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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:
Next: Price Matching