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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Understanding PC Sources, Vendors and Prices | Vendor Evaluation Factors | Pricing, Selection and Stock ]

Stock Levels And Out-of-Stock Policy

Some vendors have better selection than others. There's a big difference, however, between listing something as "for sale", and actually having the item available to ship. If you need the item in a hurry, you want it to ship immediately. Companies often differ substantially in terms of how well they keep popular items in stock.

Most retail stores keep all the items they sell in stock if they can. If an item is out of stock they will usually (but not always) be able to give you an approximate date when the item will show up; replenishment orders are normally on a schedule. Ask if they would be willing to call you when it shows up. That's pretty much it for retail stores, and that's one of their main attractions to impulse and "gottahaveitnow" buyers.

With online vendors it can be quite different. The market changes so frequently and costs for carrying inventory are so high, that many companies try to pare inventory levels to the bone; some don't keep any inventory at all, any more. This is why you have to take specific steps to verify what, if anything, the company actually has in stock when you order. That's especially so if you are in a hurry. See this section for more on order stock confirmation.

If you are concerned with prompt order filling, the biggest customer service feature to look for is a phone number (preferably toll-free) that you can use to call and ask about stock status. Failing that, you are stuck with placing your order and "hoping for the best". Since a big problem with many online vendors is that they have web sites that say items are in stock when they really are not, this is unwise if you need the item in a hurry. (See this section on web site accuracy).

You should always find out in advance a company's policy on handling out-of-stock ("backordered") items. This is especially so if you decide to order knowing the item is out of stock, or if you don't verify the stock level before placing the order:

  • Handling "Oopsies": If you place an order for an item that is supposed to be in stock and it isn't, what does the company do? Amazingly, many vendors will just backorder the item and not even tell you! Doing business with companies that do this can be frustrating, to say the least. You want a vendor that will send you email or call you if an item is not in stock when they said it would be. At the very least, you should be able to check the status of the order online in some way.
  • Cancellation: Some companies will automatically cancel a backordered item if it stays in their system for more than 30 days (or some other number) unless you tell them that you want the item to remain on order. Other vendors are the opposite: they will keep the item on backorder for a very long time unless you tell them to cancel it. I believe a Federal law in the U.S. prevents companies from just leaving items on backorder indefinitely without notification of some sort.
  • Substitution: Some vendors have a "substitution" policy for certain items. While the sound of this might make you cringe, it often works to the customer's advantage. Companies know they can't substitute something worse than the customer ordered without causing them to be upset or to return the product, so they will often substitute something better instead: for example, a faster CD-ROM drive, or a slightly larger hard disk drive. Just make sure to find out what they are proposing as an alternative (and if it's not what you want, don't accept it!)
  • Shipping Charges: Traditionally, most online and catalog companies charged shipping once and then sent any backordered item at their own expense. This is still the standard you should look for in an online vendor. Some vendors, even large popular ones, will tack on fresh shipping charges with every physical shipment--find out before you finalize the order.

Next: Price Matching

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