What to Say When You’re Out of Stock

Empathy and special treatment go a long way to minimizing outrage at an outage.
Take orders ahead of time for popular products so that you never run out and keep customers satisfied. (Photo: Viewvie/Shutterstock)

“Sorry, we just ran out of that,” are words sure to disappoint any customer. But with limited space to hold surplus supplies, occasional stock-outs are bound to happen at your store or restaurant. Surely customers will understand, right?

“Stock-outs irritate both your customers and your sales staff. Irritation at the out-of-stock spreads to impressions of the retailer or restaurant. The consumer feels jilted and is ready to turn away from their current supply source. It’s more emotional than rational,” said Bruce Sanders, consumer psychologist and author of “Retailer’s Edge: Boost Profits Using Shopper Psychology.”

There’s always a risk that demand for your offerings will exceed supply at some point. And when that happens, you’ll want to treat customers delicately to avoid tarnishing your small business’s reputation. Here are some psychologist-approved strategies for handling customers when you run out of something they want.

bruce sanders

“If you’re having a product introduction paired with a special event and you’re worried about crowd control, you might want to hand out tickets that guarantee a purchase.” -Bruce Sanders (Photo: Bruce Sanders)

Warn customers in advance

Stock-outs aren’t always bad. They can stimulate customer excitement and create a feeling of urgency. But when people can’t get their hands on a special meal or product, they may leave feeling disappointed. Mitigate those negative feelings by warning customers ahead of time when supplies are limited, said Sanders.

Anticipate selling out of something but you’re not sure when it may happen? Be up front in your promotional materials. Language such as “We’ll serve this dish until we run out each day” or “limited stock available” sets realistic expectations for the customer.

“In addition, if you’re having a product introduction paired with a special event and you’re worried about crowd control, you might want to hand out tickets that guarantee a purchase. That way, when you do run out and people need to wait for the next shipment, they’ll have been warned,” Sanders explained.

Related: How to Raise Your Prices Without Driving Away Customers

Take orders

Some customers won’t even bother coming into your store or restaurant if they suspect you’ll run out of what they came for. Taking orders ahead of time will ensure your limited-supply items get into the hands of people who really want them and will make your customers feel like royalty, said Sanders.

“Let people reserve them in advance. Those people will feel quite special and have a commitment to come to your restaurant or store.”

If a customer asks for a product you’ve already run out of, offer to put in a special order, he suggested. While the customer might not take you up on it, they’ll appreciate the courtesy and be more inclined to come back again in the future.

“The idea of special ordering is an extraordinarily important tool for small- to mid-size retailers. It shows that they’ll go the extra mile for the customer,” said Sanders.

Related: How to Get Customers to Fall in Love With Your Brand

Explain why it’s out of stock


When a popular item or dish runs out, preserve your customers’ trust by explaining why you ran out and offering alternate options. (Photo: worradirek/Shutterstock)

Stock-outs can give the impression that your business isn’t capable of meeting customers’ expectations, but you can maintain your customers’ trust by explaining the reason you ran out of something, said Sanders.

“If the item is out of stock because you didn’t place a timely order, the supplier had production problems or there were shipping delays, you could explain this as a failure to anticipate the high demand rather than as a logistical problem,” he said.

Taking personal responsibility for an outage will also help reduce the customers’ outrage, added Sanders. Saying “I didn’t adequately anticipate…” rather than “We didn’t adequately anticipate…” humanizes the experience and reminds customers that you’re doing the best you can.

“Don’t leave that shopper with the impression that you’ve been a negligent retailer or restaurant owner,” Sanders continued. “Talk about it in a way that shows you’ve been competent and you truly regret that you’ve run out.”

Related: 5 Tips for Improving Your Restaurant’s Inventory Accuracy

Give them a timeframe

After finding out why an item is out of stock, the next question customers will probably ask is when you’re going to have it again. Give them a timeframe in which to expect it, said Sanders.

“Coach your store staff to sincerely empathize with the customers, and tell them when the next shipments are due.”

Offer alternatives

If a person came all the way to your store or restaurant for something particular that happens to be out of stock, don’t let them leave empty-handed. Suggest in-stock alternatives with similar features at a range of price points, said Sanders.

For instance, a blue pen might be an acceptable substitution for a customer in search of a black pen, or baked ziti could be a satisfying alternative to someone who came in craving the lasagna.

However, some customers (especially gift shoppers) will feel that they’re settling for second best by going with an alternative. Steering them toward a different product category altogether could leave them more satisfied.

“Find out why the individual wanted the original item,” said Sanders. “Then, point out something else in a different category that will provide those features. For example, if the customer chose an out-of-stock item because they wanted to personalize it for a gift, that can be a smooth segue to something else that can be personalized.”

Related: How to Boost Sales with Customized Products

Provide compensation

A little compensation can go a long way toward making good with a customer who’s especially upset that you’re out of the thing they came for.

“Give them a discount on an item or throw in a ancillary item, as long as it fits in with their other purchase. You could also offer complimentary training, if you usually charge for instruction on how to use an item,” said Sanders.

A restaurant owner should consider personally apologizing to a customer when they run out of something, and offering a freebie, such as a complementary appetizer or dessert, he added.

Even if you try to have beloved offerings in stock at all times, there’s always the chance that you’ll run out — it’s part of the nature of running a small business. By demonstrating empathy and keeping expectations realistic, you can minimize customer disappointment and encourage them to come back when your shelves are full.

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