The Sunk Cost Fallacy: Why Businesses Hold Onto Slow-Moving Inventory

The Sunk Cost Fallacy: Why Businesses Hold Onto Slow-Moving Inventory
August 15, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the realm of inventory management, businesses often find themselves grappling with slow-moving inventory — products that linger on shelves longer than expected. Despite the financial implications and opportunity costs involved, some businesses struggle to let go of excess inventory. This article explores the connection between holding onto slow-moving inventory and the cognitive bias known as the sunk cost fallacy. By understanding this fallacy and its impact on decision-making, businesses can better navigate the challenges of slow-moving inventory and make informed choices to maximize profitability.

Understanding How The Sunk Cost Fallacy Works

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that influences decision-making by considering irrecoverable costs that have already been incurred, rather than focusing on future benefits or losses. In the context of slow-moving inventory, businesses often make decisions based on the initial investment made in acquiring the inventory, rather than objectively assessing its current and future value.

The sunk cost fallacy is not limited to inventory or business decisions. Investors hold on to investment stocks longer than they should.  Often dragging down the performance of a stock portfolio.  Rather than sell lower-performing stocks and buy better investments, they continue to hold onto poor performers.  

The same is true in sports teams.  Often first-round draft picks spend more time on the field, even when their performance doesn’t warrant it.  They are also traded with less frequency than lower draft picks.

Key aspects of the sunk cost fallacy:

  • Focus on past investments: Decision-making is influenced by the amount of money, time, or effort already invested.
  • Failure to consider future benefits: The fallacy disregards potential gains or losses associated with the current situation.
  • Emotional attachment: Businesses may develop an emotional attachment to the investment, making it difficult to let go.

Reasons Businesses Hold Onto Slow-Moving Inventory

Businesses often hold onto slow-moving inventory due to the sunk cost fallacy, hoping to recoup investments despite evidence suggesting otherwise. The following are some common reasons:

Perceived Loss Aversion

Businesses may hesitate to let go of slow-moving inventory due to the fear of incurring losses. They may believe that holding onto the inventory increases the chances of eventually recouping the investment, even if the prospects are slim.

Overestimation of Future Demand

Despite clear evidence of low demand, businesses may cling to the hope that market conditions will improve, and the slow-moving inventory will eventually sell. This overestimation often stems from a reluctance to accept the loss associated with the investment.

Optimism Bias

Business owners may exhibit optimism bias, believing that their situation is different or that they possess unique insights that will turn the tide. This bias can cloud judgment and impede objective evaluation of slow-moving inventory.

Fear of Regret

Decision-makers may fear the regret that comes with admitting a poor business choice. They may worry about being perceived as unsuccessful or making a wrong decision, leading to a reluctance to cut ties with the excess inventory.

Inventory Accounting Practices

Businesses may also face internal pressures related to inventory accounting practices. Holding onto slow-moving inventory can artificially inflate the balance sheet value and delay the recognition of losses, creating an illusion of better financial performance.

How to Avoid The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Slow-Moving Inventory Management

Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy in slow-moving inventory management involves adopting a data-driven approach. The following are strategies that businesses can adapt:

Objective Evaluation

Decision-makers should focus on the present and future prospects of slow-moving inventory, rather than dwelling on past expenditure. Analyze market demand, product relevance, and potential salvage value to make informed choices.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the financial implications of holding onto surplus inventory versus liquidating it. Consider carrying costs, opportunity costs, potential salvage value, and the impact on cash flow.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

Utilize data and analytics to assess trends, consumer behavior, and market dynamics. Rely on evidence-based insights to guide inventory management decisions, rather than personal biases or emotional attachments.

Liquidation Strategies

Develop proactive processes and strategies for inventory liquidation, such as pricing incentives, targeted marketing campaigns, or partnerships with discount retailers. Actively work towards recovering a portion of the investment and optimizing cash flow.

Continuous Monitoring

Regularly monitor inventory performance and implement effective tracking and benchmark mechanisms. Set clear thresholds or triggers for identifying slow-moving inventory and develop action plans accordingly.

Inventory Optimization

Adopt robust inventory management practices, including demand forecasting, lean inventory principles, and just-in-time inventory strategies. By optimizing inventory levels and aligning them with market demand, the likelihood of acquiring slow-moving inventory decreases.

Setup committees for inventory management

Bring many different stakeholders into the process of deciding when to move on from slow-moving inventory.  By bringing unbiased team members into the decision-making process, and have a better chance of removing biases and making solid decisions based on the metrics set forth by management.

Want to know the value of your inventory?

Benefits of Overcoming the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy yields several compelling benefits for businesses:

Improved Profitability

excess inventory

Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy allows businesses to make rational decisions about slow-moving inventory, leading to increased profitability. It frees up capital and storage space, reduces carrying costs, and enables funds allocation to more lucrative opportunities.

Enhanced Efficiency


By effectively managing slow-moving inventory, businesses can optimize operational efficiency. They can streamline inventory turnover, reduce waste, and focus resources on items with higher demand, ultimately improving overall productivity.

Strategic Adaptation


Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy enables businesses to adapt to changing market conditions and consumer preferences more effectively. They can proactively respond to shifts in demand and invest resources in products that align with market trends.


The sunk cost fallacy can exert a powerful influence on businesses’ decision-making regarding surplus inventory. Recognizing and overcoming this cognitive bias is crucial for optimizing inventory management and maximizing profitability. 

By objectively evaluating the present and prospects of slow-moving inventory, conducting cost-benefit analyses, leveraging data-driven insights, and implementing proactive liquidation strategies, businesses can effectively navigate the challenges posed by slow-moving inventory. 

Partnering with Overstock Trader, which manages the largest Overstock LinkedIn group connecting buyers and sellers for overstock, surplus, and liquidation opportunities worldwide, can further enhance businesses’ success in efficient inventory management and finding suitable buyers or sellers. By breaking free from the sunk cost fallacy and leveraging the resources provided by Overstock Trader, businesses can make informed decisions that promote financial stability, operational efficiency, and long-term success.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the sunk cost effect?

The sunk cost effect is the tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, time, or effort has been made. It is a form of irrational decision-making influenced by the sunk cost fallacy.

What is a famous example of the sunk cost fallacy?

The Concorde supersonic airplane is a famous example. The British and French governments continued to invest in the Concorde despite rising costs and evidence that supersonic travel was not commercially viable. They seemed to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.

How does the sunk cost fallacy cause irrational decisions?

The sunk cost fallacy causes irrational decisions by biasing us to continue a course of action based on past decisions, even when current costs outweigh future benefits. We tend to avoid losses and follow through on decisions we’ve already invested time and money in.

How can I avoid the sunk cost fallacy?

To avoid the sunk cost fallacy, remember that sunk costs cannot be recovered and should not influence future decisions. Consider only current and future costs versus benefits when deciding whether to continue or abandon a course of action. Don’t throw good money after bad.

What is an example of the sunk cost fallacy in everyday life?

A common example is continuing to watch a boring movie because you’ve already paid for the ticket. The money already spent on the ticket is a sunk cost that cannot be recovered, so it shouldn’t factor into the decision to continue watching or not.