How to communicate with customers about out-of-stock items

With retailers facing ongoing supply chain issues, items being out of stock is currently a standard occurrence. Naturally, this is very disappointing for customers, especially when it happens for extended periods of time.

Why are so many items out of stock just now?

In short, it’s mostly because of the ongoing effects of Covid-19 and, in some cases, partly because of Brexit. Both of these have disrupted the supply chain. In the case of Covid-19, the disruption was global. In the case of Brexit, it was more local but still very significant for the UK.

Experts have noted two issues that in combination are key drivers behind the supply-chain issues across multiple industries.

Shortage of labour

Even now, retailers are still playing catch-up from the initial days of the pandemic. In 2020, global shutdowns caused the worldwide supply chain to come to a screeching halt as businesses reduced staff, or shut down altogether, to help avoid the spread of Covid-19.

Across the world, shipping ports temporarily closed or had restricted access because of border policies and reduced staff. This included some of the world’s largest ports that are main hubs for the supply chain. Ports and other hubs across the supply chain are now largely open again. The problem is that there are still constant disruptions because of the unpredictability of Covid-19 surges and the effects on workers.

For the UK and EEA, there is the added disruption of the need for additional checks on goods passing across the new border between them. These have only become necessary since mainland UK left the free-trade zone. Additionally, Brexit and Covid-19 have both caused at least some workers to relocate.

Increased demand

When Covid-19 was at its peak, consumers had limited opportunities to shop. Store closures, stock shortages and delivery issues all restricted their options. Now that the world is coming out of Covid-19, consumers are eager to make up for lost time. The problem is that the supply chain is still working to make up for the time it lost to the pandemic.

People familiar with the supply-chain understand this. For regular customers, items being continually out of stock can seem like poor inventory-management on the retailer’s part. It’s therefore important that retailers make it clear to customers that this disruption is caused by factors well beyond their control.

How to communicate when items are out of stock

When it comes to communicating about out-of-stock items, there are two golden rules for all retailers. First, keep it simple. Second, resist any temptation to play the blame game. You own the customer relationship so focus on what you’re doing to improve the situation. Here are five specific best practices for communicating when items are out of stock.

Tell customers as soon as possible

As soon as you know an expected item won’t be available, move quickly to update your inventory, website and physical store. Avoid customers ordering an item and then having to let them know it’s not available, especially if you do not know exactly when it will come back into stock.

The same thing goes for shipping delays. If an order has already been placed but you have not been able to replenish your inventory and ship it out, update customers immediately. Give them the opportunity to cancel. This may hurt in the short term but will build trust. Many customers are patient as long as you’re transparent with them.

Be transparent

So be as transparent as you can. Explain to customers why an item is out of stock and when you realistically expect it to be available again. Commit to updating them as soon as you have any further information and be sure to do so.

Most customers respect brands that are honest and transparent in their communications. The key is to provide explanations rather than offering excuses. If you explain the situation effectively, customers know it is not your fault. At the same time, it is still your responsibility to do as much as you can to put it right for your customers.

Be empathetic

Showing empathy means more than just apologising, even though it’s often a good place to start. Even if an item is out of stock for reasons beyond your control, still apologise to customers for the inconvenience.

It’s important to positively influence your customer experience, even if you can’t meet their needs. If a prospective customer has a good experience with you, they may be patient and place an order once the item becomes available.

An additional option is to attempt to make it right in the customers’ eyes. Offer discounts, refunds or suggestions for other items that are in stock.

Provide customer service information

Provide customers with all the information they need to reach you both online and in person if they have questions about out-of-stock items. It’s important to keep open the lines of communication between you and your customers.

The same goes for social media: customers often reach out through DMs, so check them regularly and respond or direct them to the appropriate customer service channels. Also equip your in-store staff with a script or answers for when customers inquire about out-of-stock items.

Follow up with a ‘back in stock’ email

Once an item is back in stock, let the customers who have signed up for your mailing list know with an email alert. Send an email with a link to the product page or offer an option to place the item on hold for pickup in-store.

Unfortunately, it’s still unclear when supply chain issues will clear up and inventory will become more predictable. But being transparent and open about item availability still provides customers with a good experience that motivates them to purchase your items when they come back in stock.