Best Practices: Sending Email Notifications When an Item is Out-of-Stock

A shopper has made it through to checkout only to receive a notification that one or more items in their cart is out of stock. Or, even worse, a shopper receives an email days later. Or, in some cases no notification at all.

Retailers lose an estimated $93 billion in sales annually due to out-of-stock inventory. Whether you’re a small retailer or a multi-billion dollar retail giant, inventory mistakes happen. What matters from a service perspective is how you handle that messaging to your valued customers.

We looked at 10 cases from the past two months in which a StellaService analyst purchased an item and later received an email notification that the product was out of stock.

Here are 10 best practices for email communications for inventory mishaps.

  1. Notify customers as soon as possible. Multiple StellaService shoppers reported waiting 9 to 10 days for the delivery to arrive, then being forced to call the retailer only to discover the product was out of stock and the order was cancelled. It was the retailers that swiftly alerted shoppers that stood apart.
        • In practice: A shopper received this message from two days after placing the 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.”
  2. Apologize. In one instance, a luggage retailer not only apologized, but offered up links to alternative products, asking if either product was satisfactory, in addition to offering up a refund.
        • In practice: “Please accept our apologies for this inconvenience.” (
  3. Provide a reason. Was it a processing error, or was the item discounted by the manufacturer? Most customers will appreciate the honesty.
        • In practice: “Unfortunately we have just been informed by the vendor that the item below is discontinued and no longer available.” (
  4. Offer up alternative but similar products. The customer may be happy with a similar item, and this gives you a chance to avoid the loss of sale.
        • In practice: “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?” (
  5. Difference in price? Alert the consumer as to how the difference will be refunded. Be sure to also provide a time frame in which the customer can expect to receive the refund.
        • In practice: “Please allow 3-4 business days for the refund to reflect back on your card.” (
  6. Provide contact information for your customer service team including hours of availability. It may seem obvious but not every email our shoppers received clearly stated customer service contact details and hours of operation. Provide all open channels including phone, email, and social to give the consumer the opportunity to engage in the channel of their choice.
        • In practice: “Should you require additional assistance, email us at 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.” (
  7. Temporary issue? Offer to notify the customer as soon as the item is back in stock. It may be that in a few short weeks your customer can have the desired item while you can cash in on the sale.

        • In practice: “You’re the first to know. This best-seller’s back in stock and ready to ship.” (
  8. Discontinued item? Provide details on how you will issue a full refund (if applicable) or let the customer know.
        • In practice: In one case, a guitar store sent an email that said “nothing has been charged to your card” — exactly what we needed to know. (
  9. Offer a small credit, free shipping or discount code. While a shopper may be disappointed they weren’t able to get the item, a little effort can go a long way. 
        • In practice: “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.” (
  10. Give the shopper the status of the rest of the order. If the out-of stock item was purchased with other items, let them know the status. We suggest taking this one step further and carrier info, tracking number and estimated delivery date for the rest of the order. 
        • In practice: “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).” (

One final note: Always use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation when communicating with customers. You’d be surprised at what our shoppers received in their inbox.

There were cases where retailers fumbled the out of stock messaging to shoppers. In several instances over the course of a month our shoppers were never alerted that the purchased items were out of stock. In fact, shoppers had to call the retailer to inquire as to the status of the delivery. So, while it’s best to avoid the out-of-stock scenario completely, if it should happen alert the customer as soon as possible.

See how your stores are communicating with customers when items are out-of-stock with our Mystery Shopping programs.

Mystery Shopping Checklist for retails brands