Illustration by Elena Scotti/LIFEHACKER/GMG, Shutterstock
A couple weeks ago I drove myself mad looking for a Nintendo Switch. I checked store after store—12 in total—using the “available in-store” listings you find on retailer’s websites as my guide. Each one would say they had a few consoles up for grabs, but when I got there, nada. So I began to wonder if you could ever really trust a store’s website for item availability. The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “nope.”
Now, I knew that finding a Switch was a long shot, and I knew trusting a store’s website was a little naive. I’m not an idiot. If I really wanted a Switch, I should have preordered like everybody else. But this highlighted a problem I’ve had many times in the past. I search for an item online, perk up when I see that it’s in stock nearby, then excitedly skip my way to the store with my pretty wicker basket only to be disappointed when it’s not actually there. A bookstore’s site says it has a book but when I show up they tell me “Oh, I’m sorry, we must have sold it earlier today.” An electronics store says it has a movie but they tell me “Sorry dude, our count must’ve been off.” A toy store says it has a hot new toy but they tell me “Sorry sir, that sold out in minutes and you shouldn’t be buying Hatchimals because you’re a grown man.”
So what gives? Why do stores offer you insight into their store inventory if it never seems to be accurate? As much as I’d like to think that it’s some sort of evil ploy to get you in the store, then make you feel sad so you buy other stuff to feel better, it’s probably less sinister. It’s meant as a service, and for items that aren’t flying off the shelf, it usually works pretty well. “Does that Target have the cough medicine I need? Yep, tons in stock.” And it’s kind of impossible for retailers to be 100% accurate anyway because of theft, breakage, inaccurate shipping counts, preorders that accidentally get listed as regular stock, and employees occasionally nabbing things for themselves first (no judgement here). Retail systems aren’t perfect, so their services can’t be perfect either.
Even so, I decided to do some digging and see how accurate some of the more popular store sites are. After all, the less accurate they are the less useful the service is.
Walmart: Updates every night at 12 a.m., according to the Walmart website. So, the later in the day it is, the less likely that item count is accurate. Always call ahead.
Target: Their site doesn’t’ say exactly when they update, but one former Target employee told me they update a store’s inventory every day at 8 a.m. So, like Walmart, the later you check the less accurate it is. To double check, I called Target.com customer service. The rep I spoke with said an item listed as “available for in-store pickup” should be there. But they quickly backpedaled, stating that if the count looks low—like less than 10—or you see the words “limited availability,” you should absolutely call a store before heading in; something echoed by the Target.com site’s help section.
Best Buy: BestBuy.com’s help section offer’s even less information about in-store inventory. The Best Buy Canada’s help page, however, does suggest that their “system updates numerous times throughout the day to show you which Best Buy stores have a product you’re looking for.” An anonymous employee reached out to me and explained that their inventory system “updates once an hour at the start of every new hour. The external programs such as the website are updated 10 minutes after said new hour. Longest ‘lag’ I have seen was the inventory system taking approximately 39 minutes to kick out stock numbers to other programs we use.” Always call ahead anyway.
Toys “R” Us: They don’t say when their site updates, but you can tell if an item is in stock if it has a “free store pickup” option, especially if it gives a small time frame like “free store pickup in an hour.” That said, don’t place your pickup order and rush out the door! Wait until you get a confirmation email from them, as they do say “In-stock status is approximate and may not reflect recent sales.”
Home Depot: The “more doing” store’s online inventory works similarly to Toys “R” Us. If an item is listed as available for “pick up in-store” it’s probably there. But again, the only way to be certain is to use the pickup in-store option and wait for a confirmation email before you head out.
Staples: Same as Toys “R” Us and Home Depot. If it says “pick up today” for your store, it’s probably there. And if it says “pickup today — in just one hour!” you can be sure the item is on hand. Still, wait for that “ready for pickup” email just in case. If you don’t reserve it, someone could buy the last one while you make your way to the store.
Barnes & Noble: The bookstore chain will list whether a book is in stock or not on the product’s page after you enter your zip code. You can then click “reserve” to get them to hold it for you. Like with other stores, though, they don’t guarantee that a book listed as “in stock” is truly there. Fortunately, you can sign up for a text confirmation while reserving so you’ll know if someone there was actually able to find it and place it aside behind the cashier’s desk for you.
Gamestop: The major video game retailer does things a little differently. When you look at an item’s product page, you might see a “Pick Up at Store – check availability” link. If you click it, you’ll pick your preferred store from a map or after entering your zip code, then have to fill out a form with your name, email, and phone number. If they have it, they’ll reach out to you saying it’s in stock and being held under your name. Seeing the “Pick Up at Store” link definitely does not mean they have the item on hand, though. Gamestop’s site explains that their online inventory updates “periodically,” but they also strongly caution that you should always call ahead or try to reserve a copy online before driving to the store.
Overall, you can assume that most stores only update their online inventory once a day, usually at closing or opening. That’s never going to be accurate, especially for stores in high-traffic areas where stock numbers can change from minute to minute. For high-demand items like the Nintendo Switch, that daily update will be even less accurate because they sell out so fast. And the information listed on inventory tracking sites like Zoolert, BrickSeek, StockInformer, and NowInStock are all using that same information, so don’t assume those tools know any better.
you should always call before you go anywhere. Or, at the very least, use the in-store pickup features and wait for your confirmation. Don’t even leave your house until you’ve double-checked. You probably already sort of knew that. I knew that too. Everybody “knows” that. But what I’m trying to say here is that it’s not some loose guideline you can shrug off thinking “well, maybe this time I’ll get lucky.” You are literally gambling with your all-to-precious time and energy—and the house usually wins. Do yourself a favor and just pick up the phone.
If it’s a really hot item you’re after, you can probably trust the sales associate on the line to know if they have it off the top of their head. Why? Because you’re probably the thousandth person to call asking that day. If you ask them to please check again, they’ll probably glance at their computer inventory and tell you what they already knew. And if you ask them to “go check in the back,” they’ll probably do what I did when I worked retail: put you on hold, check their text messages for a minute or two, then pick back up to tell you that they are, in fact, sold out. But hey, at least you’ll save yourself some time, and that awful drive of shame home.