Out of Stock?

Now that we have moved past me relating customer service to French Revolution quotes, we’ll get to some actually useful posts.

I am quite surprised I haven’t talked about how to deal with a situation when a company is out of stock. It seems to be one of the most talked about things in customer service writings and I have barely touched it.

My most recent out of stock experience was with Macy’s. I wanted to do a lot of shopping on their web site (side note: Frango chocolates (which Macy’s owns) are really good), but when I went to look, they were sold out of almost everything good. I called them and they had a few of the items, but most were sold out.

So I can provide the best advice to my readers, I am seeking the advice of people who know a lot about this stuff. By that I mean I am pulling out my copy of Defensive Design for the Web by 37signals. It is one of my two books on web usability (the other is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug) and both are actually quite related to customer service.

The book has an entire chapter on out of stock and unavailable items (Chapter 9) that is about 20 pages (the book is a very easy read) and provides a lot of examples, tips, and advice. Here are their four guidelines:

  1. Be upfront about item unavailability.
  2. If a product will be available at a later date, explain when, provide product details, and take advance orders.
  3. Offer email notification.
  4. Show similar items that are available.

The rules are quite upfront. And so are the examples.

  • Amazon (usually the leader in the relatively perfect e-commerce experience) tells people right away that items are out of stock and provides alternatives, dates when it will be available, as well as an option to order the item when it becomes available.
  • Land’s End (also a leader) does the same. It allows you to backorder the item quite easily and also shows similar items.
  • Some online stores provide an option for you to be added to an email notification list that will notify you when the item becomes available.

None of these things are particularly hard to and quite useful. I believe that Macy’s actually did all of these things (minus the email notification), though I am not 100% sure. When I went back to the site, the out of stock items weren’t listed on the page. When they were, though, I was given an option to order them and such.

What you really should try to do, though, is predict when you will need and how many of the items and stock accordingly. This isn’t exactly easy, but if you know you have a business that will have increased demand during the holidays and you normally get 15% more orders per year during the holidays and have been growing 5% per year, stock accordingly. The math isn’t impossible, but it does require some guesswork and subsequent risk.

Though it may be a little late for your company this year, it isn’t for next year or for other times of high demand.

One Response to “Out of Stock?”

  1. Lloyd Budd said:

    Dec 18, 06 at 7:58 pm

    Fry’s almost seems to take pride in not having products in stock, and not just even for sales items.