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 

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Top 10 most common e-commerce mistakes

Basket Abandonment – we have to focus on How, not Why