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Returning Item Codes Instead of Item Names

Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Excel versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Excel 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Excel, click here: Returning Item Codes Instead of Item Names.

Alan can use data validation to create a drop-down list of valid choices for a cell. However, what he actually needs is more complex. He has a large number of item names with associated item codes. In cell B2 he can create a data validation list that shows all the item names (agitator, motor, pump, tank, etc.). The user can then choose one of these. When he references cell B2 elsewhere, however, he wants the item code—not the item name—returned by the reference. Thus, the reference would return A, M, P, TK, etc. instead of agitator, motor, pump, tank, etc.

There is no direct way to do this in Excel. The reason is because data validation lists are set up to include only a single-dimensional list of items. This makes it easy for the list to contain your item names. However, you can expand how you use the data validation list a bit to get what you want. Follow these steps:

  1. Someplace to the right of your worksheet data, set up a data table. This table will contain your item names and, to the right of each item name, the item code associated with that name.
  2. Select the cells that contain your item names. (Don't select the item codes, just the names.)
  3. Choose Insert | Name | Define. Excel displays the Define Name dialog box. (See Figure 1.)
  4. Figure 1. The Define Name dialog box.

  5. In the Name box, enter a descriptive name, such as ItemNames.
  6. Click OK to add the name and close the dialog box.
  7. Select cell B2 (the cell where you want your validation list).
  8. Choose Validation from the Data menu. Excel displays the Data Validation dialog box. (See Figure 2.)
  9. Figure 2. The Data Validation dialog box.

  10. Using the Allow drop-down list, choose List.
  11. In the Source box, enter an equal sign followed by the name you defined in step 4 (such as =ItemNames).
  12. Click OK.

With these steps done, people can still use the data validation drop-down list to select valid item names. What you now need to do is reference the item code from the data table you set up in step 1. You can do that with a formula such as this:


This formula can be used on its own (to put the desired item code into a cell) or it could be used within a larger formula, anyplace you would have originally referenced B2.

If, for some reason, you cannot create a data table for your item names and codes, you could approach the problem by creating an array formula:


As with all array formulas, you enter this one by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Enter. The biggest drawback to it is that it can quickly become unwieldy to keep the formula updated and there is a "viability limit" on how many pairs of codes and items you can include in the formula. (The limit is defined by formula length, so it depends on the length of your item names.) Also, this approach is good to only return the item code in another cell, rather than including it as part of a larger formula.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (12077) applies to Microsoft Excel 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Excel (Excel 2007 and later) here: Returning Item Codes Instead of Item Names.

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Comments for this tip:

Michael Avidan - MVP    02 Sep 2012, 13:44
@ DaveOnorato,

I can only assume you didn't read Vilnis Vesmas post and what she was aiming to.

I'm a great fun of short and simple formulas but if - by any chance - the source list of the DV could be expanded - the Dynamic way is the only way to avoid a Superfluous and unpleasant "white" space at the end of the DV.

Michael Avidan
“Microsoft®” MVP – Excel
DaveOnorato    02 Sep 2012, 12:20
a dynamic range name is cool, but naming the entire list simplifies the formula.
Name the list fullList, then the formula becomes simpler.
Michael Avidan - MVP    01 Sep 2012, 14:04
@ Vilnis Vesma,

As far as I know - naming an entire(!) Column, forces the DV cell to show some blanks at the end of the list.
(Checked in "Excel 2010")

To my opinion, the appropriate way is to make the Named Range it REALLY Dynamic.

If your list starts at cell N1 - the use of:


ensures that the DV cell will show only the typed items.

Michael Avidan
“Microsoft®” MVP – Excel
Vilnis Vesma    01 Sep 2012, 07:21
In step 2 you selected only the item names as a named range. This makes it unnecessarily difficult to add new items to the list, and it is no good including some 'spare' rows in your named range because these will turn up as blanks in the drop-down list. My original suggestion was to name the entire column. If you do this, Excel only shows the non-blank items in the range and you can safely add more whenever you want.

Your step 1 is not as robust as my suggestion (list in a separate worksheet) because in your model, if you modify your working sheet by inserting or deleting rows you could corrupt the data table.

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