Serial numbers enable consumers, retailers, and vendors to have a unique identifier against each unit of inventory from that brand/vendor. This is defined and controlled by the vendor and is retailer agnostic. An obvious example is an Apple iPhone serial number or a Rolex watch serial number. Both brands would primarily use this unique identifier to validate a warranty claim.
Stock codes are unique identifiers defined and controlled by the retailer that exclusively serve its internal interests, and are vendor agnostic. For example, Walmart is selling an iPhone. The iPhone has a serial number that allows Apple to know exactly when it was produced, by which factory, and if that batch had any known defects. Walmart will use the serial number to manage any warranty claims that surface with Apple.
However, if Walmart wants to track all smartphone inventory across its North American distribution system, then Apple’s serial number is of no use to it. Walmart instead will apply a unique inventory ID or stock code for its scanners in the warehouse to read, and the only way to ensure this range of codes is always unique and can be reset at will, is for the retailer to control them.
With the rise of robotic picking and chaotic warehousing driving unprecedented efficiencies in the global supply chain, stock codes have become an essential tool for retailers wishing to maximize their internal operating efficiency.
Stock codes also can underwrite RFID systems or other location scanning methods that enable easier check-in and check-out of inventory on location. This best practice enables data-driven advantages at head-office who not only know where every unique item of inventory is in their distribution system at any given time, but can also look for patterns in the data to generate further competitive advantage.
As you can see, there are vital differences between serial numbers and stock codes. Be wary of any technology provider or consultant that conflates these two important terms.