Loss Leaders

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Most of our grocery shopping these days is done at Trader Joe's for pastas, faux meat products, and cheeses, while we shop at the farmers' market for produce. However, back in the day, I was an eagle-eyed loss leader shopper.

Loss leaders are the extremely-discounted items that grocery stores (usually the large chains) advertise in their weekly specials as a way to bring traffic into a store. The stores typically do not make a profit on them, hence the "loss." But it's all about the war and not the battle, blah blah, because it is the rare person who comes in for a 99-cent bag of chocolate chips and walks out with a single purchase. We are all busy, of course, and then shop for the remaining items we need that are not loss leaders but sold at the grocery store.

I used to scour the weekly sales specials (irritatingly mailed to you in the form of junk mail) but saved a lot of money by stocking up on loss leaders. I became fluent in all kinds of prices: everyday pricing, BOGO (buy one get one free) pricing, and loss leader pricing. This is not limited to grocery stores, but any type of chain store that uses the weekly specials model: Target, auto parts, garden stores, pharmacies.

Growing up, it was a kind of game my dad and I would play. Sunday mornings we'd peruse the sales flyers, find the loss leaders, and stock up. We had a regional version of Target, which sold a little bit of everything, and stocked up on household items: light bulbs, pet food, toilet paper, paper towels, Kleenex, motor oil, batteries, shampoo, toothpaste; all the things you need to keep a family running but are deeply unsexy.

It didn't take long to see the loss leader pattern, which ran on a four-week cycle. If we didn't need to buy cat food this month, I knew it would be on sale again the next month.
As a nine year-old, this was heady stuff: I was recognizing patterns about how the world worked. It wasn't that complicated, and in fact was quite predictable.

I'm grateful that I learned this shopping sense when I was young, and even more so because it was like a game. What I didn't realize is that I learned important things about value, paying attention, and research. All these lessons served me well as I got older, because these are all important factors when purchasing, be it a box of light bulbs to a house.

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