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