When I was a kid, I used to love to play hide-and-seek with my friends. The problem was, I was very good at hiding, and my friends had short attention spans and would give up and leave, which unfortunately left me wondering if my friends were still searching for me.
Unfortunately, many shopping sites are also very good at hiding things, and their customers also have a short attention span and quickly leave to shop somewhere else.
Optimizing product search and discovery is only half the battle in driving high conversion and keeping the your customers in the game of seeking for those products of interest. If you're hiding out-of-stock products, even if only by certain models, sizes or colors, product page bounce rates will skyrocket.
Nothing frustrates customers more than when they find the product they want, only to discover that their size or color is not available. Have them experience this on 2 or 3 different products that aren’t available in their search experience, or as they are viewing products for size or color, with no ability to see the historical sizes and colors it was available in, or with a way to communicate if/when those might come back in stock.
Without letting the customer see the original sizes and colors (even if marked out of stock), you’re not even playing the “warmer or colder” game with them, and will have likely lost the customer's faith that if they continue to view other products, they will know that you have product selection in their interest areas.
Here’s some scenarios:
Hiding products from search when out of stock.
- Unwittingly, your merchandising team or search product managers may have made a decision to hide any products that are out of stock. The typical thinking by the retailer mind is that customers would prefer NOT to see a product that they can’t purchase so hide all products that are out of stock.
- However, say a customer is searching for a Keurig, or the Nintendo Classic, or pair of black booties or that perfect summer dress that you would usually sell, but when this happens you've trained the customer that you don't carry these items and they move on.
- You may have also saved the chat/service team a few questions from customers asking if or when a product might be back in stock, but I’d suggest that those are great questions to be getting from interactions with your customers, but unfortunately where “process” oriented people are trying to save what are perceived as negative customer experiences, I’d suggest these are actually good one’s to have as your customers are on your site, finding what they want, their visit wasn’t wasted, and they know you care enough to engage with them and will offer them great customer service in the future.
- By the way, adding product availability alerting to your product pages is the ultimate solution as you both allow products to be found, and mitigate the customer service interaction by allowing customers to “self serve” the notification for future product availability alerts, which also provides you visibility to the demand for your product graph helping with demand planning.
* Great examples of sites doing customer notifications are Best Buy (look for the Nintendo Switch), Home Depot and World Markets
- While you might have products in stock, unfortunately, you still might have chosen not to show the sizes or colors of any product should those be out of stock at that level.
- On many shopping sites, they will appropriately show that a size or color is sold out with an icon or X’d out selection, but I’m astonished at how many sites only show what’s left in stock, hiding the original sizes completely.
- The customer is left guessing as to what sizes or colors might have originally come in, and if they have the unfortunate experience of seeing this 2x to 3x when on your site, they can only assume you don't carry their sizes or colors, which sends the seekers elsewhere.
- Again, this is where showing the out of stock variants of your products can actually communicate that you did carry their specific sizes and colors, as well as that they need to act faster the next time they see something of Interest, which helps increase the urgency factor which is a basic element of scarcity marketing on any site.
- In this case, having product availability alerting on your site is the best possible scenario, not only because you’ve captured that purchase intent of the customer who’s giving you explicit opted in permission to email them, but they’ve also told you a little bit about themselves. Their sharing what sizes, colors, brands, and categories of products they are interested in, not only in that visit, but likely for the future.
* Some great examples where product color/size alerting is done correctly are on sites like JC Penney, and True Religion.
So why not do this?
I know what the typical merchandisers are thinking right now after reading this. The typical thought is “It’s not that easy…there’s a lot of products that will never come back in stock, or we won’t get any more of them” which is the way to avoid this aspect of your site, and continue to frustrate your customers and continue to avoid their invested time on your site.
And your tech team might say "It's easy to build this, you just slap a email opt-in on the product pages, and we're done!" Or the email marketing team will try to convince you that your email marketing system can capture and send these, but if you have hundreds or even thousands of products on your site, most email marketing systems have no ability to monitor product availability and trigger an email campaign when products are finally in stock.
Now let’s flip the “hide-and-seek” game around, and assume that the customer is “hiding” what their are interested in buying in the future. Shopping sites invest millions into predictive and recommendation technology to guess what the customers is going to “seek/buy” next, but wouldn’t you also like to be able to hear from your online customers if you are “warm or cold” with the exact products they would want to buy more of?
Another issue is high demand products. What if you have a high demand product where 10,000 customers sign up to get notified when any product is available next and say you get 50 back in stock. If you send 10,000 emails out, the first 50-100 customers will be happy, then then the other 5,000 (or more) who click to return and buy the product only to see it back out of stock will be upset and likely won't sign up for future notifications.
Having a method for throttling availability alerts based upon inventory or an algorithms will be key to insure that you can delivery a predictable notification that doesn't cause "next level" customer satisfaction issues.
Change the game
The irony is, your customers will tell you instantly if you ask them, resulting in better loyalty, understanding, and engagement with your best customers.
Unfortunately, most sites that avoid this part of their strategy will continue to communicate to your customers something like “We hope you like the products that we have for sale today, but we don’t really care about what you might have interest in for the future, so we’ll just hopefully keep guessing well and in the end most of the products will sell, and our daily deals will clear out the rest, at a loss."
Smart retailers simply use good communication as an integrated part of their strategy to communicate that there could be limited quantities, or suggest “We might make more” like True Religion does, which removes any suggested promise to customers that they will get any alert, but also informs the merchandising team as to which SKU’s could be an easy re-run, and even what the size and color demand demographics are for their entire customer community.
So if you’re playing “hide-and-seek” with your products and customers, you might want to re-think things and change the game to “show-and-tell” which would allow your customers to cast a vote for what future products they have interest in from your site, giving more relevance and engagement for both you and your customers.
Best of all, you'll gain real-time visibility to the demand of products from your customers online, along with the ability to recapture the revenue of past visits of your online shoppers. Imagine taking the guess-work out of what your winners-and-losers are in your product mix and being able to double-down on captured demand.
The right engagement engine will not only help alert your customers when what they want is available, but will also alert you to when there is unmet demand that you can capitalize on.