Imagine starting a flower shop that offers a wide range of exuberant flowers that can be stacked into gorgeous bouquets. You do some advertising on all mediums about the rare flowers that only you have to offer. Hearing the hype, customers flock into the store, asking for the advertised flowers, but it’s not the season for a certain flower. You tell them, “Sorry! This one won’t be in stock for a few months.” The potential customers, who possibly drove a long distance to get their desired flower, are clearly unhappy. What do you do?
Now convert this scenario into an ecommerce store, where an item has gone out of stock. In the technological age, the customer also has a choice of choosing something else, but credibility falls every time someone visits your store via Google, but then closes the tab, disappointed. With special events comes special items that may fade away later on; many websites have a hard time figuring out what to do with those product pages. Do they keep them or not? And if they delete them, what will happen to the site in terms of SEO?
An out of stock (OOS) page is a page for temporarily or permanently unavailable products in an online store. OOS pages might present low-value, poor quality content that can be disengaging for users. With OOS pages, sites have a risk of getting a Google Panda penalty, if poorly optimized.
- High bounce rates are reported.
- Increased risk of search engine optimization rankings.
- Negative impact on sales and site user experience.
- OOS pages have a low Click Through Rate (CTR) and damage the competitiveness of a domain.
Retailers lose an estimated $93 billion in sales annually due to out-of-stock inventory. Here are some things that websites do when a product goes out of stock:
Displaying out of stock items in fine print
Many websites lure you to the product pages and offer you a wide range of choices. You spend time choosing between products that match your needs, but when you reach checkout, it gives you a prompt that the item you want to buy is unavailable. It’s basically misleading and wastes the time and energy of a customer, who may leave your website and never return.
Taking a site tour and adding items to a shopping cart takes a considerable amount of time, and your potential customer might never visit you again if you keep doing this. Look at this screenshot of a site that led a customer to choose a size, but the item was out of stock. Only the size selection – nothing beforehand – reveals that the product is not available. It’s unfair by all means.
Then there is this site that confuses the customer. The title says the item is out of stock, but the caption below says in stock. It’s very confusing for a buyer.
Redirecting to home page
Many sites use this tactic. They will redirect the customer, using the product URL, to the home page of the store. It is just like shooing a customer out of the store just because the item they asked for is unavailable. It might be handy if a 301 redirect is properly used, but in other cases, it looks very weird. Many people open multiple tabs, and once they go to check them and forget what they opened, they’ll just close and go away.
Error 404 page
Showing the ‘page not found’ prompt is like telling Google that you are a shady website. Too many error 404 messages affect Google rankings, and to a common customer it looks like the site is broken.
Showing similar products, in a randomized way
Many websites do this. It’s almost a correct way to deal with the out of stock situation. The heading will tell you that a product is out of stock, and then show you some other products that look almost the same, with some tweaks in design or color. The sad part is that this suggestion is randomized. Even if you see other yellow flowers that are in stock, the next time you refresh it might show you violets for no reason.
Doing it right
Then there is the practice of telling your customer that the product is out of stock, but he or she will be notified the moment this product becomes available again. The prompt is shown in red, so the customer doesn’t miss it. Then, as a bonus, there are genuine suggestions based on keywords about similar products available in the store. It leads to zero confusion and complete honesty on the part of the seller. See this photo for example.
Google’s take on OOS
Google keeps telling us that search engines give priority to sites that provide the best user experience. Sites that are built for crawlers or bots are not at all a priority now. The best course of action is to determine the size of your website and the impact a page can have on your user experience. Google’s Matt Cutts explains in a video what webmasters and site owners should do. According to Cutts, the strategy depends on the size of the site. He divided the sites into three categories: small sites with tens of pages, medium sites with hundreds of pages and massive sites with hundreds of thousands of pages.
Small E-Commerce Sites
Small sites that sell things like handmade jewelry can properly show that the item is unavailable and redirect the customer to related products. They can mention that another item can be designed in the meantime, and the estimated manufacturing time is also mentioned beside the prompt. This way the customer can tell that the owner can design something similar, and the customer can visit similar items at the same time.
Medium E-Commerce Sites
A medium-sized site is where thousands of products are sold and some are out of stock. In that case, the customer can 404 the product pages that are out of stock.
It should only be done when the date of restock is known. If you know the date, you can inform the customers about the date and have them preorder that item. You can also give them the liberty to choose if they want late checkout or not.
Doing 404 otherwise is not a clever option, as mentioned above. Never taking off 404 from your site leads to customer frustration.
Massive E-Commerce Sites
For large E-Commerce websites with hundreds and thousands of pages, like Craigslist and Amazon, you can set the date the page will expire by using the meta tag ‘Unavailable after’ a certain date. This way, when a product is added, you can determine the date the page will expire, based on an auction date or a go-stale date.
The tag mentioned above is the only tag Google uses for its search engine. The information will be used as a removal request. It will take about a day or two for the page to disappear from search results.
The practices mentioned above aren’t out of this world. Anyone who shops online knows the pain of turning away because of one of them. Let’s review the key takeaways from the practices and establish a strategy to minimize any confusion or negative opinion about the out of stock pages in a store. Email replies to possible queries are the best form of service you can provide to your customers. Take a look at the best practices:
When the item will be back soon
- Do not wipe off the page completely from the website and turn it into an error 404 page. It will seriously affect your ranking in terms of SEO, and your site may suffer.
- The page should continue to show 202 (ok) response code and not 404 (error).
- Show the out of stock item in red, saying ‘This product is out of stock.’
- If the item is temporarily out of stock, display the message clearly and tell the customer to choose to be notified when it is back on. Inform them via email when product is on: “You’re the first to know. This best-seller’s back in stock and ready to ship.” (Westelm.com)
- If possible, add a form the customer can use to enter an email address and contact number where he or she can be reached.
- If the customer selected one out of stock item with other available items, inform them: “Because we cannot be sure at this time when, or if, we will be able to re-stock the item(s), we have removed the item(s) from your order. The remainder of your order will be shipped and you will not be charged for the cancelled item(s).” (Bluefly.com)
- Inform your customers as soon as possible. A shopper received this message from bluefly.com two days after placing order: “Unfortunately, the following item(s) that you ordered are now out-of-stock. Although we try our best to maintain 100% accuracy with inventory, there are rare occasions where we experience an inventory error.”
The item is never coming back
- Do not redirect the customer to the homepage.
- 301 permanent redirect to a similar product, a related category or, if all fails, back to the homepage.
- There is a meta tag that you can use to tell Google the product is discontinued. For the customers, lead them to the main category with a statement of apology.
- In one case, a guitar store sent an email that said “nothing has been charged to your card” — exactly what we needed to know. (MusicStore.com)
- Offer sincere apologies. The people at littledudesanddivas.com send this message: “Please accept our apologies for this inconvenience.” (Littledudesanddivas.com)
- Also provide a reason: “Unfortunately we have just been informed by the vendor that the item below is discontinued and no longer available.” (Littledudesanddivas.com)
The item may be in stock again
- Do not display confusing messages of ‘out of stock’ and ‘in stock’ on the same page.
- Display suggestions about other products with similar categories like color, size, design, etc. The more categories the better. For example, “I’m attaching an image of belt that is similar to the one you purchased that we currently have in stock. This belt is $10 cheaper than the belt you purchased, so the difference would be refunded. Would you like this one as a replacement?” (BeltStation.com)
- If the refund happens, inform the customer about the change in price. “Please allow 3-4 business days for the refund to reflect back on your card.” (Luggagepoint.com)
- Don’t go for randomized suggestions.
- Do not archive the product page. Make sure it is still useful and interactive, but doesn’t look shady at the same time.
- Use a 301 redirect only when required so that customer is redirected to a product category. When a product is in stock, revert the 301 redirect and the authority of your page will remain the same.
Leave the page as it is
- It is sometimes advisable to leave the product page as it is and not mess with any optimization for it. It gets high traffic quality and works well with evergreen products. For more in-depth information, view this case study.
- Try to make up for the loss by offering a little discount or promo code, such as: We apologize for any inconvenience this update may cause and would like to extend an offer of 10% off any replacement item for that inconvenience. If you find another item to order in place of the original fixture, please give one of our representatives a call at 1-866-482-8321 and they will be happy to apply the adjusted price to your new order.” (LightingCatalog.com)
Provide contact details for your customer service teams
It is efficient to add customer service details so that confused customers can call for details. For example, “Should you require additional assistance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll free at 1.877.BLUEFLY (1.877.258.3359). From outside the United States, please dial 1.212.944.8000. FlyReps are available to serve you Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. EST.” (Bluefly.com)
By applying the above methodologies, you will be able to retain customers longer. Even when they find that products of their choice are out of stock, they will be satisfied because of the way your company treats them and solves their problems.