In theory, you’d want your ecommerce stock levels to always be at full capacity so you never risk missing out on a sale. But then that rascal Adam Smith came along and ruined everything with the theory of supply and demand. On the heels of that came the Scarcity Principle, which then bled into sales marketing, which then adapted itself into ecommerce. The result: an array ecommerce trends that keep stock levels low on purpose!
It’s not just an economics principle, but one that applies to psychology, social sciences, and even dating. But perhaps the best way to explain how it works is… cookies.
In 1975, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a ground-breaking study that proved the powerful effects of scarcity on supply and demand. In the study, the scientists offered subjects identical cookies from two different jars: one jar full of ten cookies, the other nearly empty with only two. As you can guess, the subjects chose the jar with less and rated those cookies as more desirable.
It makes sense when you break it down: scarcity implies that other people have already given preference to the object (or product, or person), thereby insinuating value through social proof.
When online marketers caught wind of this, it led to a whole wave of ecommerce trends, such as ticking-clock time limits, special deals on buying immediately, and — getting to our point — showing low ecommerce stock levels. Past A/B tests evidenced its success, with revenue increases of 9% on page layouts that raised urgency over those that didn’t.
But there’s more to it than just customer perception — less inventory is more economical, especially for SMBs. As Professor of Marketing Neil Kokemuller points out, keeping stock levels low means less holdings costs and more usable cash for other business ventures. It also makes products easier to organize and keep track of, especially with the variety of inventory management ecommerce tools available.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to best use ecommerce stock levels to boost sales. There’s a subtle art to generating urgency without drawing a backlash, so below we explain some modern tactics that would make old Adam Smith blush.
Showing Ecommerce Stock Levels to Increase Sales
Before we get into the more advanced tactics, let’s just review the basics: be honest about your stock levels on the product page.
Displaying ecommerce stock levels can be a strategic advantage; that’s how it became one of those ecommerce trends you see almost everywhere. Naturally, different approaches have emerged. C&I takes a straightforward approach, telling exactly how many items are left...
… while J. Crew acts a little more coy, using ambiguous wording to play on the shopper’s imagination:
Whether or not you give an exact number is up to you, but either way your shoppers are going to want some indicator of the stock level… and you can use that to your advantage to encourage a sale.
5 Advanced Tactics for Displaying Ecommerce Stock Levels
1. Not Just Product Pages
Urgency is about raising alarms (but not in an obnoxious way). That means repetition, drawing attention, and above all repetition! While you certainly want to mention a low stock level on the product page where it’s most important, it’s also useful to mention it on the catalogue page, in the shopping cart, during checkout — even in the features on the home page.
Checkout is especially important. As we mentioned in our piece on the best ways to prevent cart abandonment, just under 70% of all shoppers abandon their carts on average, especially during the checkout. Reminding shoppers about the low stock quantity once more at checkout reiterates all the benefits of scarcity at a time when they’re needed most.
Franklin Planner brings up their ecommerce stock levels again and again, on the product page with an exact number, and then a more vague reminder first in the cart, and then once more during checkout. Aside from the product page, they’re low-key about it, which is probably the best route to avoid being overbearing if you’re mentioning it over and over.
How you talk about your ecommerce stock levels can make them even more influential. Phrasing alters the level of urgency; you see this on the news every day, but it’s equally applicable to marketing.
Try using these nuanced key words to give your stock quantities a little more power:
- only (Only X items left!)
- just (Just X remaining!)
- a few (Only a few left!)
Even adding an exclamation point at the end raises urgency — after all, that’s one of this punctuation mark’s main duties. Compare the difference between:
Only 3 left in stock.
Only 3 left in stock!
Typography, too, can make a world of difference. If you list your stock levels for every product, try changing those with low stock to red to give them extra attention. Additional flourishes like italics or bold work well, too. Just don’t make it too flamboyant, or you’ll face backlash (see #4).
3. Products That Will Be Discontinued Soon
Related to wording, framing can also make a big difference in online marketing. For example, take a product that’s performing so poorly you’ve decided to discontinue it. To unload the remaining stock, try framing the product in a way that utilizes the scarcity principle.
For starters, you want to avoid admitting that the product is underwhelming while still announcing that it will be discontinued and unavailable. In other words, you don’t need to say why the product will no longer be available to create urgency, it’s enough just to know that it will be.
Stampin’ Up!, an online store dedicated to cards, stationery, and general paper crafts, incorporates this strategy into their everyday business. They cleverly use the euphemism “retiring products” and tack on a discount for extra incentive.
4. Beware Backlash
Let’s go Inception for a second: marketers know that scarcity appeals to shoppers, but shoppers know that marketers know that scarcity appeals to them. As you might expect, this rubs them the wrong way, and a 2014 study in the Social Behavior and Personality showed that, if consumers suspect that a company is using scarcity as a sales tactic, it negates its effects and gives the brand a negative connotation.
We want to warn against being too aggressive or over-the-top with how your present your ecommerce stock levels. Tact is something you can take to the bank in every business.
It should go without saying, but don’t lie to your customers about low stock levels or discontinuing products. It’s not as foolproof as you might think, and if you’re caught in your lie, you not only lose a customer forever, but face repercussions on social media. (Also, you know, don’t lie for the sake of being a good person.)
Even if you’re being honest about your stock levels, don’t go overboard about it. You can mention it repeatedly, but try to keep it unobtrusive, as the Franklin Planner example in #1.
5. To Out of Stock or Not to Out of Stock
Take the scarcity principle to its logical extreme and you have an item that’s straight up Out of Stock. The question is, do you keep the item on your site with an Out of Stock notice, or remove it completely until the inventory is replenished?
Jonathan from Long Live the Internet wrote an excellent and well-thought-out article weighing the pros and cons of each. Essentially, the advantage of keeping an Out of Stock item on your site are:
- the same benefits of the scarcity principles (i.e., it shows the item was popular, thus raising its perceived value)
- a future potential sale if you have a notification system for when the inventory is replenished
- retaining all the external links back to the product page; if you take the product page down, any links to it on social media or other sites will die
However, there are downsides as well:
- it makes the vendor seem unprofessional, or incompetent at properly managing inventory
- multiple out of stock products make shopping frustrating and create a detrimental UX
All told, there is no single right or wrong solution. You’ll want to consider factors like:
- whether the shopper can backorder a product
- how many total products are out of stock on the entire site
- how popular the product is
- how many external links back to the product page there are
- how long before you can replenish your stock
So, in short, you’ll want to make the decision for displaying Out of Stock products on a case-by-case basis.
As if worrying about inventory levels in general weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about how you present inventory levels. On the bright side, when used effectively, stock level displays can improve your sales by adding a sense of urgency. So in the end, this extra attention to detail pays off.