Combating Backorders Before the Book Drops

To make sure it had enough of its most popular products in stock for the holiday season, Dodgeville, WI-based cataloger Lands’ End increased some of its inventory quantities. “We’ve made a large investment to make sure that we had high levels of inventory available for items such as our turtlenecks, down parkas, hikers, and mesh polos,” says spokesperson Emily Leuthner.

Still, the Lands’ End Last Chance 2001 Holiday catalog featured at least 11 items — including boots, shoes, and gloves — labeled “Sorry, Not Available.” Leuthner says these products are not discontinued but on backorder. “There are always products for one reason or another that end up being more popular than we anticipated,” she says.

Since it was too late in the production schedule to remove the items from the catalog, Lands’ End chose to label them with the “Sorry” message to let customers know the items were on backorder up front. On one item — a men’s blue pinpoint oxford shirt — a message indicates “Available 1/10.” While all of the backordered product in the holiday book had been reordered, Lands’ End could provide a specific arrival date only for the oxford shirts because they had previously been quality-checked and approved.

According to Carol Worthington Levy, creative director of San Jose, CA-based consultancy Worthington Levy Creative, Lands’ End took a risk by labeling the backordered products. “While consumers no doubt appreciate the honesty, it may be disappointing to them to find so many items unavailable,” Levy says.

Instead, Levy recommends that catalogers use backorder situations to create a dialogue with the customer: “Instead of saying the item isn’t available, a catalog can just as easily ask the customers to call for availability on that product.” The telephone reps can then suggest alternatives to the backordered item.

For example, Levy says Talbots will recommend an alternative item if a product is not in stock. If the customer chooses the alternative item, she will receive 10% off the purchase price. The apparel mailer “would rather lose 10% off one item than lose the sale altogether,” Levy says.

You can also direct consumers from the catalog to the Website with a message such as “Limited availability; check Website for inventory status,” Levy says. “This gives the cataloger a chance to offer the real-time availability of the item on the Website and a chance to recommend other items if the product is not in stock,” with links to the recommended items. And the cross-channel strategy could serve another purpose: “It could make a Web shopper out of a customer who had never shopped from your Website.”

But not everyone agrees that labeling a backordered catalog product “unavailable” is a bad idea. “Particularly during the holidays, when customers are very stressed, it’s disappointing for them to call a catalog only to find out their gift choices are not in stock,” says San Francisco-based merchandise consultant Kathleen Schultz. “This way, customers can find another item before they call.”

Of course, your best bet is to scramble to get backordered product back in stock any way you can to save the sale. “Sometimes catalogers can find other vendors to supply their merchandise” Schultz says, “but in the case of exclusive product, you don’t have a lot of flexibility.”

And in this economy, many catalogers may have underestimated how well some of their items would sell. “I think that this season it has probably been very difficult to project out inventory numbers,” Schultz says.