How to combine multiple physical shops and an online catalog within one website
March 9, 2009 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Can you think of any examples of a retailer that has both a chain of physical stores and a "shop online" section? I've been helping out a friend who owns a knitting store with his website, and now that he's expanding I think we need to rethink the way his site works. I'm just wondering how other people organise things like stock levels when more than one physical location is involved.

The existing setup we have is that there is one physical bricks-and-mortar, and orders for the "online shop" are filled from there. Customers know that the stock levels shown on the website are what is physically present in the Sydney store. Now we're going to throw a couple more shops into the mix. The orders will still be filled out of the main Sydney store though, so I'm unsure whether to show multiple stock levels, just the Sydney level (along with a disclaimer), or a combined stock level (again with a disclaimer).

Also, there are plenty of mega-retail chains where the site is just all about the online catalog and the list of locations is relegated to a link in the corner. This business is a lot smaller than that, and we'd like to emphasize the character of the individual shops. The only good example I can find is Tessuti Fabrics. They make it clear in their online catalog that the stock levels only refer to one of their locations.

So, can anybody think of any similar examples? I'd like to see how other people tackle the issue.

(Incidentally, I wasn't sure whether to list this under "computers & internet" or "shopping." I'm guessing the "computers" folks might be more useful in terms of the UI issues.)
posted by web-goddess to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well often stores that have multiple physical locations setup stock transfer systems anyway, where stock can be transferred simply from Store A to Store B. So if that's going to be the case for him then he could just show Sydney stock level and perhaps with a note when Sydney has no stock that it will come from another location or something.
posted by sycophant at 12:18 AM on March 9, 2009

Powell's City of Books has multiple locations. The large university bookstore in my city also does. So they kinda have a situation similar to yours.

Powell's' website lists the quantities at each location. Their locations are mostly specialized by subject, though, so a book would typically only be at one location plus at their warehouse. This seems like a good way to do it, esp. if you're selling stuff that someone might want to see/feel in person before buying.
posted by hattifattener at 12:20 AM on March 9, 2009

(Another similar thing— again, with books; can you guess what kind of thing I most frequently buy online?— is book meta-searches like ABEbooks and Bookfinder; they're providing a single ecommerce interface to a large number of completely independent physical bookstores.)
posted by hattifattener at 12:25 AM on March 9, 2009

Response by poster: I doubt there will be regular stock transfers between Sydney and Melbourne, sycophant. We've toyed with the idea of having the orders be fulfilled from either store, but Sydney will have way more stock and anyway, we're talking about a system that involves a shop assistant physically printing out each order and filling it. Having the orders go multiple places is probably too complicated for them right now.

I guess the problem with using the book metaphor is that you're unlikely to want to buy more than one of any given title, so it's easy to ship an order in multiple pieces. When somebody buys knitting wool, they generally need to buy the whole quantity all at once from one location. (If you don't get them all from the same "dye lot," it can mess up your finished garment.) So it's no good saying that we have 40 balls in stock when 20 are in Sydney and 20 are in Melbourne, because somebody is sure to need 25.

Thanks for the ideas so far...
posted by web-goddess at 2:26 AM on March 9, 2009

I guess I would also go for the simple route and ask a basic question: why do you worry about showing stock from multiple locations anyway? What's the hypothesis?

Is it because you're worried you'll be out of stock in Sydney, and miss a sale? Well, you say that Sydney will be much bigger, so I'd run a simulation to see how many missed sales you would have if you DIDN'T show both stock levels.

So: are the missed sales worth the development time?
posted by mtstover at 3:21 AM on March 9, 2009

A few corporate stores in the US deal with this by allowing the user to enter a zipcode and returning stock levels at the nearest stores. is one of these. (Go to a product detail page and you'll see: FIND & RESERVE AN IN-STORE COPY, with a form to enter your postal code.) So you could always allow users to look at inventory on a store by store basis and just hide the online ordering inventory.
posted by miniape at 6:59 AM on March 9, 2009

Best answer: I'd suggest showing the quantity available in each store, plus a separate "quantity available online". For now this would always be the same as the quantity in the store you ship from, but if you change business processes later (e.g. to ship from other locations if the main one is out of stock) you can easily show the appropriate quantity available online. Then your customers who want to come into the store can see if it's worth the trip for something they want, and your customers who order online don't have to understand how you run your online business internally.
posted by FishBike at 7:23 AM on March 9, 2009

I had programmed an online store for a quilting shop and a related sewing shop a few years ago. They did not actually display the stock level online. Instead, the product was either "available" or "not available". I notice that the actual wording on Tessuti is this:
The Tessuti Online Fabric Store is run out of our Surry Hills shop only. If you would like to view the fabrics that you’ve seen in our online shop, please visit or direct your enquiries to our Surry Hills fabric store only.
I didn't actually see the actual stock level displayed when I glanced at their store, though I only skimmed it very quickly and may have missed it.

My recommendation is, if you can sell it, show it. If you can't sell it, don't show it. If you can sell it but with a backorder or delay, show it with a notation to that effect. But it may not be necessary to display to your online customers the actual quantities on-hand.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:44 AM on March 9, 2009

I'd consider going to your local library and seeing if they are involved in a library network. Your local library has books, and at least locally, the surrounding libraries have other books which I could check out. I hit the card catalog at one location, and if they don't have it, I can see which related library does. My library orders my book from the nearest library which has it, and it is delivered to me directly, or to the local library for pickup.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:50 AM on March 9, 2009

Response by poster: mtstover, it's basically because the site caters to two different groups: people who buy in the physical shop and people who buy online. A lot of the regular Sydney customers like to see the quantities available before they come in. Again, it's because of the weirdness of selling small things bought in volume. Since someone might need to buy 25 balls of wool, it kinda sucks to make a special trip into the shop to have a look at it only to discover there's only 2 balls in stock. Or if I'm buying online, I might choose a different colour based on the numbers available. That's pretty much why I didn't go with Robert Angelo's suggestion when I first set up the site.

FishBike's solution is a really good one, I think. I just have to figure out how to show multiple quantities in our interface without it being confusing. Hm, we already have a select box to set your preferred currency for the site. Maybe we could have another one to set your preferred stock location...

And Nunukthedog, we considered doing it like that. Unfortunately given that we're a craft business (historically not a huge moneymaker) and the orders are small, it really eats up the profit margin when you have to transfer stock before sending it out, or to post it in pieces from multiple locations. (Or you have to pass the extra cost on to the customer, which we're trying to avoid.)
posted by web-goddess at 1:09 PM on March 9, 2009

I just have to figure out how to show multiple quantities in our interface without it being confusing.

I would be tempted to display the online quantity with a see supplies in store link next to it. When they click on this you can set a temporary or permanent cookie dependent on their choices and then use this to display in store quantities along side the online on subsequent page views.
posted by tallus at 2:58 PM on March 9, 2009

Best answer: For people who want to see the quantities in a particular location -- Sydney or elsewhere -- maybe you could have a hidden DIV in your page and a link to click on to see a list of quantities available in each store.

Here's something else to consider: You haven't mentioned how this client is handling offline inventory (and in multiple locations!) and updating that back to the web site. That's can be a challenging thing to keep track of accurately, especially if you want to do it real-time. If having 25 balls of wool is important to display to the online customer, there's also some backend business-process issues to consider to make sure that number is "real."
posted by Robert Angelo at 4:01 PM on March 9, 2009

Response by poster: That's a good idea about the hidden DIV, Robert. I might use that.

The updating doesn't quite happen in real time. Currently for Sydney we have a CRON job that updates the online quantity every night. (Yeah, not ideal, but good enough 95% of the time.) I understand that the store has a new, more advanced point-of-sale now though, so we may be able to refresh the quantities more often in the future.

Thanks for all the suggestions...
posted by web-goddess at 6:05 PM on March 9, 2009

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