What Is Inelastic Demand?

Inelastic Demand Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

Definition

"Inelastic demand" is a term that economists use to refer to a situation where demand for an item remains the same, no matter how far its price rises or falls.

Custom illustration describing the inelasticity of demand. When the change in demand divided by the change in price is less than 1, the demand is inelastic. Gasoline is an example of a good with inelastic demand
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A product or service is said to have elastic demand when the change in quantity demanded is large when there is a change in price. Products and services have inelastic demand when the change in quantity demanded is small when there is a change in price. This is also known as "price inelasticity of demand."

Gasoline is an inelastic demand example, because the amount people buy remains roughly the same, even when prices increase. Likewise, they don't buy much more even if the price drops. However, gas doesn't have a perfectly inelastic demand, where demand never changes regardless of price.

Note

There aren't many real-life examples of perfectly inelastic demand. If there were, then whoever was selling something with inelastic demand could charge any amount, and consumers would have to pay it.

How Does Inelastic Demand Work?

The Law of Demand says that the amount purchased should move inversely to price. That means that there should be a decrease in demand as prices increase, and an increase in demand as prices decrease. However, this relationship between price and demand isn't always perfectly correlated.

To calculate demand elasticity, you divide the percentage change in the quantity demanded for a good by the percentage change in the price for that same good. For instance, if the price of bananas were to drop by 10% with a corresponding demand-quantity increase of 10%, the ratio would be 0.1/0.1 = 1.

Note

The ratio of one is called "unit elastic," the term for when a change in quantity demanded is accompanied by an equal change in price.

Elastic demand occurs when the ratio of quantity demanded to price is more than one. For example, if the price dropped 10%, and the amount demanded rose 50%, the ratio would be 0.5/0.1 = 5. On the other end, if the price dropped 10%, and the quantity demanded didn't change, the ratio would be 0/0.1 = 0. That is known as being "perfectly inelastic."

Examples of Inelastic Demand

Inelastic demand occurs when the ratio of quantity demanded to price is between zero and one unit elastic. This typically occurs when a particular good or service lacks adequate substitutes and represents a necessity.

Examples of goods with inelastic demand include gasoline, necessary foods, and prescription drugs. When price changes on these items, demand doesn't fluctuate much because these items are required in the everyday lives of most consumers. In contrast, demand for luxury goods such as high-end cars, dessert foods, or entertainment tends to be much more elastic.

It's worth noting that demand may be inelastic for a broad category of goods—fruit, for example—but elastic for specific types or brands of that good. So, for instance, consumer demand for fruit may not fluctuate much, but a rise in apple prices might lead more people to buy grapes.

What Is the Inelastic Demand Curve?

You can tell whether the demand for an item is inelastic by looking at its demand curve. Since the quantity demanded doesn't change as much as the price, it will look steep. It will be any curve that is steeper than the unit elastic curve, which is a 45-degree angle as measured from the chart's horizontal axis.

Note

The more inelastic the demand, the steeper the curve. If it's perfectly inelastic, then it will be a vertical line.

Five factors determine the demand for an item. They are price, the price of alternatives, income, tastes, and expectations. For aggregate demand, the sixth determinant is the number of buyers. The demand curve shows how the quantity changes in response to price. If one of the other determinants changes, it will shift the entire demand curve. More or less of that good or service will be demanded, even though the price remains unchanged.

Inelastic Demand vs. Elastic Demand

Inelastic Demand Elastic Demand
Low changes in demand with price changes. High changes in demand with price changes.
Real-life examples include utilities, prescription drugs, or gas. Real-life examples include luxury items or non-essential items.

To clarify the difference between inelastic and elastic demand, it's important to know that "inelastic demand" is a term reserved for goods, services, or products that don't lose demand even if the price to buy them changes.

By contrast, elastic demand refers to products that fluctuate in consumer demand if their price changes. For example, if an item's price goes up, consumers likely won't buy as much. If the price goes down, they may end up buying more than predicted.

What Inelastic Demand Means for You

For consumers and businesses, the reality of inelastic demand means that some goods are more vulnerable to price swings than others. In many cases, these are the products that are most difficult to replace or forego.

When the price rises on a good with inelastic demand, you or your business may have to absorb this price change. To do this, you might have to purchase fewer luxury goods or items that aren't necessities. Conversely, when price drops on necessities, it may be wise for businesses to stock up to hedge against future price swings.

Key Takeaways

  • Inelastic demand in economics occurs when the demand for a product doesn't change as much as the price.
  • A steep demand curve graphically represents inelastic demand. The steeper the curve, the more inelastic the demand for that product or service is.
  • Inelastic demand applies to products that are hardly responsive to price changes, such as gasoline or prescription drugs.

What is income elasticity of demand?

Income elasticity of demand measures how much the demand for specific goods and services fluctuates in relation to changes in consumer income. The effect will be similar, but the relationship works in the opposite direction of price elasticity. While rising prices usually result in lower demand, rising income tends to lead to higher demand. However, in both cases, demand for some goods is more elastic than it is for others.

What is cross-price elasticity of demand?

Cross-price elasticity refers to how much the price of one good fluctuates in response to price changes for another good. When one good can easily be substituted for another, there will usually be high cross-price demand elasticity between them. This is common, for example, with directly competing products such as similar cars from competing manufacturers or two similar smartphones.

What is the formula for calculating elasticity of demand?

Elasticity of demand = % change in demand for a good or service / % change in price for the same good or service

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Commodity and Food Elasticities:  Glossary."

  2. University of Minnesota Libraries. "Principles of Economics: 5.1 The Price Elasticity of Demand."

  3. Iowa State University of Science and Technology. "Elasticity of Demand."

  4. University of Minnesota Libraries. "Principles of Economics: 3.1 Demand."

  5. Intelligent Economist. "Income Elasticity of Demand (YED)."

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