How Adding A Simple Shopping Cart Out Of Stock Tracking Feature Saved A $2500 Order

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One of the big advantages of using an open source shopping cart versus a fully hosted one is that you have access to the source code.

As a result, you have the freedom to add new features and whatever modifications you need provided you aren’t afraid to tinker with the code.

cashIf you are not happy with the way your products are priced, configured, organized or displayed, you can make fundamental changes to your site.

If you want to track specific customer behavior in your shopping cart, you can alter your database structure.

The main problem with fully hosted solutions is that they are designed to cater to the masses and the lowest common denominator. So if you need anything custom implemented for your shop, you’re most likely out of luck. Best case scenario, you can make a new feature request and pray that it gets added in their next release.

Since I’m using an open source shopping cart, I thought that I’d share with you some very trivial changes that I’ve made to my website recently that have increased sales. There’s nothing mind blowing about these changes, but they are some little things that have allowed me to lock in some very large orders that I probably would have lost.

The Out Of Stock Tracker

out of stock
When you run an online store, it can be very frustrating when a customer lands on your website, finds exactly what they are looking for, but then can’t complete their order because you don’t have enough stock of their item.

As a neurotic and anal retentive shop owner, I often like to observe (or “stalk” as my wife puts it) the shopping behavior of my customers in real time. And 70-80% of the time when a customer finds that an item is out of stock, they simply leave and move on.

Quick Note: Out of stock in this context means that there isn’t enough stock to fulfill a customer’s entire requirement, not the fact that I have 0 quantity. For example, event planners who shop at our store often need many pieces of our linens and it’s usually all or nothing.

Needless to say, this is not what you want happening. Ideally, you should contact the customer and suggest a similar product. You should get more information about their deadline in order to take a back order.

As a shop that caters to the wedding industry, the best possible scenario is to get the customer on the phone and/or to establish contact via email. But unfortunately, there’s no easy way to correlate out of stock products to specific customers with most shopping carts.

So after watching countless customers abandon our shop this way, I finally decided to make a few changes. The first thing I did was to start tracking all out of stock products added to the shopping cart and correlate them with a specific customer.

Since I already track customers who abandon their shopping carts during the first steps of checkout, adding this new feature was fairly trivial. But I found that it wasn’t good enough. Even though I knew which products were in demand, I needed this information in real time so that I could react.

So finally, I decided to modify my shopping cart to automatically send me an email whenever a customer tried to buy an item that we didn’t have enough stock on. And if they were logged in, the email would also contain the customer’s full contact information.

This Feature In Practice

Within 3 days of this feature going live, we had a well known event planner shop for napkins on our website. In fact, she was in charge of planning a wedding for a famous celebrity who just got married recently. Anyways, this customer tried to insert 100 dozen of one our napkin styles into her shopping cart.

But here’s the thing. Even though we actually had more than 100 dozen in our warehouse, there was an inventory mismatch in our system so our shopping cart said that we didn’t have enough quantity to meet her needs.

Fortunately, this customer was in our database so when my shopping cart sent out an email alerting us of the situation, my wife was able to take immediate action. Within minutes, my wife had the event planner on the phone and salvaged a $2500+ order.

Without this alert, we would have been completely oblivious and might have lost this fairly sizable order.

The Big Fish Alert

fire alarm
In any case, all it took was this one example to set my brain in motion. How many other large orders have we lost as a result of simply not paying attention at the right time? Unlike a brick and mortar store where there’s actual customer interaction, with an online store all information is lost unless it is specifically tracked.

So I had another epiphany. A good portion of the yearly revenues for our online store come through large bulk purchases from event planners. Why not send out an email alert whenever there’s a potential large order in the store?

It’s a very trivial change and it would allow someone to pay specific attention to the customer list whenever a large transaction was in play.

So within 20 minutes, I added another feature to my shop which I dubbed “the big fish” alert. Whenever a customer added goods totaling over $500, an email alert would be sent out along with customer information (if in the system), the products in their cart and their IP address.

By physically monitoring the shop when large customers were in the store (most likely event planners), we could be extra vigilant in case there were any hiccups or questions with the transaction.

Further Enhancements

live chat

Thus far, one of the big disadvantages of my new alert features is that there’s no way of contacting customers unless I already have their information in my database. In the case of the “out of stock” alert, this issue could be solved by allowing a customer to checkout regardless of inventory levels and then contacting them later but that solution seems a bit sleazy to me.

In my mind, the best way to solve this problem is to have some way of communicating with stuck customers in real time without requiring their contact info. So on my list of to-dos is to implement a feature to selectively pop up a live chat window only to specific customers.

For example, let’s say a big fish is stuck in a specific step during the checkout process. I could have a very subtle chat window popup in the lower right corner of the screen asking if they need any assistance with their order.

This chat window would not be visible all the time but could be selectively used to interact with specific customers in the store. After all, sometimes a customer just has a simple question but is reluctant to make a phone call. Sometimes a customer just wants to know the approximate delivery time.

The sooner you can answer their questions, the more likely you’ll be able to close the sale. In any case, I’m still in the process of researching software packages to implement this feature so I’ll keep you posted on my progress. I also want to implement it in such a way that the customer is not creeped out either:)

Blurring The Lines Between Online And Brick and Mortar

One of the main disadvantages of an online store over a brick and mortar store is the lack of customer interaction. As a result, you could be shedding customers in your online store and have absolutely no idea that it is happening.

Especially with some of the larger purchases in my shop, I’ve found that it’s always best to interact with a customer on the phone or via email in order to facilitate larger sales. In my mind, the features that I’ve added make an attempt to make my online store more like a traditional brick and mortar store.

The sooner you realize when a customer requires some assistance the better you’ll be able to close the sale. What do you think?

photo credit: 401(K) 2013 selva Vippman

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10 thoughts on “How Adding A Simple Shopping Cart Out Of Stock Tracking Feature Saved A $2500 Order”

  1. Some really great tips fro people who run ecommerce sites here Steve! I bet that one little email alert tip you have introduced could turn out to make you a whole lot of money over the space of a year.

    1. Thanks Jamie,
      It certainly has paid its dividends already:) I’m hoping to get the live chat up sometime later this year but I’m sort of in a debate with my wife at the moment about the details.

  2. Tracy Miln says:

    I’m not sure how useful this feature would be for my shop since it’s specific to yours. I don’t think it would help me much. But how did you add the code? Is it easy to do?

    1. Hi Tracy,
      The fact that the feature is specific to my online store is actually one of the points of the article. Most carts out of the box are not going to have support for your store’s specific needs which is why it’s nice to have the ability to customize. Which shopping cart are you on? The code for mine was pretty trivial to implement

  3. Travis says:

    Great article. In regards to the “Out of Stock” message, the first thing I thought of was a live chat option. Sounds like you’re already looking into that. I’ve had pretty good success with live chat on my site. Perhaps someone doesn’t want to call because they are at work, the kids or sleeping, or maybe they just think they’ll get through faster with chat instead of waiting on hold. We have big ticket services (all inclusive hotel stays), so sometimes people just want to chat real quick to make sure we are a real company before they put in their cc info.

    I’m curious what else could be done for your out of stock issues…

    – If you are actually out of stock, or under stocked, how long does it take you to get a shipment from your supplier? If a shipment takes 3 days, perhaps instead of saying “Out of Stock” the message says “Please allow 3-5 days extra shipping time” or something to that effect. Or tell them the exact day the order will ship, including the extra delay. That way you are never actually out of stock. Most things could be shipped same/next day. For others, maybe a few extra days. I know on Amazon sometimes it has an extra shipping delay. “Processing takes an additional 4 to 5 days for this item.” (Or perhaps it takes weeks to get a shipment and this isn’t really an option.)

    – Could you have a restocking date? “Our next shipment for this item will be on Tuesday, May 11. Place an order now and it will be shipped the day (maybe day after?) we receive our shipment.”

    – If an item is out of stock, perhaps allow the customer to fill out a request form with their contact info, quantity of the item they need, etc. and then get back to them asap with when you expect you can fulfill the order. Also, be clear when you will contact them so they know it will be handled quickly. “We will check with our supplier and let you know within the next X hours when we can ship Y quantity of this item.”

    Anyway, just a few ideas…

    1. Hey Travis,

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry it took me so long to respond. For some reason I didn’t get an email when you left a comment.

      So when something is out of stock in our store, the lead time varies from as little as 2 or 3 days all the way up to 4 months. Sometimes it’s unpredictable so unfortunately we can’t provide a restocking estimate. Definitely something to consider though for certain items.

      Your 3rd suggestion is essentially the same as allowing a customer to checkout even though goods are out of stock. I’m generally opposed to doing that because it involves potentially a lot more customer contact which I’m not sure we’d be prepared for. Awesome suggestions!

      1. Travis says:

        Hmm, that’s disappointing about the lead times varying so much.

        I am certainly opposed to accepting un-fillable orders as well. That would be like me allowing hotel rooms to be booked even though I know they are sold out. Definitely a bad business practice.

        As for the 3rd suggestion, it wouldn’t actually let them place an order. It would just be a form where they could enter their name and contact info, but no credit card info. Think of it more as a lead generator than an order form. The person is interested in the product and is giving you their name, phone/email, and what quantity of the product they would like to purchase. Instead of calling you or using live chat (both of which have certain hours of operation), they could fill out the form instead. It’s a little more professional than just giving them an email address to contact you, plus you’ll already know what product they want based on the product page they’re on. And if you get a bunch of request forms for a certain product, you know that’s one you need to stock in much larger quantities.

  4. Craig says:

    Great idea Steve. Its bringing e commerce to the next level. I’m sure you will get more sales with it.

  5. This is an amazing idea. Being alerted when a customer has an issue to be able to interact with him live can no doubt increase conversion rates. I wonder if there is some way to apply this to affiliate marketing too.

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