A diner and a server in an upscale restaurant. The server, wearing a black apron, holds a menu open and smiles at the customer. The customer, a woman with short, light hair, is sitting at a table in a wicker chair and looking up at the server.
Product discontinuation, especially that of a beloved menu item or useful tool, could spark disappointment in customers. Make sure to communicate the change thoughtfully. — Getty Images/Vladimir Vladimirov

Some customers are fiercely loyal to their favorite products. When a beloved product gets retired, fans will create petitions, copycat recipes and viral campaigns, and they may even sell discontinued items — at a massive markup — on sites like eBay.

Case in point: Taco Bell announced a menu change that was justified and clearly focused on the positives for the customers. The restaurant chain retired Mexican Pizza in 2020 to save seven million pounds of paperboard every year. Fans, however, were disconsolate: 170,000 even signed a Change.org petition to "Save the Mexican Pizza." This example shows that while a product discontinuation is often necessary — and even positive — it can spark outrage.

Typically, a product discontinuation happens when a product isn’t selling well, is too expensive or is being replaced by a new, better version. Unfortunately, finding a replacement costs customers two things: time and money. Announcing a product discontinuation should address those two concerns and offer a simple solution going forward.

[Read more: Touchy Subjects and How to Communicate Them to Customers]

Prepare your messaging

Ideally, your messaging should encourage the customer to find a good replacement for the discontinued product at your company. The goal is to keep the customer engaged with your brand, rather than lose them to a competitor. That means preparing clear messaging. Forrester recommends that your outreach include five elements:

  1. The reason(s) why you are discontinuing the product.
  2. A list of the products being discontinued.
  3. The date of the customer’s last order.
  4. Any last-buy purchase conditions and expected service life.
  5. Any replacement products, if available.

Even if you don’t plan to alert customers formally, preparing an aligned and authentic message is always a good idea.

Some brands quietly remove items from the shelves with little fanfare. Other discontinuations are worth a larger effort.

Alert your key staff

Once you nail down your messaging, make sure your internal staff is aware of the upcoming discontinuation. Work with teams such as:

  • Billing, to handle refunds, auto-shipping and other existing orders.
  • Customer support, to understand what is no longer available and guide customers to the right substitutions.
  • Marketing and sales, to update assets such as webpages, packaging, catalogs, sell sheets, price sheets, etc.

Once your staff is ready, it’s time to figure out how to break the news to customers.

How to tell the customer

Whether you choose to proactively communicate with your customers is up to you. Some brands quietly remove items from the shelves with little fanfare. Other discontinuations are worth a larger effort. Remember your goal of saving the customer time and effort with a simple solution.

If the product isn’t worth restocking, post a notification saying that there are only a few left. Be sure to mention where to go for a substitute.

If you are replacing a popular or unique product, or if there is a large market for replacement parts, take a more detailed approach. Contact customers with a personalized letter, email, phone call or all of the above. The more advance notice you can give, the more time they will have to stock up on the old favorite or learn about and purchase your substitute. Cover all the ways you communicate with your customer—at the register, on the website, in print and through email.

If there is an alternative product that is similar to the discontinued item but more expensive, still recommend it. If the customers hesitate, consider offering a discount on their first purchase.

Get feedback

This is a great time to assess how well you engage with customers. What channels worked the best for communication? What could you change the next time?

Products change over time, but if handled well with thoughtful communication, you’ll end up developing a loyal brand following.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published January 21, 2022