Examples of elasticity

Here’s a question for you: when was the last time you passed a petrol pump and saw a discount offer on fuel?

Unless you have a very vivid recollection of your dreams, the answer is always going to be: never.

And why am I able to say that so confidently? Because, in the lingo of the economist, petrol is an inelastic good. That is, as per our last post, the quantity demanded doesn’t decrease all that much, even for very large increases in price.

If society has to be able to move goods and people across long distances, one can’t yet escape the need to refuel vehicles. Mr. Musk is single-handedly trying to change the truth value of that statement, but as things stand, one can’t do without petrol. So even if prices were to be raised, demand wouldn’t change all that much. And which is why it doesn’t make sense to offer discounts on petrol either! Because, if you can sell high quantities without giving discounts – well then, why give discounts in the first place?

This is true for cigarettes too. Not matter what the price, people will buy. And which is why finance ministers in every budget feel very safe in raising the tax on cigarettes – because people will pay.

On the other hand, Myntra sells clothes people don’t especially need, and is one of a thousand sellers (online and offline) in the business of selling a bewildering variety of clothes. If Myntra wants people to buy from them, they’re going to have to offer those clothes at a discount. That’s elastic demand.

And in fact, that last point we made is crucial to understand about elasticity. If there are a number of alternatives available, the elasticity will be high. If there are a low number of alternatives available, the elasticity will be low.

So the trick, as an entrepreneur, is to build a product that people absolutely want to  -need to! – buy, but also build a product that has no real alternative. You may absolutely want a cup of chai in the evening, but there will be a dozen chaiwallahs in your neighbourhood. On the other hand, you may be the only seller selling neon pink umbrellas with prickly handles – there’s no real alternative to your product, sure – but people don’t seem to want to buy it.

Inelastic products hit that sweet spot that combine both of these features, and that allows the company responsible for that product to reap the profits. Apple is the easiest example around, but there are so many more examples around us. Perhaps the best way of understanding elasticity is to try and come up with some examples from the world around you. Give it a shot!

In the next post, we’ll take a look at two related concepts: complements, and substitutes.