What is a Backorder? Meaning + How to Deal With Backorders Without Losing Customers


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It happens when that long-awaited item finally drops. 

It happens when you’re shopping a must-have Black Friday deal that everyone else wants. 

And sometimes it happens during a regular online shopping experience. 

Backorders — an inconvenience in our gotta-have-it-now world. Just when you’re ready to pull out your credit card, you learn of an item’s backorder status. As a consumer, do you buy it now and deal with the wait? Or do you go somewhere else? 

If you run an ecommerce store, how do you improve inventory management and the overall customer experience by reducing backorders or handling them gracefully? We’ll walk you through that and more in this article.

What does a backorder mean?

An item on backorder is an out of stock product that is expected to be delivered by a certain date once it is back in stock. Businesses will often still sell products on backorder with the guarantee to ship them to the buyer once their inventory has been replenished.

Backordering an item means the shopper can buy the item now and receive it at a future date when the item is in stock and available. When an order contains a backordered item, it can’t be packed and shipped immediately given the lack of physical inventory at the time. If there are other items in the same order that are in stock, the order may be split and shipped at different times, with the backordered items being shipping at a later date.

Backorder vs. out of stock

Out of stock means that a product does not currently have any inventory available and does not have a date for resupply, while ‘backordered’ implies there is a determined date for products to arrive. 

It’s the difference between “This item is currently unavailable” and “This item won’t ship [until 2 weeks from now, for 10 business days, etc.].” In other words, there is hope in the foreseeable future with a backorder. It might take a while, but you will receive the product. 

When a product is ‘out of stock,’ there’s a chance that’s the case permanently, or at least will be for so long that the seller can’t predict when they will have it again. 

What causes backorders?

Backorders occur for a variety of reasons — some of which are preventable and others that are simply out of your control. 

1. Unusual demand

When demand for an item or traffic to an online store is irregularly high, backorders are likely to occur. This can be due to seasonality, a television appearance, a viral moment, being named to an exclusive list, having a celebrity post about your product to their massive following, and even through an introduction of a new sales channel that increased visibility.

2. Low safety stock

Safety stock is the excess product you keep on hand in case of an emergency or supply chain failure that causes less than average inventory to be available. If a product’s safety stock was not prepared or counted correctly, you may experience backorders due to insufficient stock levels (even to handle regular demand).

3. Manufacturer or supplier problem

If your manufacturer or supplier runs out of a material they needed to make your goods, is shut down for an extended period of time (e.g., for Chinese New Year), or otherwise cannot hit production goals in time, your store may face backorders. 

5 tips for minimizing backorders

While backorders are dreaded, unplanned, and sometimes inevitable, there are certain stock control measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of them occurring. 

1. Set safety stock

Ecommerce business owners need to have an inventory management system that keeps track of in stock products in real time before you disappoint any of your customers. You can do your best to forecast demand and sales orders by setting a safety stock point that is high enough to cover unusual demand or supplier problems. Keeping excess stock on hand, paired with real-time inventory tracking and proactive inventory replenishment can help prevent you from running out of any given SKU.

2. Calculate and set reorder points

A reorder point is the minimum quantity of any SKU that a business should have on hand before they need to reorder more products from their manufacturer. The reorder point formula is simply adding up your lead time demand and safety stock in days.

Ecommerce fulfillment providers like ShipBob have built-in technology that lets you easily calculate and establish reorder points for each product and also alert you when it’s time to get more inventory to their warehouses. Reorder points kick in once your stock hits that predetermined level to help prevent backorders. 

Of course, you need to account for any major upcoming promotions, flash sales, media coverage, and product launches as well as use historical order data and increase your reorder quantity if you plan on selling faster than normal. For example, it you double typical sales leading up to Boxing Day, you will need to order more inventory and/or order additional inventory quicker or risk losing sales on the hottest buying day of the year.

Popular items may sell out quickly, so make sure you keep an eye on their specific stock levels. In the world of ecommerce, nothing ever goes 100% according to plan, so be sure to keep close tabs on inventory to inform purchase order decisions. 

4. Have multiple suppliers

Working with multiple suppliers has its advantages, as backups can become available in the event that your primary manufacturer can’t produce in time. 

5. Order more product

The right amount of safety stock makes the best use of your inventory storage system and capital. You could always avoid stockouts by ordering huge amounts of product, but that can also clog up your storage space, increase your inventory carrying costs , and backorder costs, which ties up money you could be spending more strategically, elsewhere.

Note: The carrying cost of inventory will depend on your products and storage needs, your total number of SKUs, your location, your inventory turnover rate, and whether you keep fulfillment in-house or outsource it. Calculate how much more money it would cost you on top of the per-unit price on the purchase order. 

Don’t lose your customers due to backorders

Customers can navigate to a competitor’s website faster than if they were window shopping at brick-and-mortar shops. When they encounter something they don’t like (expensive shipping, long transit times, out of stock items, and other causes of cart abandonment), you risk not only that customer order but their lifetime value as well.

Notify them

Notify shoppers that there is not only a stockout, but also provide the date you expect the inventory to become available again. Communication is key, and the product page is the place to do it. Don’t let customers keep shopping on your site only to find they can’t buy it when attempting to check out. 

Give manageable ETAs

Post an estimated time of arrival for your products so customers aren’t left in the dark. 

Set up an email list

Collect email addresses on the product page for those who want to be notified once the product is back in stock. Capturing this intent using the scarcity principle (this item is sold out — it goes fast!) is a huge opportunity to build excitement and create a sense of urgency once the product is available again.

Send emails once restocked

The most important part of having an email list is to send them the right message. Email any interested shoppers once stock has arrived and you’ve fulfilled any backordered orders for customers who have already paid. Here are some other ideas on how to keep customers engaged through email. 

Say goodbye to backorders and get help from ShipBob

ShipBob’s retail fulfillment services and ecommerce inventory tools allow you to view real-time tracking of stock levels, set reorder points and safety stock, and use historical data to get insights into your best-selling SKUs, inventory velocity, optimal distribution, and more — all while shipping your orders quickly to deliver the best customer experience.

The bottom line is that, in the event that you experience backordered products, we’ll help you get them fulfilled as soon as your inventory is received.

Written By:

Kristina is the Director of Marketing Communications at ShipBob, where she writes various articles, case studies, and other resources to help ecommerce brands grow their business.

Read all posts written by Kristina Lopienski