What is a Loss Leader?

What is a Loss Leader?

A loss leader is a pricing strategy where a product is sold at a price below its market cost in order to stimulate other sales of more profitable goods or services. Specifically, in retail businesses such as grocery stores the price of a loss leader is lower than the actual cost the retailer paid for the item.

Loss Leader Pricing

Toilet paper, milk and eggs are typical examples of loss leaders in supermarkets. They are sold at discounted prices so as to draw customers to the store, where they will also buy plenty of regular priced items.

That is why you will notice milk and eggs are at the very back corner of the stores. This is because customers looking to buy these items will have to browse through other items and possibly purchase items where the store would make a greater profit.

Loss leader examples could range from essential items such as groceries to tools to electronics. Grocery stores employ loss leader pricing the most where they routinely advertise low prices on selected items. Other industries also use this strategy to introduce a brand, bring in new customers and liquidate old inventory.

Often businesses price a few items so low there is no profit margin. The goal is for shoppers to continue buying other products and become loyal customers after they buy the item with a low price.

Loss leader strategy works on the premise a small loss initially can lead to profits in the end.

Besides, these discounts could be put on highly needed essential items to make them your loss leaders. However, for a loss-leader strategy to really work, you should markup profits from other goods to cover the losses from the discounted item. A small loss, from the businesses’ point of view, is often required in order to make larger profits.

The key, however, is to generate higher customer traffic and volume purchasing.

When to Use Loss Leaders?

Drawing customers to your store loss leaders have other advantages as well. By simply giving consumers good deals you can bring in added revenue to your business. Black Friday deals as well as holidays discounts employ loss leader pricing.

Loss leaders are also used in e-commerce. The cheaper the products are displayed on the landing pages the more chances customers will purchase other complimentary items. It is all about merchandising, particularly visual merchandising. You will need to have customers know there is a special incentive/offering for them to act on it.

What is a Loss Leader?

Doing Away with Excess Inventory

This pricing strategy can be implemented during a change in season. For example, retailers can advertise discounts on summer clothes or barbecue grills to make way for fall and winter holiday merchandise.

The attractive deals entice customers to help reduce your stock of items that are on their way to being out of season. Similarly, if there is a new model of a cellphone coming into the market you can make discounts on the older versions to make room for the new model.

Retailers can clear inventories quickly during special days/events and quickly sell new inventory with reductions in price.

Selling off Perishable Items

Perishable items such as food and drinks can be put down as loss leaders before going bad to mitigate losses. Very often these loss leaders are put on sale for a short period of time to generate a sense of urgency among customers.

For Opening New Stores

This pricing strategy can be an excellent way to attract shoppers to a new location. Customers who might not enter your store might want to take advantage of a particular pricing deal. This will help you build a customer base in the early stages of your store.

This is why loss leader pricing is also referred to as penetrating pricing. Some retailers even offer free gifts to the first hundred customers in line to drive up demand and push more people into their stores.

What is a Loss Leader?


Loss leader pricing can be an alternative form of marketing. Here the seller is basically paying customers in the amount of any losses sustained to enter the company store. It could be introductory pricing.

For example, a service provider like a telecom company can offer a low introductory rate to entice clients to use its services. Then, after gaining the customer base, the company then raises its rates. The rates could be very low sometimes at a loss for the initial period.

This will attract new customers or lure customers away from the competition.
Another instance includes when stores offer free samples of food to customers.

Increase Sales

When customers buy other items in addition to the loss leader, you make a larger profit based on the volume of purchases from customers. By choosing your loss leaders and complementary products, you can actually use loss leaders to encourage purchases of other items in your store.

A discount on ties or scarves can help entice customers to purchase a shirt. Another example of a loss leader is the case of free copies magazines give with the subscription purchase.

When to Use Loss LeadersPurpose
Black Friday and Holiday DiscountsAttract customers during peak shopping seasons and boost overall sales.
E-commerce Landing PagesEncourage online shoppers to purchase additional items by offering lower-priced products prominently.
Clearing Excess InventoryReduce surplus stock, especially during seasonal transitions or product updates, by offering attractive discounts.
Selling Perishable ItemsPrevent food and drink waste by promoting short-term sales, creating urgency among customers.
Opening New StoresAttract customers to a new location, helping build a customer base during the initial stages of the store.
MarketingUse loss leader pricing as a marketing strategy to attract new customers or divert them from competitors.
Increasing SalesEncourage customers to buy complementary items alongside loss leaders, maximizing profits through volume sales.

Challenges of Loss leaders

As much as this pricing strategy is able to help boost sales, it also comes with risks you should be aware of. Here are some of the possible risks to keep an eye on.

Risk of loss

Businesses may incur a substantial loss from this strategy if they do not monitor closely sales of other items positioned alongside the loss leader. The risk is customers may buy only the loss leader also known as cherry-picking. In addition, if you have a high frequency of discounts you might inadvertently be encouraging your customers to hold off purchasing until you announce the next discount.

Running out of Stock

Once you decide to turn a product into a loss leader you will need enough of it to continue to make sales. You cannot afford to have a product you are leveraging to draw in customers to run out.

What is a Loss Leader?


If the loss-leader price is too good to ignore, customers might buy it in bulk and then stockpile it for later use. You can avoid this issue by limiting purchase quantities or only offering products with a limited shelf life thus preventing stockpiling.

Pricing Perception

If you continue with the high discount you risk giving the impression the product should have a lower price at all times. Impacting sales of the item when it returns to its normal price.

Furthermore, those who purchase only loss leaders will often believe other items in the store are marked up ridiculously high.

Challenges of Loss LeadersDescription
Risk of LossPotential for incurring substantial losses if sales of other items alongside the loss leader are not closely monitored. Customers may cherry-pick, buying only discounted items, and frequent discounts could discourage immediate purchases.
Running out of StockEnsuring an adequate supply of the product designated as a loss leader is essential to sustain sales and prevent shortages.
StockpilingCustomers may buy discounted items in bulk and stockpile them for later use, potentially affecting inventory management. Mitigation strategies include limiting purchase quantities or offering products with a limited shelf life.
Pricing PerceptionContinuous high discounts may lead customers to believe that the product should always have a lower price, impacting sales when it returns to its regular price. Customers who only purchase loss leaders may also perceive other items in the store as overpriced.

The Impact of Loss Leaders on small businesses

Large corporations with their deep pockets benefit the most from loss leaders. They can also leverage their purchase volume in their negotiations with the suppliers and can get the cheapest offers.

Since their costs are lower, their loss from loss-leading pricing is smaller when you compare it to small businesses. They can afford to take a hit on some products to enjoy gains on other items. Small businesses can’t afford to cut prices so steeply as such and loose out.

Loss Leader Strategy

The loss leader strategy may seem simple but is tricky. There are no guarantees a business will make more money by losing money on certain items.

To mitigate this, you might want to put in place a rewards program. By encouraging frequent customers to earn discounts the product behind the discount will retain its value. This brings in the impression the low price is a special offer they have earned themselves.

Airlines use frequent flier rewards to encourage loyalty. In the same token credit card companies provide perks for using their cards while purchasing.

Make sure you assign the right product to the title of a loss leader. When an obscure, unpopular product has its price drastically cut, it may not catch anyone’s attention. If your loss lead is a common product customers buy regularly, you have a higher chance of them purchasing it.

Pricing is important for the success of Loss Leader. The price can’t be so low your business is not able to recover the losses. So you make sure to decide on the price carefully; in such a way the loss has to lead to buying more products. It is important you make up for your loss on other sales

Though loss leader pricing is a good strategy towards building traffic to a store you would need to ensure you are actually generating an incremental profit, rather than a substantial loss. The careful combination of discounts and reward systems will help mitigate negative perceptions of your products by customers.

The Nuances of Loss Leader Pricing

Loss leader pricing is a nuanced strategy that, when executed correctly, can significantly bolster a business’s customer base and overall sales. This approach, however, is not without its challenges and complexities.

It requires a delicate balance of strategic pricing, inventory management, and marketing to ensure its success. Let’s delve into insights and strategies to optimize the use of loss leaders in your business model.

Strategic Integration with Online Marketing

In the digital age, integrating loss leader pricing with online marketing efforts can amplify its effectiveness. By leveraging social media, email marketing, and online advertising, businesses can create buzz around their loss leader products, driving both online and in-store traffic.

  • Targeted Online Ads: Use targeted online ads to promote your loss leader products to specific demographics or interests. This can help attract a more relevant audience likely to be interested in your broader product range.
  • Email Campaigns: Tailor email campaigns to highlight loss leader deals to your subscriber base. This direct marketing approach can encourage repeat business and deeper customer engagement.

Leveraging Loss Leaders for Customer Loyalty

Beyond attracting new customers, loss leaders can be instrumental in building customer loyalty. By offering exceptional value on certain products, businesses can create a positive shopping experience that encourages customers to return.

  • Loyalty Programs: Combine loss leader pricing with loyalty programs to reward customers for their purchases. This can increase the perceived value of buying from your business and encourage repeat visits.
  • Exclusive Offers: Make loss leaders part of exclusive offers for returning customers or members of your loyalty program. This exclusivity can enhance customer retention and brand loyalty.

Monitoring and Managing Risks

While loss leaders can drive traffic and sales, they also carry risks that businesses must carefully manage. Monitoring sales data and customer behavior is crucial to ensuring that loss leaders contribute positively to your bottom line.

  • Inventory Management: Keep a close eye on inventory levels for loss leader products to avoid stockouts, which can frustrate customers and negate the benefits of the strategy.
  • Price Perception: Regularly assess how your pricing strategies affect customer perception. Ensure that loss leaders do not lead to an expectation of low prices across all your products, which could undermine profitability.

Ethical Considerations and Fair Competition

It’s important to consider the ethical implications and competitive fairness of employing loss leader pricing. While it’s a legal and widely used strategy, it should be implemented in a way that does not mislead customers or unfairly undercut competitors.

  • Transparency: Be transparent about the terms and conditions of loss leader offers. Avoid hidden fees or misleading advertising that could damage your reputation.
  • Competitive Balance: Consider the impact of your loss leader pricing on the competitive landscape, especially if operating in a small or local market. Strive for strategies that attract customers based on value and service rather than solely on price.

Mastering Loss Leader Pricing

Loss leader pricing is a powerful strategy that can attract customers, boost sales, and build loyalty. However, its success depends on careful planning, ethical considerations, and strategic integration with your broader marketing and pricing strategies.

By understanding the dynamics of consumer behavior, managing inventory effectively, and leveraging digital marketing, businesses can maximize the benefits of loss leaders.

Monitoring performance and adjusting strategies as needed will ensure that this approach contributes to sustainable growth and profitability.

Image: Depositphotos.com

Samson Haileyesus Samson Haileyesus is a staff writer for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 5 years. He has several years of progressive experience in media, communication and PR working with government, NGOs and private sector.