Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting supply chain disruptions, out-of-stock products are currently presenting a major problem for ecommerce store owners.
When consumers see “out of stock” too often in one place, though, one of three things happens: they switch to another ecommerce site, they visit a physical store to purchase the product, or they give up trying to make the purchase entirely. Whichever way it goes, the ecommerce site loses.
So what is the proper way for ecommerce store owners to handle low inventory product pages? Read on to find out what to do (and why it matters).
Effects of “Out of Stock” On Conversions
Low inventory on an ecommerce website directly leads to a decrease in conversions. There are two main causes for this:
- Empty shelf space impact. The overall conversion rate decreases if many products are out of stock. The approximate impact of empty shelf space can be calculated by multiplying the instock conversion rate by the page traffic and the product price.
- Desired item loss. The overall conversion rate decreases if a site doesn’t have the right products in stock. To measure the impact of desired item loss, you can estimate the loss of sales from traffic to the Product Detail Page of out-of-stock items.
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, online shops are as hurt as much as physical stores by out-of-stock items. US retailers take “25 percent of the adverse consequences compared to 35 percent for brands”.
Overall, online out-of-stock products cost businesses a whopping $22 billion in lost annual sales. Without mitigation strategies, your ecommerce store will be losing out on serious revenue.
Effects Of Low Product Inventory Pages on SEO
If an ecommerce website has products listed that are out of stock, it will have to inform website visitors about it. The out of stock message will most likely result in visitors becoming frustrated and leaving the site.
According to RetailDive, 60% of consumers who encounter an out-of-stock message online purchased a substitute product from the same site. 15% switch sites, about 10% go to a physical store instead, and 15% delay or cancel their purchases altogether.
What does that have to do with search engine optimization (SEO)? Well, if you have consistent negative engagement measurements such as a high bounce rate, your site’s search result ranking can be affected negatively. And that[‘s the last thing you want! Ideally, you want your product pages to continue ranking even if a product is temporarily out of stock.
Of course, you should make every effort to keep products in stock at all times. But supply chain issues and delays cannot always be eliminated, especially in extraordinary circumstances. So what do you do? Let’s look at some solutions you can implement.
Handling Low Inventory Product Pages
There are several things you can do when the product you’re selling is not available, either temporarily or permanently. Since concerns are different for organic search (people who come to your site from a search engine result) versus internal search, I’ve separated my proposed solutions into those two categories.
Let’s dive in!
Here are some strategies you can use if a visitor makes an organic search and comes to your site from a search engine results page:
Option 1: 404 (Not Found)
A 404 (Not Found) error means the page essentially no longer exists. Don’t 404 your low inventory product pages unless you’re sure that the out of stock product will never be returning. In other words, those that you won’t be selling anymore.
It’s not a good idea to remove a page if a product is temporarily out of stock, only to put it back once you have the item available again. If you do, you’ll be sending mixed signals that search engines such as Google might have a hard time reconciling. And that can have a negative impact on your SEO.
Therefore, never remove a page and use the 404 option, if you are certain you won’t be selling that product ever again use the 301 redirect option explained below.
Option 2: 301 (Permanent Redirect)
A 301 permanent redirect sends users who attempt to visit one URL to a different website page that you specify. The keyword here is “permanent”: again, don’t use 301 permanent redirects when a product is only temporarily out of stock. If an item has been removed from your inventory for good, however, it’s a good option.
Remember to redirect to a relevant page. For example, if a popular product is now permanently unavailable, redirect its URL to a similar item that your customers might like just as much.
Using a 301 redirect helps to transfer any SEO rankings associated with the original page towards the new one.
Option 3: 302 (Temporary Redirect)
A 302 temporary redirect works much the same as a 301, except that it is designed to be temporary and therefore reversible when the product in question comes back into stock.
The advantage of 302 temporary redirects is that they can help direct customers straight to a viable alternative to their desired product, without hurting the SEO of the original page.
The disadvantage is that it’s time-consuming and you have to remember to remove the redirect when the product comes back into stock. There’s also a potential customer experience issue. Website visitors who search for product A but are redirected to product B instead might find this annoying or even deceptive.
Utilize 302 temporary redirects by all means, but do it mindfully and sparingly. Too many can cause problems.
Option 4: Item Availability Schema
Google is capable of displaying whether a product is in stock, out of stock, in backorder, and so on, directly in the SERPs. To access this functionality, you need to change the schema options. You can usually amend or update schema structured data via your ecommerce website platform—check with your provider’s customer support or your web developer if you need extra help.
The advantage of this approach is that visitors will value your honesty. They might avoid clicking through to your website entirely. This reduces your traffic but also avoids a negative impact on your bounce rate.
The downside, of course, is that you may lose the chance to nudge the customer towards a different product that would suit their needs just as well. Schema changes can also take time to take effect, meaning you might not get the timing of your product availability quite right (for example, showing a product as out of stock when it has recently become available again).
Option 5: Provide Options
Of all the options I’ve given, this is by far my favorite. Instead of removing the page of the out of stock product or making redirects, be upfront, and provide your prospective customers with alternatives, leveraging your out-of-stock products to drive sales.
If visitors search for a particular product, they should be directed to that product page which will inform them that the item is out of stock. But don’t leave it at that. Provide value by giving your customer options.
For example, if your business also has physical stores, you may give them the option to check availability at outlets in their area. You can also provide a “You might also like…” section with links to similar products in your catalog. Finally, you might give them the option to be notified when the product becomes available again. This strategy has the added advantage of allowing you to get the customer’s email address.
Another way you can direct customers to other suitable products is to use a live chat function. It’s easy to add a chat plugin to your store and it can help discourage customers from giving up and leaving.
If you tell visitors their desired product is unavailable but don’t provide other options, they’ll likely get annoyed and leave very quickly. By giving them choices, you can save your sale.
Internal search – where someone is already on your site and uses the search bar to find a product—is slightly different from organic search. Here are some strategies you can use for visitors who make an internal search for an out of stock product:
Option 1: Utilize Filtering Options
Filters allow your customers to find only the products that most closely match their needs. You can allow customers to filter products by price, size, color, and so on. Why not also give them the option to filter out products that are out of stock from their search results?
This will save your customers time and ensure that their attention is drawn to products that are currently available for purchase.
Option 2: Push Out of Stock Products Down the List
Another option is to configure your site’s settings to deprioritize out of stock products in internal search results. In other words, you push those unavailable products down the results so they will be the last things your visitors see, below all the results that are currently available to buy.
This option keeps visitors happy because it ensures the first results they see will all be available products. This solution is also a win for you, because Google search bots are still given access to all your product pages. This means your pages can still rank, even if an item is temporarily out of stock.
The Best Way to Handle Low Inventory Product Pages
These are just some of the most common strategies ecommerce store owners use to handle low inventory product pages. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But which is the best?
Frankly, I don’t have an easy answer to that question. The situation is fluid and varies wildly by industry and geographical location, so it’s difficult to determine which solution will give you the best result. The best method is the one that keeps both you and your website visitors happy. In other words, the one that retains as many sales as possible offers a great customer experience and doesn’t negatively impact your SEO.
As you decide which strategy to implement, you need to consider your website visitors’ needs and experience. Use customer journey mapping, consider what they are looking for and what they value, and don’t be afraid to solicit feedback. Focus on providing value and being honest and transparent.
You must choose a strategy that works best for you. The idea is to retain customers and keep your great SEO results, even when some of your products are out of stock.
About the author
Jimmy Rodriguez is the COO and co-founder of Shift4Shop, an ecommerce software to build SEO-friendly online stores. He’s dedicated to helping internet retailers succeed online by developing digital marketing strategies and optimized shopping experiences that drive conversions and improve business performance.
- Yan Anderson is the Social Relations and Content Manager at CS-Cart. He's passionate about creating content that explains complicated things in simple terms. Yan loves writing and making videos about the ecommerce industry and technology trends. He manages this blog as an editor.
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