One factor to consider when building a brilliant site search is how stock levels should impact the search. A great search should deliver a product that the searcher wants to buy and that the retailer wants to sell. But what if that product is out of stock or low in stock?

There’s not a simple answer to that question and we see our customers take a variety of approaches.  It’s obviously a frustrating experience to try and buy something only to find that it’s not in stock. But by conveying stock levels and, if out of stock, providing updates and alternative products, you can help your customers stay on your site and have a better shopping experience. Make sure you have the right combination of these useful strategies on your eCommerce site.

Manage how products are shown

There are a few different ways you can manage the inventory your customers see first – you can choose to hide out-of-stock items or show them. Additionally, you can use refinements to give customers the control over what they see. Let’s explore the options and their effects.

If you show out-of-stock items, there are a few ways to do this:

  • Show items in the place where they would have been in the search results; this keeps your products in the exact page location, so that popular but out-of-stock products can still be shown.
  • Push them to the bottom of the page; this allows popular but out-of-stock products that would normally be on the first page to stay there, but to push in-stock products “above the fold.”
  • Push them to the bottom of the results; this will push all out-of-stock items to the very end of the list, which means that the top searched items may not show on the first page if they are sold out.

You could also choose to hide any out-of-stock items in the search. This alleviates the problem of customers becoming frustrated when the product they find is unavailable. The downside is that you may miss out on a sale if the item will be back in stock soon.

Lastly, refinements are a good way to allow users to sort their search results. You can specifically create a refinement to show in-stock items, or you can set individual attribute refinements to only show products that are in stock. For example, if you’re searching for athletic shoes, you might find 95 items, but when you refine the search by your size, the actual number of shoes available in your size may drop to 40. All shoes that are not in stock in your size won’t be shown.

Show stock levels

If you choose to show all products, then it’s a good idea to show which items are in or out of stock. Show stock levels on a variety of pages, such as the search results page and product detail pages, so that wherever your customers land, they can easily know if an item is available.

This can be done with a simple ribbon overlay, which is the small ribbon or tag usually pictured on a thumbnail image. They feature various messages, such as “Out of Stock”, “On Sale” or “Free Shipping”. They can be used to show that a popular item is back in stock or to flag an item that is out of stock.

It’s also helpful to inform customers of their options. If a product is out-of-stock, then an alternative is to show that it can be back ordered, and possibly include an indication of how many days until it will be back in stock.

If an item is low in stock, it’s helpful to indicate that and show how many are left. This can be as simple as adding a note saying “only 2 left!” This can install a sense of urgency in the visitor – a “buy while there are still some left” feeling in customers.

Additional services for customers

Inevitably, some customers will find a product that is out of stock. When they do, try to help them get the item in another way. If you have brick and mortar stores, enable an online inventory check at the closest stores. For instance, Tractor Supply asks for a ZIP code to inform customers of the nearest store that has the item in stock. If you don’t have physical stock that customers can access, then show related products that they might also like, and give customers an option to back order the item.

Supply and demand do not always match up, and inventory levels may be mismatched at times. But by showing the best products, offering transparent information to customers about stock levels, and helping them find the product elsewhere or recommending similar items, you can ease the way for visitors and provide a better shopping experience.