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Friday, Apr. 24, 2009 at 7:18 am

To Be or Not to Be Transparent?

By Bryan Eisenberg
April 24th, 2009

How far are you willing to go to convert a sale?

Would you be willing to lie? Cheat? Steal?

I didn’t think so. Most of us wouldn’t.

How about just ever so slightly burying a fact — one that’s essential and potentially harmful to your sales — at the bottom of the page?

Now you judge.

My Little Tale

One day several weeks ago, I noticed my Apple MacBook Pro laptop battery was driving toward a slow and painful death. As so often happens with those of us who use a laptop for a primary machine, we can often just wear the poor thing down to its lithium ion bones.

I started to talk about it a bit around the office, and got a very good recommendation from a colleague. He had purchased a battery made by a third-party for his MacBook Pro and was pleased with it. The battery was less expensive than the brand name manufacturer’s replacement and boasted a 50 percent plus higher capacity.

So week before last I got the URL from John, and with credit card in hand I went to FastMac.com, easily found the exact battery I needed, added it to my cart, and quickly completed an order. I bought it without even reading the product description; John’s good experience was sufficient enough for me to plop down $99 “sight unseen.” I can’t imagine I’m the only person who does this on occasion.

As you may already know, in the universe of Apple users, word of mouth travels far and fast. So you might also not be surprised to hear the news that at the time I bought the battery, it was completely sold out.

That would have been a nice thing to know before I handed over my credit card number.

This is the part of the story where my blood begins to simmer a bit, so please excuse me if my column starts to teem with a bit of anger.

You see, I needed this battery before I hit the road next week. So on Monday, I returned to the site to check the status of my order. I was a bit irked to find that my order still had not been shipped and was marked as “in process.”

Where’s Waldo?

Then I went on a hunt to determine exactly what was going on. I wanted my battery and I wanted it yesterday. After a little bit of time and diligence, I finally discovered that this particular laptop battery was out of stock until May.

In all fairness, technically, that information was on the Web site when I made the purchase.

Click on this thumbnail image or visit the page and see if you can find it.

Waldo was a little less elusive than this information.

Maybe it was easier for you to find it than me — even when I was intentionally looking for it. But I was never good at Waldo. Even if your visitors were award-winning Waldo hunters, you shouldn’t force them to scroll, squint, and break a sweat to find information important to their buying decision.

Additionally, I didn’t see this information anywhere in the checkout process.

Why did the team at FastMac.com place this information where they did? Did they think that simply placing it on the page means that people would actually read it? Do they have an actual technical challenge that somehow makes it difficult to place this information higher up on the page?

Maybe I’m jaded, but did they deliberately place it at the very bottom of the page to ensure better conversion? I have to ask, especially for a specialty e-commerce site like this with limited SKUs (define).

Here was my message to FastMac.com sales:

    I’d like to cancel my order #37959. When something is out of stock for as long as this is — you should let people know on the top of the page or near the add to cart button. I lost a week waiting to see what happened to my order and I had no idea the item was out of stock. I am extremely frustrated.

And here was FastMac’s response:

    Hi Bryan
    Thanks for contacting us.
    I am sorry for the inconvenience.
    I will inform our sales department regarding your experience and will make the necessary adjustments.
    I’ve also informed our accounting department and we cancelled your order.

    If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to send us an email

    Fastmac Customer Service

As of my writing, the page is exactly the same and they still haven’t followed my request to place the information near the “add to cart” button.

What Would You Have Done?

Am I overreacting? Am I the one to blame here? Should I have read the entire page before I hit “add to cart”?

What would your e-commerce site have done? Would you have been more transparent? How would you have responded to my contact form?

Was this a moral decision/situation? Where does a vendor’s obligation end and the customer’s responsibility begin?

How does your company handle decisions like this?

I’ll be happy to share what you share in my next column.

Add Your Comments

Comments (34)

  1. It is hard to see, and I think a lot of us do the same thing you did with not reading every last word on a page.

    I think from a moral stand point you need to be informed of an ETA for goods before you hand over payment detail , but from a legality standpoint, it was written on the page.

  2. Hi Bryan,

    Nice post. I loved the title as I just decided to open up my LinkedIn account for transparency sake. Seems it’s a hot topic even here, in Europe ;-)

    Personally, I’d make some online noise about your discontent and see if the company picks it up.
    Then you might send a follow-up mail to talk to them about Social Media and it’s measurement and whatnot. I’m sure you have enough down your sleeves to make sure others won’t experience the same frustration.

    On the more practical note, this kind of treatment of customers is really sad. Don’t they know their competitors are a click away?
    So, no, I really don’t think you’re over reacting!

    Keep up the battle, spread the love (of optimization) & enjoy the day,

    Aurélie

  3. I’ve set up my cart to not even display out of stock items to reduce just this kind of frustration. I think a lot of store leave these product page visible because it’s good SEO.

    Due to the fact that I deal with dropshippers, sometimes and item that I have listed as available is sold out by the time an order goes through but I try every means to get it to the customer ASAP and offer them something extra (a discount) for their troubles.

  4. I guess I am jaded another way, I am so use to e-commerce site that I am use to crap like this. Its annoying as hell, and isn’t it sad that anyone would say they “are use to crap like this”. I am sure there are people at Fastmac who have experienced something similar when buying things through an e-commerce site in the past you would thing they wouldn’t want to be like everyone else, but rather would want to be unique and better.

  5. I had nearly the exact same experience with Dell a few weeks back. Promised delivery dates pre-purchase, then inventory issues causing it to be changed 3 times, finally terrible customer service.

    I think transparency is key in this situation- As a business I think one would risk negative brand association for promising what one can’t deliver. At this point I don’t know if I’ll risk another Dell order (and that’s coming from a 10 year customer).

    The growing prevalence of oversees manufacturing and just-in-time inventory practices make this scenario all the more prevalent but in my mind it obligates the company to expose the inventory flow issues clearly to the visitor.

    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. My 2 cents.

  6. If they can note that it’s $10 off the regular price high up, they can note that it’s out of stock. … Unless, of course, the “special” sale price is really just the regular price.

  7. 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. Surprisingly we still get some customers who call us saying they thought it was in stock…we’ve even had customer claim it wasn’t there and we added it later from time to time! Can you believe it?

    However in this situation you described it definitely should have been more clearly labeled, that is just misleading.

  8. First of all, some Argh! Empathy- “Argh! That sucks!”

    I can think of a perfectly legit scenario where there is no hanky-panky involved, including how slow they are to fix it. The real problem is that it doesn’t matter if there is any hanky-panky involved or not- the fact is, it looks like there is. Or, at least it’s easy to jump to that conclusion.

    This is one of the reasons we’ve chosen not to outsource our product fulfillment. In the rare instances where we’ve goofed in a similar way, we’ve been able to have direct, immediate contact with the customer and make it up to them.

    Did you end up getting a different laptop batter in time?

  9. 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.

  10. I agree – it’s a sneaky tactic and should be much more visible. They would avoid many customer service issues and resentment by being upfront. Near the cart button in red bold writing – or remove the cart button altogether if out of stock in my opinion.

  11. Totally bad. I think it’s okay to display a page for items you are out of stock on (for future SEO when you ARE in stock) – but processing the credit card without clearly indicating you don’t have stock is way over the line.

  12. The availability status should be clearly labeled at the top of every product page. If it’s back-ordered, show how long the wait will be. That way, you can allow a customer to make their own decision. They can still place the order and wait, or not place the order at all.

    The fine print at the bottom of the page is deceptive and sneaky.

  13. 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 and of course they should have cancelled your order right away. To me, that is the bigger transgression.

  14. 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.
    The fact that their terms and policies were not obvious from the get-go is something they should definitely address. For the retail website I manage, ticketnetwork.com, our terms/policies and guarantee information and placed in a prominent location in the top-right of the event listing sites. Customers not only need the facts, they want the facts. Who wants to feel duped after they handed over their credit card information?
    Moreover, 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 adroid.
    While companies need hard capital to run a business, there is little cost to treating customers with respect and provide all the necessary information to make the customer feel satisfied about their purchase.
    No matter the business a person is running, if their operations don’t adhere to common business sense practices they will sink sooner that they can say “out of stock till 2010″.

  15. [...] people see it should be reflective of you and the industry easy to look at with a nice navigation when you can’t find what you want it causes frustration a clear Call to action to increase the temptation use appealing graphics they create motivation if [...]

  16. [...] part one, I shared my sordid story of buying a battery for my MacBook Pro from a third-party. In short, I [...]

  17. [...] part one, I shared my sordid story of buying a battery for my MacBook Pro from a third-party. In short, I [...]

  18. The title is so well put it made me read your entire post without missing a thing.

    Regards,

  19. Happy to discover you on Mac too :) Hope retailers can get insights from this simples kinds of feedback.

  20. I have been having problems with FastMac also. I ordered mine in the middle of April, when the website said it wouldn’t be available until the first of May. The first of May came and no shipping notice, so I called and was told they were only able to get a limited number every 2 weeks from their overseas manufacturer. They assured me I was in the queue for the next shipment. The 3rd week of May came and still no info. I called and once again was told I was near the head of the queue. I was assured that as of today I should receive a shipping notice. Nothing yet. In the beginning, I was willing to wait the 15-30 days to get a battery that had great reviews. Now I am just upset and will probably cancel, however if they are leading customers like me on, I double a cancel will cause them any heartburn.

  21. Good Article , I want to translate it into Chinese and put it on my blog.

  22. Good to see that your comments have made an impact – if you check the site page now the out of stock message is in red at the top. Of course that means that when I looked the item was still not available.

  23. Hi…
    It seems that you have pointed out something that is becoming common for all the people in Europe. Surely its not possible to read the whole page.If It is out of stock then they should have deleted it or may highlight it indicating out of stock.

  24. Transparency is important with e-commerce. But we also do have to demand accountability on behalf of customers as well. I’m not saying you should have known it was out of stock. You were going on a recommendation and that is slightly different. But overall, as a customer you need to know what you’re buying. Both parties have to work at making sure the transaction is what they each want.

  25. I agree that transparency is important in todays internet world. The compromise is keeping things fair for both parties.

  26. I agree that transparency is important in todays internet world. The compromise is keeping things fair for both parties.

  27. This is the part of the story where my blood begins to simmer a bit, so please excuse me if my column starts to teem with a bit of anger.

  28. thankyou. for sharing

  29. Hi Bryan,

    I don’t think you are overreacting. Actually, I can understand why you mentioned about lie and cheat at the beginning. If I were you and experienced a such terrible episode, I would have the same feeling with you.

  30. I agree that transparency is important in todays internet world. The compromise is keeping things fair for both parties.

  31. I don’t think you are overreacting. Actually, I can understand why you mentioned about lie and cheat at the beginning. If I were you and experienced a such terrible episode, I would have the same feeling with you.

  32. cheers for sharing this, tis very useful!

  33. when you deal with sales people it is common that they “massage the truth”, i’ve always implemented in sales or affiliate programs a strict monitoring of such practices and sometimes you have to make examples out of people

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Bryan Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark and Always Be Testing. You can friend him on Facebook or Twitter.

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