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There are a number of ways for etailers to handle the problem of unavailable items, from not displaying the products at all, or offering customers alternatives.

In last year's Online Retail 2007: Checkout Special report, we advised that customers should not be allowed to begin to purchase items that are out of stock, as this can frustate customers.

Most of the top e-commerce sites now seem to broadly follow this practice, though this was not the case when shopping online with TopShop recently.

After going through the checkout, ordering the item, and entering credit card details, I was sent an email confirming the purchase... all fine so far.

However, the next day I received an email telling me that my order had been cancelled as the item was now out of stock. Rubbish.

This is definitely not the best way to deal with the issue, and certainly the most frustrating way for customers, especially if they needed the item to be delivered in time for a birthday, for instance.

How best to deal with out of stock items then? Here are a few options:

  • Don't display unavailable items in the first place - this prevents the frustration of customers reaching the checkout only to find that they cannot order them.
  • Offer alternative, similar items - customers may be happy with a similar product, so give them the option.
  • Offer to email customers when the item is in stock - at least this way, customers will become aware that you do normally stock the product they are looking for and, as well as keeping the customer from shopping elsewhere, it gives a retailer a chance to keep communicating with an interested shopper.
  • Refer customers offline - If the item is unavailable online, point customers to the nearest store where they can collect the item.

Retailers may differ on the best way to handle the issue, but allowing people to order a product when it is out of stock is definitely something to be avoided.

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

Related stories:
How to handle out of stock items
Top 10 most common e-commerce mistakes

Graham Charlton

Published 1 May, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,

Thanks for highlighting this, I can imagine your look of disgust when you received email letting you know your order had been cancelled!

Having just recently launched our e-commerce platform, due to the stock and warehousing capabilities of our client, and the stock management they carry out in the back-office system, almost all of their products will always be in stock.

Even so, when stock isn't available (for a particular SKU which could 1 of 40 for a particular product) the SKU isn't available for browsing, and therefore the customer won't be misled into checking out with a product that isn't available.

As our platform develops and clients have different stock issues, more intelligent ways to recommend alternatives and providing an email reminder service will be introduced, which follow your recommended options.

Thanks for the article.


over 8 years ago


Jason Billingsley

Removing an item out of stock (if it is intended to be replenished) is not good practice for a few reasons:

1. SEO - Removing the item will likely lead to 404's out of the SERPs. Worse yet, - if you have an effective site structure you'll likely be crawled on a regular basis. The engines may remove the page from the index.
2. Lost chance for alternative selling of a similar item or replacement item if permanently out of stock
3. Lost chance for getting the shopper to request a back in stock email or feed

Something to consider.

over 8 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Jason,

Following on from your comments, and in particular your point on 404's, with our client I was referring to, in reference to my earlier comments on stock, I would like to just clarify the difference between not showing out of stock SKU's and not showing out of stock products.

Almost all products within their catalogue have multiple SKU's. Due to reasons mentioned above they will always have stock in for at least 1 of the SKU's per product, so the actual product page will always be live for visitors and search engine crawlers. It is just individual SKU's which may or may not show, either through the automated back end due to low stock levels or by our client manually choosing not to show a particular SKU.

The manual intervention may be due to the business creating a sale driven SKU line for a set time, or trialling bulk packages of a particular SKU line.

In reference to your 2nd and 3rd points, these methods for handling out of stocks aren't applicable for this business but as Graham suggested are good practice and will feature in other e-comm stores from PRWD.

Perhaps this may be going in to a bit too much detail, but its an interesting discussion none the less!

over 8 years ago


David Hamill

I don't necessarily agree with the first point about showing items that are not in stock. It depends on the market.

It might apply to TopShop where the product has many likely substitutes. It is not good advice if the item in question is specialist or is the dependant part of another product.

If my Coffee-o-matic coffee machine is broken then I just need to find the part I need to fix it. If nobody has it in stock I want to pre-order it. I don't want to come back later or wait for an email. The part for Auto-Cofee 2000 is not going to be a good suggestion.

Oh and for those of us who don't work in materials planning SKU means Stock Keeping Unit.

over 8 years ago

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