The Difference Between Crosstabs and Pivot Tables

Crosstabs and pivot tables are both useful ways to analyze data, and they may even appear identical at a glance. Both feature rows and columns of data in a tabular format, providing select details and totals as desired. Despite their obvious similarities, however, the two also have some very obvious differences. Pivot tables generally offer a batch of added benefits and features that may not be available with crosstabs. 

Crosstab Explained

Let’s say you wanted to review sales made by your associates over the first three months of the year. Crosstab software could help you set up a table that looked something like this:

Month Andy Barb Cleo TOTAL
Jan. 58 211 91 360
Feb. 22 17 72 111
Mar. 100 99 43 242
TOTAL 180 327 206 713


Crosstabs let you quickly compare, contrast and otherwise assess sales activity based on the variables you chose. In this case, you decided to look at a month-by-month breakdown of sales by your three associates.

But now let’s say you wanted to more deeply analyze the data, looking at a breakdown of sales based on the region and products sold. If you wanted to generate crosstab reports for this data, you would need to go back to the drawing board in your crosstab software to generate new reports with new variables to showcase the new data you wanted to view.

With pivot tables, you could perform such actions right on the table itself.

Pivot Tables Explained

While pivot tables may display the same data as crosstabs can, pivot tables let you drag, drop and otherwise rearrange data to create additional reports right on the spot. If you had created the original sales chart using a pivot table, you would be privy to drill-down and other features that let you look deeper into the data.

If the above chart were a pivot table, you could:

  • Drill down into each month’s sales total to see which products were sold, then create a report showcasing the month and products sold
  • Drill down into each person’s sales total to see which products were sold, then create a report showcasing the person and products sold
  • Filter any of your created reports based on any of the available data
  • Add or remove fields on an existing report, as long as the field is available in your source data
  • Change computations, formats or appearances of the report
  • Create a pivot chart, which is a graphical representation of the pivot table data, with options that include bar charts, scatter charts, line charts and others

A single pivot table provides the foundation for any number of different ways of looking at the available data, all by simply manipulating the table as desired. While some crosstab software may provide advanced features in crosstab reports, pivot tables still tend to come packed with a greater number capabilities.

Due to their similar appearance, crosstabs and pivot tables are often referred to as the same thing. While they do have obvious differences, both can be powerful tools for providing deeper insights into your existing data.

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