Econsultancy’s Checkout Optimization Guide, which contains 70 ways to increase conversion rates, was released this week. 

One less obvious aspect of the checkout process which the new guide looks at is stock management, i.e. making sure that the items customers are about to buy are available and ‘reserved’ for them, and when to release them if customers leave

However, retailers cannot hold the contents of customers’ baskets indefinitely, as other customers may want these items, so when should stock be released for other customers to buy? 

By being too strict about this, retailers risk annoying customers who may add items to their basket only to find, as late as the payment stage, that they are unavailable. 

The checkout guide uses an example from Argos, which only informs customers that stock is unavailable after purchasing other items in the basket, which is clearly not the way to do it. 

Clearly, customers need to know that stock is available to purchase once they enter the checkout, so this means that retailers need to reserve these items at the point they are added to shopping baskets, as the best way to avoid customer frustration. 

In cases where stock is in short supply and subject to increased demand, other options, such as reserving upon entry to the checkout process, or upon payment are available, but both run the risk of having customers add items to their carts only to be told they are out of stock as they are ready to buy. 

However, especially when stock is limited, items cannot be reserved forever, so when should retailers end the reservation of items? 

When a customer’s shopping session has ended is the obvious answer, though in cases where browsers are left open, a cut-off point needs to be set. 

This could be anything between 10 minutes and an hour of inactivity, but the key here is to communicate this information to customers

In the case of Dell.com, users’ sessions are timed out without warning, and customers’ baskets are emptied. On a site like Dell, where putting together your chosen laptop or PC can take some time, this could be a huge annoyance for customers. 

A better example comes from Ticketmaster, which has added a countdown ticker to its checkout, making it clear how much time customers have to complete a purchase: