To Be or Not to Be Transparent, Part 2

In part one, I shared my sordid story of buying a battery for my MacBook Pro from a third-party. In short, I went to and bought a battery on a recommendation from a colleague. Impatient to receive the battery for an upcoming business trip, I learned (only after the purchase) that the product was on back order.

I asked the question: did bury this information on its site to increase conversion? Well, the folks at read my story and sent me their official response.

    Hi Bryan,

    I saw your recent post and wanted to let you know that I’ve updated our site to make it clear that the item is currently sold out.

    It was not our intention to mislead anyone.

    If you have any other feedback just let us know…we do listen.

The change they made is clearly a step in the right direction. Take a look.

click to enlarge

When they finally made the change, it looked good and it will serve better than its previous version of this page. On the back end, in the account order status section, could use “back order” as an additional status instead of the “in-process” status that I got. could have done worse. We’ve all had much more unsavory buying experiences.

It also could have done much better.

In showing the follow-up e-mail around the office, some of my colleagues were more angry about’s short and almost defensive response. At the least, should have tried to save the sale, with some sort of offer to put a battery on hold for me until after they were in stock, or even offer a small discount if I came back. (Keep in mind, I’d still do business with Fastmac and continue to recommend the site to others. It’s just that I would like to share lessons learned from this one hiccup.)

Readers also felt should have done more on its site and in its response to the situation. Readers (many of them retailers) shared an assortment of opinions; most agreed that should have done more and that I wasn’t asking too much.

Here’s a spattering of the responses:

    I agree completely that the information about it being out of stock should be next to the add to cart button or in the shopping cart. However even if that information is presented, not all customers read it anyway. We put stock info right above the add to cart button, in the shopping cart, and give them an estimated ship date in the shopping cart and on the checkout confirmation page and the purchase receipt. In this situation you described it definitely should have been more clearly labeled, that is just misleading. — Keith Winter

    While their placement is certainly not choice, they did provide you with this information before you plunked down your $99. You simply chose not to read the whole page of info, so the burden really rests on you in this case in my opinion. — Rick Dendy

    I realize companies would still prefer to take the order even if it’s out of stock but why not make it clearer and add alternatives. Change the call to action language to “backorder” and add options to reserve without purchase or be notified when back in stock. This would probably save many of the sales they would have lost through being more transparent and, more importantly, it would not risk the brands reputation. — Brian Bond

    Though I would consider having availability status clearly posted a best practice, what bothers me most about your experience isn’t the lack of clear out of stock posting but the bad customer service. In a situation like this an email stating out of stock and estimated delivery time could have saved you waiting the week out in vain. — Karen Daniels

    Sure you can get a few conversions here and there from less than stellar service, but in the long run you lose. — MobyMom

    I was a little underwhelmed with the dry response you received from the customer service representative. It may as well have been written by an android. — Molly Martinez

And finally Pat, an online retailer, shared what his company does and why:

    We’ve set up all product pages to show either the quantity in inventory or the ‘product is out of stock’ message right next to the add to cart button. If a customer tries to add the items to cart, they get an out of stock message. We don’t allow backorders but we are working on adding functionality to ’email me when this item is back in stock’.

    I feel kinda strongly about this after placing an order last holiday season — it was for items that had to be personalized so the order took me forever to complete. Not once did the Web site mention that the items were all on back order. I happened to see an ‘estimated shipping date’ on the emailed invoice and called to find out about the backorder.

    That was sleazy.

The interesting thing about Pat’s story is what motivated him to make this a policy on his product pages — his own experience and ability to empathize for those in a similar situation on his own site. It’s a wonderful place to start optimizing. Think of the worst things you’ve experienced on other sites, and then make absolutely sure you aren’t committing the same crime on yours.

I’ll wrap up with more of reader Molly Martinez’s comment:

    Transparency is definitely a quality customers appreciate. And if companies don’t catch on to that, they are bound to lose customers in droves at a time.

Can I get an amen?

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