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    A serial number is a unique product identifier that enables a manufacturer to recall information about the individual item. Hardware companies embed serial numbers in the devices they produce, whereas software companies will assign a serial number (or product/license key) to a specific user. Because they are internal only, the length, types of characters used, and placement of serial numbers vary across manufacturers.

    If a customer has an issue with a product, the manufacturer can use the serial number to verify the purchase and provide support. Serial numbers can also be used to trace an item (or items) through the supply chain if a manufacturing issue occurs. This makes it easier for a manufacturer to identify exactly how many items were affected and to what degree.

    Serial number examples

    Common examples of serial numbers can be found on laptops. As mentioned above, the placement and appearance of a device’s serial number depends on the manufacturer, but it can usually be found on the bottom of the laptop along with information about the model and where/when it was produced. Sometimes the serial number is printed on a sticker whereas other manufacturers will etch the number directly onto the computer surface.

    Serial number vs. SKU vs. UPC

    Unlike serial numbers, which are unique and assigned to individual items in sequential order, stock keeping units (SKUs) and universal product codes (UPCs) are uniform numbers applied in bulk to multiple units of the same product. UPCs are somewhat similar to serial numbers in that they, too, are designated by the manufacturer to identify the same merchandise from one retailer to another. All UPCs are registered with GS1, the international organization responsible for administering UPCs and other standards.

    SKUs, on the other hand, are designated by the retailer to manage inventory. Many retailers will use the UPC as the SKU, but sometimes the SKU will be different if the manufacturer has changed the UPC for an item after it has been distributed to retail stores.

    Can a serial number be traced?

    A serial number cannot be tracked like GPS devices, but they can be traced. This functions similarly to IMEI numbers, which are given to mobile devices on a cellular network. When a smartphone is lost or stolen, for example, the owner can file a claim with the phone carrier to have the device’s IMEI number blacklisted and prevented from being used.

    Similarly, a device’s serial number can be used to report an item as lost, stolen, or defective. If someone tries to use the serial number for a device that has been reported missing, it can be traced back to the owner. Alternatively, if there seems to be a common defect that is impacting devices with sequential serial numbers, it is easier for the manufacturer to identify the issue and potentially impacted devices and issue a recall to consumers who may be affected.