People who use your search function are often highly motivated to make a purchase — but that doesn't necessarily mean they can't be flexible. Although some customers are set on purchasing one exact item, from a specific brand, many are more open to alternatives than you might think.
This is especially true given how many products have become harder to get thanks to the supply chain crisis. Customers have realized that in many cases, they can either accept a substitute product or end up empty-handed.
If you make it as easy as possible for your customers to access those alternatives, you decrease the risk that they will skip over to a competitor, and potentially rescue your sale. The most obvious place for this list of suggestions is on the page they're already on, i.e., your "No results" page. This also has the psychological benefit of turning a dead-end into a road not taken—an opportunity rather than a frustration.
Here are the benefits of recommending relevant alternatives when your search turns up empty-handed, including happier, more loyal customers, and the chance to push your products.
Retain customer loyalty
The supply chain issues catalyzed by the COVID-19 crisis have impacted customers' purchasing loyalty. With so many items in short supply (from computer chips to toys), customers have gotten used to switching between products, brands, and retailers, depending on who has what they want on hand. Their allegiance is to convenience over any other trait.
In December 2021, McKinsey published research showing that over a three-month period, when customers learned that an item they wanted was out of stock, 39% bought a different brand or product, and 32% went to a different retailer. In other words, a significant portion of customers has adapted to supply chain issues by becoming more open to new shopping options.
Although you may not be able to guarantee your stock all the time, you can use alternative recommendations to manage this new consumer behavior.
Showing customers a plain "No results" page effectively ends their journey looking for that product—and there's a relatively high chance they'll go to a different retailer. However, since customers have shown that they are willing to accept substitute brands, there is a strong chance they will purchase a recommended alternative instead.
You still make a sale and retain a customer. And they learn that you understand their increasingly fluid approach to shopping, and can meet their needs even during supply crises.
Placate negative reactions and prevent a customer exodus
Unless you happen to be the Rolling Stones, people don't want to hear that they can't always get what they want. Seeing that "No results" page makes people frustrated and irritated, to the point, as we've already seen, that they're prepared to abandon your website in favor of your competitors.
The supply chain crisis is exacerbating these exasperations. In a survey by Oracle published in the fall of 2021, people reported that disruptions to the supply chain made them feel frustrated (61%), impatient (46%), anxious (45%), and angry (34%). A large majority (82%) were worried that the delays would ruin important life events, such as birthdays and vacations.
These popular sentiments make it even more important than usual to show customers that you can give them options. Including relevant alternatives on your "No results" page can help cut short those feelings of frustration and even anger, as people are immediately presented with another item that can replace the one they were searching for, with no extra work on their part.
That said, make sure you're showing them products that really are viable substitutes for what they wanted. For example, someone who is searching for Rice Krispies probably won't see a 14 oz bag of rice as a suitable replacement.
Introduce customers to a new, better alternative
Although humans don't typically like change, being shaken out of our normal habits can be good for us.
Customers who are forced to switch to an alternative product might find that they actually prefer the substitute. In August 2020, McKinsey reported that 73% of consumers who had changed brands in the face of shortages planned to keep buying the replacement brand. Brands with in-house produced alternatives did even better, with 80% of the customers who started buying these products saying that they planned to keep using them.
This indicates that customers don't necessarily think of replacements as inferior, and you shouldn't either. Instead, see it as an opportunity to introduce your customers to brands and products they might not have tried. Even if they don't like the substitute, it buys you some time to restock their go-to—something you can point out in a restock email. And if they do like it, it's likely they'll continue to buy it from you in the future, possibly in addition to the product they originally searched for.
When done well, including relevant alternatives on your "No results" page can turn your customer's moment of frustration into a convenient opportunity to find a new favorite. Instead of losing customers, you show them that you recognize how their needs and behaviors have changed and that you're ready to help them get what they need.