Sometimes it’s hard to see how small things can really affect the lives of your customers. One of these things is clearly displaying stock levels on your web site. Seems like a small thing, right? It may not make sense in all industries to do this, especially if you’re lucky to have plenty of products on hand. But if you have heard or could envision a single customer asking about the quantities available of an item, to be informed by email of changes to inventory, when they will get the item if in backorder, what processing means, or anything similar to this chatter, then read on.

My Story


I want to give a personal example about how important displaying stock status may be. Last fall, a small pipe in my house burst while I was traveling for a few days. When I got back to my home, I found everything soaked. Soaked is an understatement, trust me – it was literally raining in my crawlspace. I immediately went into action to rectify the issue and called a restoration company as well as my insurance company. The owner of the restoration company came to the house immediately to handle my emergency himself and we stayed there until 3am working on repairs. He started tearing out flooring and installed dehumidifiers the size of bears all around the house. He was meeting me the next morning, in about 6 hours, and I was desperate for sleep at this point. Besides the health risk to sleep in a house that already smells badly of mold, those machines were very loud, so I had to go somewhere else for the night. Since I had no place to go, I immediately starting looking for hotels on the internet.

At this time, my area was inundated with travelers due to what is called the International Home Furnishings Market. After some searches, it seemed all the hotels in about a 60 mile radius were fully booked. But I kept searching the usual sites like, Kayak, TripAdvisor, etc. Eventually I found a hotel about 15 minutes away that had several rooms available. Once I arrived I was told they had nothing available. The nice man in the window also informed me that others had been by assuming they had open rooms that same night as well, so I wasn’t the only one with this issue. Returning to the internet, I found a new room, in a new hotel, but when I got there I was greeted with the same story. This time I used the hotel’s main site to double check the vacancy found on the larger sites, but it didn’t make a difference. The helpful woman at the front desk seemed sympathetic for me and did searches on her computer system to find an open room at another hotel. New hotel, new room, but same result once I got there, it was booked.

I gave up. Around 6am I returned to my house and I tried to sleep for a couple hours on a moldy bed, in a very loud house. I didn’t sleep very well, obviously. Three months later, everything is fixed and better than before, but the most stressful part about the ENTIRE process was the one night I couldn’t find a hotel room. It wasn’t because I couldn’t find a room, but because the systems said there were openings when there weren’t any. I wasted gas and precious sleeping time. It was aggravating. If the inventory updated more frequently, I would not have been in that situation, I could have been informed to make an alternative decision.



Empathy: A Customer Experience Imperative

Your customers hate being aggravated as well. Odds are, if one is aggravated with an issue, others will be too. My example may seem like an extreme case since it was an emergency, but in all honesty, we truly have no clue what may be happening in the customers’ lives. When they call in frustrated, it may be for a good reason even if it looks like poor planning on their end.

(The following examples link to real products, at real ecommerce websites, which I am giving fake stories for. The stock display on these sites are actually great models and will be explained why in the second list below.)
  1. Imagine the person who ordered a personalized “Money Clip” that was in stock thinking it would ship within a couple business days, only to find that their product takes days or weeks to process. Most customers have no idea what processing time is – they expect it out the door immediately.
  2. That “Cool Circuits” puzzle game may seem insignificant to get upset over, but the customer may have needed that to keep their kids occupied while traveling out of country, and you just told them it was backordered. What a bummer. Now they could buy something else from you but now the customer lost trust in your information and would be more likely to go to their local toy store instead.
  3. Those “Whiskey Barrel Cufflinks” were a present for the customer’s father, and the site didn’t say it was out of stock before purchasing. Again, trust is lost and the customer probably won’t purchase any other gift. That was an impulse buy anyway.
  4. That bridesmaid dress was the last one needed for the customer’s wedding party but you just sold out! Oh no!
Let’s try these ideas to help the customer out….
  1. Make sure to list on your site – especially the product detail page – approximately how long it will take for the customer to get the product. It’s more personal to provide an in-home date or estimation versus listing out how long it would take for the item to be in stock, processing time, etc. Some sites do well simply listing how many business days from time an order is placed that it would take for the customer to receive the product. Things Remembered did a good job listing delivery dates for the money clip on the right-hand side of the product page. This standard is easy to see over the entire site, even if each product’s time differs, at least the customer knows where to find the information.
  2. If the product’s stock effects in-home date, that should be listed. If the product’s backorder status delays the usual processing time, it needs to be displayed. Think Geek does a great job listing different statuses, including “in stock”, right beside the “add to cart” area.
  3. Uncommon Goods does a great job preventing out of stock purchases through their design. If you select more of an item than they have in stock, the site displays a dialog box showing how many are in stock and that the quantity selected exceeds it.
  4. Try setting your out of stock status emails to the customer at levels that seem appropriate for the product. A wedding dress can be low in stock in very small quantities but a bridesmaid dress should be much higher, since the customer will need a set of them. There’s not a lot you can do about products being out of stock but to allow customer service to try and save the day. Good thing Ann Taylor uses the stock at all of their stores to help find items that may be out of stock online or in your local store. They then will ship that item to the nearest store, for free, ready to be picked up with no obligation to buy.

732372_15081479The more informed your customer is and how clear that information is presented will actually help your customer purchase. So while we can say my situation was just an emergency case or the customer with the puzzle game planned timing poorly, it is also true that well-informed customers can make more educated decisions. Knowledge is power, and it goes both ways!

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