How to use COALESCE function in Snowflake

Coalesce is a column transformation function in Snowflake. In this post I will walk through what it’s useful for and how to use it in your database.

Stephen Allwright
Stephen Allwright

Coalesce is a column transformation function in Snowflake, in its simplest form all you need to run is select coalesce(column1,column2) from table. In this post I will walk through what it’s useful for and how to use it in your database.

Snowflake coalesce, what is it?

Coalesce is a function which takes a collection of columns and returns the first non null value, or returns null if there are no non null values.

How do you use coalesce in Snowflake?

The syntax for using coalesce in Snowflake is:

coalesce( col_1 , col_2 , ... , col_n )

There are a few things that you should be aware of when using this function:

  • All columns used in the function need to have the same data type
  • The function searches for the first non null value from left to right in the list of columns

Example of using coalesce function in Snowflake

Coalesce is a function which on the surface seems to have a niche use case, but once you start to use it quickly becomes powerful. I will show you the benefit of this function by using a real world example you could face.

Imagine that you have a table containing product information where each product has a hierarchy of categories ranging from the highest aggregation to the most granular. The table would something like this:

Product Category 1 Category 2 Category 3
Milk Dairy Milk
Butter Dairy Butter and margarine Butter
Banana Fruit & Veg Fruit
Carrot Fruit & Veg Vegetable Root vegetable

If you were asked to return the most granular category per product then this would be difficult to achieve with a normal select query as the lowest category isn’t always in the same column. This is a perfect use case for using coalesce , as we want to find the first non null column when traveling up the category tree. Our query would look like this:

coalesce(category_3,category_2,category_1) as lowest_category
from prodcuts

| product | lowest_category |
| Milk    | Milk            |
| Butter  | Butter          |
| Banana  | Fruit           |
| Carrot  | Root vegetable  |

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Snowflake coalesce documentation


Stephen Allwright Twitter

I'm a Data Scientist currently working for Oda, an online grocery retailer, in Oslo, Norway. These posts are my way of sharing some of the tips and tricks I've picked up along the way.