to ecomengine.com to learn more about their amazon seller software. Our guest today is Michelle Covey, Vice President of Partnerships at GS1 US, the organization that many of you will know as the firm that issues GTINs or UPCs to brands. Prior to GS1 US, Michelle worked at a number of firms where she held roles in project management, handling operational efficiency and strategy roadmap initiatives. Today, Michelle joins us to share her expertise on how standards helped to create a more streamlined experience for online brands and customers. Michelle, welcome. And thank you for joining us today on the Buy Box Experts Podcast.

Michelle Covey 2:10

Thanks, James. I’m glad to be here today.

James Thomson 2:13

So let’s say I’m a private label seller on Amazon, I want to put my products up on Amazon and start generating sales. I first create my Amazon listings, and they all discover that I need a brand name and a UPC to create my listing. Amazon seller guidelines indicate that I need a UPC from GS1 US. What is that all about? And why do I need to go through your organization? I just want to be able to move quickly to get my listing setup. What do sellers at Amazon need to know about your organization?

Michelle Covey 2:46

Great questions, I’m gonna break that down into a couple of parts. So the first part I think is important to know who GS1 is. So GS1 is a global organization. We are a standards organization. And we record we have a lot of the standards. Most people know us around for the UPC barcode. GS1 US is a member organization of the overall GS1 global organization. We help sellers in our region to accurately identify their products, and be able to follow some of the standards that a lot of retailers and marketplaces have in place to help with that unique identification. We are, it’s also important to note that we’re a member driven organization. So we bring a lot of brands, retailers, trade associations, solution partners to the table to help build guidelines and best practices on how to adopt standards. So again, most people know us for the UPC barcode. But we do have quite a few other standards that are used in the global supply chain to help with business efficiencies. And so bringing those members together to help identify those best practices is what we do best.

James Thomson 4:03

Are there other areas where an Amazon seller on Amazon private label seller would typically interact with GS1 outside of the UPC space.

Michelle Covey 4:13

So I think that not only using the UPC as a standard, understanding product identification and all the attributes associated. So what we find not just Amazon but other retailers, just providing that GTIN or that unique identifier for that product isn’t enough, you need to have all of the product attributes, images, product description, how how to best describe that in that product, so that a consumer can can make an educated decision about that product with as much information as possible. So we have standards around product attributes. The global data model is an example where we have structured attributes for specific product categories. That brands can kind of follow and help when they start to share that product information with Amazon and other retailers in a standardized fashion.

James Thomson 5:10

So is Amazon actually leveraging some of your knowledge to figure out how to build their own category classification schemes?

Michelle Covey 5:17

I think Amazon has been interested in the GS1 standards, using GTINs as a product identifier for their products is one area. But they continually work with us to understand the standards and what we’re doing and how to adopt them into their product catalog product listings.

James Thomson 5:35

So as a brand new private label seller on Amazon, why wouldn’t I just go and buy a block of unused UPCs that I can source on eBay? They’re readily available and they’re typically cheaper than buying individual UPCs through GS1 US? What am I overlooking here that may get me in trouble down the road?

Michelle Covey 5:54

That’s a good question. We recognize there are a lot of third party sellers of identifiers out there in the market. The problem that sellers will run into is while it seems affordable upfront, and they have a valid UPC front, that UPC is not necessarily associated with their company. So going to a GS1 member organization allows that brand owner to license their identifiers to their company name and have that GTIN be associated directly to their company. If you go to a third party, that GTIN may not be associated with your actual company name. So it will be associated with a third party. It will not be authenticated, and it won’t be able to be used in the market, it will cause some sellers to have to label their products. Okay. re identify it with an authentic GS1 issued GTIN.

James Thomson 6:56

Can you talk a little bit about how Amazon verifies that my UPC is in fact ours from GS1 versus from some random brand that had unused blocks that they decided to dump.

Michelle Covey 7:09

So there is a public database that GS1 hosts, it’s called GEPIR. GEPIR is a database where you could enter the GTIN and it will pull up the associated company that is like that has that licensee to that product. So it does allow for that authentication that GS1 is properly associated with that brand owner.

James Thomson 7:33

With literally 10s of 1000s of new listings being created daily. Are your systems able to talk with Amazon to be able to do some of that vetting on an automated basis?

Michelle Covey 7:43

Yeah. So we have services that allow for an API integration to that. licensee information. Okay, so Amazon does utilize some of those tools that we have, as well as many other retailers to do that GTIN authentication.

James Thomson 8:02

I realize I’m asking you very Amazon centric questions, because that’s the scope of our discussion. But I don’t want to miss the fact that, obviously other retailers are also benefiting from having consistent standards. One of the things that I’ve always found very peculiar about Amazon is you can go and look at certain product listings, and that product listing might have 10 or 12 UPCs. And some of that might be as a result of bad habits from the past. But there’s no way that a product has 10 or 12, actual UPCs Amazon is insistent on not stripping UPCs away from listings. And yet a lot of those UPCs are probably not correct. What’s your point of view on any marketplace that’s choosing to label individual SKUs many different ways when in fact, it’s only a singular product.

Michelle Covey 8:51

So there could be a couple things going on. One, there are probably some bad actors in the market that are listing that product and using an invalid UPC on that product. And so there are some processes in place for the true brand owner to be able to help remove those what we call hijack UPCs. Amazon listing so GS1 US has an escalation process to help with that. There are also times where there is an actual third party seller that is licensed or or has a relationship with that brand owner that can sell that. That product. Yep. But traditionally best practices are that you use the original GTIN that’s assigned to the product and you don’t reassign a new one. Even if you are an authentic reseller of the product, you really should use the original GTIN assigned to the product so a lot of companies don’t realize that and run into problems where then you have multiple GTINs associated with a product.

James Thomson 10:01

Can you talk about this escalation process? If I am a brand, and I discover that my products are on Amazon, they have 10 UPCs. I don’t know where a bunch of these came from, is there something that I as a brand can do through GS1 or through Amazon in order to start tearing apart some of those inappropriate UPCs?

Michelle Covey 10:21

Yeah, um, another good question we have, because we’ve worked with Amazon for many years on this project with, you know, using GTINs as the product identifier. It has been, you know, called out that there’s a lot of UPC hijacking on their platform. So Amazon is keen to help remove those as they get identified. We have an escalation process in place, which Yes, when us, you, any user who may have this issue where their products have been hijacked, they could contact info at GS1us.org. We have a template that we’ve collaborated with Amazon to collect all of the appropriate feedback or information needed. Okay. Our member support reps can help a member, you know, go through that collection of data for that escalation. And we send it to Amazon and they will help remove those hijack listings. Very, very interesting.

James Thomson 11:19

Okay, so let’s, let’s talk about 2020 a year that no one will forget. So if you think about what’s happened during COVID e-commerce has taken off in a huge way. What has happened to GS1, or as a result of COVID impacts? Are there certain types of firms that are now using GS1 in certain ways where in the past he would never have dealt with them?

Michelle Covey 11:45

I think what we’ve seen this year has been a shift in so a lot of small businesses are now coming to GS1 to get their product identifiers, much more so than we’ve seen in the past, I think with what we’re seeing are some of the small businesses that are coming to the to get their their GTINs, facemasks, PvP, PvE ease, hand sanitizers, things like that. We’re also noticing though with the shift to almost all businesses going online and e-commerce platforms, maybe these sellers did not have an outlet to sell their product or if they were in an in store. Now they have an e-commerce platform that they want to sell their products on, that are now requiring GTINs, where they may not have if they had a physical store. So we’re seeing some businesses now have to identify their products to be sold on marketplaces and e-commerce platforms. But we’re also seeing a shift in some businesses where maybe they’ve had to pivot their own business because what was traditionally sold in an in a retail store or in a physical store, they now have had to move online and they may change their business model. They may have changed their business or their product lines to meet the needs of the consumer. So we’ve seen a lot of different shifts. But a lot more small businesses, maybe some people who have been laid off or furloughed, have now decided to take up a passion of theirs and sell something online, see if they could, you know make, you know, online too. So a lot of small businesses have been coming to GS1 this year.

James Thomson 13:34

I understand that your organization responded by providing new types of tools for smaller sellers. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Michelle Covey 13:42

Sure. So um, to meet the demands of those small businesses, we recently launched a single GTIN program where brand owners can come to us and license just a single GTIN versus licensing they’re a block of GTINs through their GS1 company prefix, says a single GTINs are now available for a cost of $30. With no renewal fees, which we feel is going to make it more affordable and attractive for those brands to come to GS1 and get an authentic GS1 issued GTINS. Versus even our earlier conversation to some of those third parties, where those may have seen like an easier way to go. So we’re trying to meet the needs of these small brands and help them build their business in an affordable fashion.

James Thomson 14:34

When Amazon uses the word brand, they typically think of a brand as a company that has a US trademark with GS1. I don’t I don’t believe I need to have a trademark in order to get a GTIN from your organization. Can you talk about what it is you need from an organization for them to qualify as a brand.

Michelle Covey 14:53

Um, we don’t really have any specific requirements, you know, for a company to license it as whether it’s a prefix to create a bundle of GTINs, or a single GTIN, really it’s just their company name and contact information. We do not know or regulate what they assign their, their GTINs too. So it’s really up to the brand to make those business decisions on their own.

James Thomson 15:21

So not unusual for a company to have a holding company name. And then to have a whole series of operating brands for their different product lines. When a marketplace is vetting to see whether a UPC belongs to a brand. How is that done when the operating company may be putting its brand name on but not necessarily the product, the individual product brand names.

Michelle Covey 15:46

So again, going back to the tools that we have that appear in databases where a marketplace or a retailer can ensure that that company name is associated with the identifier that that brand is using, but we don’t have a brand database. I know Amazon has a very robust Brand Registry that they use brands to be able to register their trademark and or authentic third party sellers can also apply or you know, put in their name, that they are an authentic reseller. But that is not something that GS1 US.

James Thomson 16:26

Okay, okay.

Michelle Covey 16:27

It was on business. 

James Thomson 16:30

I was on Amazon about 10 years ago, it was not uncommon to find completely made up UPCs or recycled, or UPCs stolen. UPC is being used on Amazon listings. Can you talk a little bit about how its product identification evolved in the last decade or so?

Michelle Covey 16:44

Sure. So several years ago, GS1 US updated the global standard on cheating reefs. So and it was primarily again, going back to us being a member driven organization, a lot of these marketplaces came to us and said, GTIN reuse is really a problem for us because a product can live much longer on a marketplace. So the global standard was updated, so that there are no more GTINs reuse in the market. So that if a product is now maybe at its end of life, some brands in the past used to then recycle their UPC that is no longer acceptable. Yep. And so we shouldn’t see that happen anymore in the market. If it does happen. They’re not adhering to the GS1 standard. So that’s one one aspect. I don’t think there’s a lot of knowledge on when brands need to change their GTINs. So, if a product changes, we do have a GTIN management standard that allows that has specific guidelines, if the product packaging changes, content changes, those GTINs do need to change some may or may not understand those GTIN management rules and so, better education to the to the brands and to the manufacturers on how to you know product adequately, adequately identify their products if their packages change can be useful too. So we have some micro learnings and some education and training through our learning management system on understanding those GTIN management rules.

James Thomson 18:29

So if I am acquiring GTINs through your organization, there are parts on your site where I can go to learn about all these standards. You talk about packaging, changing packaging changes all the time. And sellers on Amazon typically want to keep the same UPC because the UPC already has some sales history. It’s got product reviews and all that good stuff. Without going into excruciating detail are there some general general things to look out for when products are having their packaging is altered.

Michelle Covey 19:02

I think as a brand you have to recognize you know when it is important to change your GTIN because of packaging changes. So if you have any major declaration changes about your product, then that doesn’t need to change if you’re like I referred to earlier; if your net content changed, you do need to update your get a new GTIN. If you have a different language on your product, technically it’s a different package. So if you have a product that you have in English, but then you want to sell in France and you have your labeling in French, technically you should have two different GTINs because they go to product packaging. So understanding those GTIN management rules I think is really important as a brand owner so that you can manage your identification on your product accordingly.

James Thomson 20:05

Well, is there a protocol for UPC being stolen. I remember this happening a lot where an Amazon seller would start listing a product or trying to try to list a product only to discover that UPC, somebody had already grabbed and put on some completely different product. And yet, the product or that excuse me that UPC had nothing to do with the brand. It’s just somebody was able to figure out the UPC wasn’t currently in use.

Michelle Covey 20:30

Again, going back to those bad actors in the market, and that hijacked UPC scenario. We’ve worked with Amazon to ask that escalation process to put a process in place to help those brand owners, the authentic brand owners, yes, take ownership of that listing.

James Thomson 20:51

Very good. Very good. Tell me a little bit about what are some of the problems that online brands are having today that you would like to see GS1 help solve in the future.

Michelle Covey 21:01

So I think I mentioned a couple, but what we’re seeing with the rapid shift to e-commerce this year, is helping brands one with their product identification nice. So again, to make it more accessible to them, we’ve now offering the single GTIN on top of our prefix based offerings. But understanding now that the consumers need more product information to make that educated decision. So everything now is in our you know, at the touch of our hands, most people are shopping on their mobile. And they want that information right away. So in addition to that product information is understanding product attribution, complete and accurate product information is really important to make sure that you are accurately representing your product. If you have incomplete information, maybe a consumer will buy a product, thinking it’s going to be one thing, but when they get it, they’re not going to get what they expected. So you’re going to have a bad consumer experience. So that product information is vital. And being able to make sure it is consistent across channels so if what you’re providing to say Amazon, but you also provide that to your other retail partners. So it’s the same information. So your brand is consistent across channels is really important. So we have a lot of micro-learnings and educational resources at GS1 US in our learning management system. Our learning management system is free to sign up for an account. And we have some education there that can help brands, some very easy short, you know, high level tutorials, and then you could get into some, you know more in depth that are at free. But we do have quite a bit of resources for brands to understand. Just not just product identification, but the attribution and sharing of that product information consistently to their retail partners. 

James Thomson 23:03

Okay. Michelle, your career has been very processed and operations oriented. The discipline and structure that comes from such roles has served you well, now that you’re in a standards company, how would you respond to the idea that selling on Amazon is the Wild West, and it shouldn’t be completely tamed? So as to slow down and you know, innovation that often happens on this platform? How do you take standards, but also give people flexibility to try new things out.

Michelle Covey 23:30

So I think Amazon is a very innovative company, and they’re not going to stop innovating. They, I think they’re kind of a leader in innovation. They continually work with us to understand standards, and how they could help with that supply chain efficiency, around product identification, product attribution, validating that the product is a valid product, and you know, helping with that brand protection. We’re also seeing a shift outside of just Amazon with some of the innovative technologies on like contactless payment. And I’ll say augmented reality or virtual reality. So a lot of companies are investing in technology. Because we now have to live in an e-commerce world. You know, that consumer can’t go try on that pair of pants or those earrings. And so there’s some virtual reality tools out there or AI tools that help a consumer see that product on their on themselves to make those decisions, those purchasing decisions. So we’re seeing an increased interest in AR VR, new technologies there. I would also have to say that also with a lot of e-commerce platforms, standing up the robotics and the need for automated fulfillment centers. really picking up as far as an interest, and being able to track the product through the supply chain through those automated fulfillment centers, is key to understanding where that product is in the supply chain. So chain of custody, validating, you know, when a product was received when it was shipped. So using a lot of our standards around capturing and identifying information, location information, event location is becoming critical for those supply chain tracking for trade track and trace of product.

James Thomson 25:36

Sure, yeah. Are you actually involved in RFID technology development? Yeah,

Michelle Covey 25:40

so we do own the standard around our RFID, that air interface protocol. But we also work with companies on event tracking. So there is a standard out there UPC is, which is actually used in the drugs to place drug security, supply chain, tracking pharmaceuticals through the supply chain. But UPC is also being looked at at food recall and food safety. So being able to track your food through the supply chain to ensure you know where it is where it came from. Okay. And then if there is a recall, we can, you know, pinpoint where that maybe that outbreak came from, and then we can, you know, recall just that batch lot versus having to take the full product off the shelf. So yeah, GS1 US is involved in a lot of those standards as well.

James Thomson 26:32

You have a very unusual cross sectional view of online marketplaces today, Michelle, working with Amazon and many other marketplaces. Are there some up and coming companies, technologies marketplaces that we should be paying attention to as brands.

Michelle Covey 26:48

I’m not going to say there’s a specific company. But some of those technologies that I mentioned, are really helping pivot companies to shift to this new e-commerce heavy way of doing business. So robotics automation is really vital. And I think that’s what’s really going to keep some of these sellers. Successful, I guess, in the future, because we need things quickly, we need to understand where they are in the supply chain. And we need to identify the products whose supply chain and get that information about them. So those that can do that and do it efficiently, I think will be more successful in the future.

James Thomson 27:37

Michelle, I want to thank you for joining us today on the Buy Box Experts Podcast. For those of you interested in learning more about GS1 US, please visit GS1us.org. That’s GS1us.org. Thank you and we look forward to having you join us again next time on the Buy Box Experts Podcast. And now to finish today’s podcast I’d like to share some final thoughts. For third party sellers to be successful on Amazon. A critical lever will be soliciting feedback from customers. We at Buy Box Experts are really big fans of the team at eComEngine and it’s tools that help Amazon sellers to simplify the process of messaging customers of Amazon orders. To learn more go to ecomengine.com. And with that, I want to thank you for listening today and I look forward to joining you next time on the Buy Box Experts Podcast.

Outro 28:28

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Meet the Speakers

Michelle Covey

Vice President of Partnerships at GS1 US

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