Sold Out Face Mask
Daria Ni/

In times of crisis, hoarding and overburdened supply chains can make essential goods hard to find. While some retail websites provide a “Notify Me” option for out of stock items, this rarely applies to common household goods and medical supplies.

Inventory Trackers Aren’t Always Accurate

Even at the best of times, you can’t necessarily count on a store’s website having an accurate, up-to-the-minute inventory of everything in the store. Retail stores probably won’t send you a notification when they get toilet paper in stock at your local store.

So why do so many stores have a “Notify Me” button? We’ll explain.

“Out of Stock” Versus “Sold Out”

Some websites are saying that you can get alert notifications pushed to your smartphone from major retailers when essential items are restocked. This is only partially true. The truth lies in the difference between the basic inventory terms “out of stock” and “sold out.”

If a company sells all of one item and plans to restock it, that item is “sold out.” If the company has no plans to bring that item back into its stocks, that item is “out of stock.”

To make matters more confusing, many large chains, such as Target, reverse this terminology. “Sold out” indicates that Target has sold its stock and may or may not replenish; whereas “out of stock” indicates that Target will keep selling that item but the current stock has been depleted. It doesn’t help that Target’s official documentation contradicts its own word choice.

Target Toilet Paper No Notify Me Button

“Notify Me” buttons will almost never appear for the widely sold out goods some people are hoarding during the COVID-19 pandemic, including hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and face masks. These goods may sell out, but they will certainly not go out of stock any time soon. When an item is sold out at one location, most retailers instead show you other locations where it isn’t sold out or ways to order online—unless the warehouse is sold out, too.

The “Notify Me” button is instead used for items that are out of stock. This means that the company did carry the item, but may or may not have concrete plans to replenish that stock. There are many reasons why items go out of stock, from underselling and limited windows of availability to issues with production or trade.

Clearly, Target will be refilling its stock of toilet paper. But what about Target’s stock of Bjork’s 2017 single “Blissing Me” on vinyl? Who knows?

Target Bjork Notify Me

How to Sign Up for Automatic Restock Alerts

To sign up for a restock notification, most retail websites will only require you to set up a free account with an email address or phone number. “Notify Me” buttons tend to appear on the product details page, so look there when the item you seek is out of stock, sold out, or otherwise unavailable.

Retail stores don’t want to send an immediate alert to everyone whenever they receive a high-demand item like toilet paper or hand sanitizer right now, which could result in a crowd heading to the store.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many grocery stores are offering special shopping hours to older and higher-risk individuals. If you’re eligible to shop then, you might find high-demand items in stock at these times.

RELATED: Older and At-Risk Shoppers Should Take Advantage of Special Grocery Store Hours

Call the Store on the Phone to Inquire About Stock

So how can you find out what items are in stock at your local store? Call the store on the phone. Most of today’s brick-and-mortar stores will have websites that can tell you if an item is in stock, but no one will know more accurately what they have than the people who are in the store.

Profile Photo for Joel Cornell Joel Cornell
Joel Cornell has spent twelve years writing professionally, working on everything from technical documentation at PBS to video game content for GameSkinny. Joel covers a bit of everything technology-related, including gaming and esports. He's honed his skills by writing for other industries, including in architecture, green energy, and education.
Read Full Bio »