What is Profit Margin?

Malcolm Tatum

Also known as the margin of profit, a profit margin is simply the difference between sales generated and the cost to produce each of the units sold. The ratio is sometimes defined as a gross or net profit margin, depending on the nature of the data that is under consideration. Businesses of all types pay close attention to these margins, since they provide invaluable information that helps to assess the current financial status of the company.

Profit margins are expressed in percentages.
Profit margins are expressed in percentages.

The profit margin ratio can be calculated in several different ways. In most applications, the ratio requires that the total cost of producing a good or service must be determined. This means accounting for the costs associated with raw materials, production equipment, salaries and wages of those involved in the production, packaging costs, and marketing expenses. Once the company has determined exactly how much it costs to produce one unit of this good or service, it is possible to set a price for the unit. The difference between the sales price and the cost of producing that one unit is the profit margin on that particular unit.

After determining what a product or service will cost, pricing can be set.
After determining what a product or service will cost, pricing can be set.

In most cases, an operating profit margin is presented in terms of a percentage. For example, if a company generated sales of $5 billion US Dollars (USD) and it cost the company $3 billion USD to produce those goods, the company would have a profit of $2 billion USD. That amount would be presented as a 40% profit margin.

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There is some difference of opinion when it comes to the inclusion of labor costs in determining this margin. One school of thought is that labor costs should not be reflected in any assessment that is aimed at determining the gross profit. Instead, the figure can be accounted for when it becomes time to calculate the net profit. A different approach prefers to include all identifiable expenses related to the production process in the total cost, stating that this helps to simplify the calculation of a true margin.

In either incarnation, taking the time to calculate the profit margin for a product line or even for a company as a whole is essential to determining if a company is growing, maintaining its current market share, or is losing customers and is in danger of not making a profit. Many companies choose to look at profit margin ratios on a regular basis, just to make sure that sales are headed in the right direction, and that expenses are being contained in order to maximize the returns from those sales. If the margins begin to drop, the business can take steps to identify the reason or reasons for the change, and restore a healthier margin.

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Discussion Comments


It seems to me that labor cost should be part of profit margin analysis because it can help a business to determine its workers' productivity as well. If the labor cost is eating up more of the profit than the company expected, then maybe a change needs to happen in machinery, number of workers, or hours of work.


There are a lot of ways to determine a sales profit margin, and it's likely that no one is really that much better than the other. Finding the right profit margin formula to get a good estimate, though, is going to depend on what sort of product or service a business offers.

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