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.

Returning Item Codes Instead of Item Names

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated October 26, 2019)
This tip applies to Excel 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003


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:

=VLOOKUP(B2,OFFSET(Itemlist,0,0,,2),2,FALSE)

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:

=INDEX({"A","M","P","TK"},MATCH(B2,{"agitator","motor","pump","tank"},0))

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.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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