One guaranteed way to disappoint your customers online is to have them search and decide on the product they want to buy from your website, only to find that it is out of stock.

Visitors who find that an item is unavailable to buy are likely to form a bad impression of a retailer, and seek to buy the item from a competitor, so what is the best way to handle this problem?

A survey last year by the e-tailing group found that inventory status is a real problem, with 51% of shoppers finding that items were out of stock 25% of the time or more. The majority of these shoppers would leave a site after three such experiences.

Ok, let's take a look at some of the options for dealing with out of stock items.

1. Don't display out of stock items

This is a simple one. Try not to mislead customers by letting them begin to purchase unavailable products! Websites should have a real-time inventory management system to prevent this from happening.

Allowing customers to browse around your site and add items to their basket before finding out that they are out of stock is guaranteed to annoy them.

In this example from Laura Ashley, I have added several items to my shopping basket, only to be told just before checking out that I can't buy them:

Laura Ashley out of stock items

2. Offer to contact customers when the item is back in stock

The one drawback with not displaying unavailable items is that customers won't necessarily know that you normally have the item, and they may not come back to check.

31% of the shoppers in the e-tailing group's survey would check back, while 25% would sign up for email notification, so one option would be to offer to contact customers when the item come back in stock.

This can not only keep the customer from shopping elsewhere, but gives a retailer the chance to start communicating with interested shoppers. Capture that email, dammit!

This electrical retailer provides a good example of this, clearing displaying on the product page that the item is out of stock and offering to email customers when it becomes available:

Out of stock items email

3. Offer alternatives

Customers may be happy with a similar alternative to the item that is unavailable, so providing similar product options may be enough to satisfy the customer and get them to buy something else.

Indeed, 15% of those surveyed on out of stock items said they would buy an alternative product.

4. Tell customers where they can buy the item offline

For multichannel retailers, a product may be unavailable on the website but in stock at one of their stores, so tell customers if a store near them has the item they want.

Halfords provides a good example here - the alloy wheels are unavailable to buy online, but I do at least have the option of reserving it and collecting in store:

Halfords reserve and collect

There is room for debate over the best way of handling the problem.. Not displaying out-of-stock products will avoid much frustration, but showing products and clearly marking them as out-of-stock and offering to email these prospective customers sounds like a winner to us.

How do you handle out of stock items on your site? What do you think is the best way to deal with the problem? Let us know below...

Related research:
Online Retail 2007: Checkout Special
Web Design Best Practice Guide  

Related stories:
Top 10 most common e-commerce mistakes
Basket Abandonment - we have to focus on How, not Why 

Graham Charlton

Published 3 April, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (4)


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

In my experience, running User Journey measurements on retailers - all too often portals don't even hold accurate stock level info at the web front end.
Some big sites still did only nightly stock updates to the web until very recently...

More commonly, it's an hourly batch job that updates the databases in the portal; which means visitors are on average seeing 30-minute out of date info regards stock... until way later on in the buying journey, right at the end they are told the item is not available. ouch.
It can be particularly bad for travel and flight site User journeys - these sites don't control 100% of their own inventory when selling other peoples flights or rooms: and often even pay a fee per search of 3rd party availability databases.

So on costs grounds they choose to cache answers for an hour or part of a day. Again leaving frustrated who've made a unique search, chosen from the deals offered, and are then told 3 pages later that the deal is not available! Arghh.. web rage!

To get hard data, we run 'random walk' style mystery shopper user journeys 24/7, as these can quickly find out what percentage of users do experience the problem - and other data to help decide how to best tackle the issue for greatest ROI: eg, is it linked mostly to certain product codes, or flight destinations; or to times of day/week or etc.


over 10 years ago



A an ecommerce site I am working on at present for a client, a very valued client at that, unable to give information as to who they are of course.

We deal with consumables, the major snag for me developing an auto updating stock levels from the supplier is that when a customer orders an item goes through fine transaction goes through the card processing company to the merchant account of my client.

The issue has arisen here that if the supplier after an order has gone through and our available items is say 25 and the supplier sell 25 and we have just sold 5 of them, we dont have enough stock to supply for that customer, we will then have to look elsewhere delaying the customer from getting the product in question.

about 9 years ago


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

Sounds like your supplier is holding the stock not you.  And they are selling some in parallel with you, so that although their last stock_level update said there would be enough: in reality there wasn't enough left to be sent to your end user after your supplier allocates stock to his own customers first?

Or have I misunderstood? Your sentences were a bit hard to read quickly.

about 9 years ago



i am french with a bad english
i look for the handle for my convertible dodge dart 1967 (about the sunroof)

over 5 years ago

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