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What is a Substitute Good?

Osmand Vitez
Osmand Vitez

In economics, a substitute good is an item consumers will purchase in lieu of another product. The demand for substitutes derives from the scarcity of preferred goods or an increasing price of preferred goods. An example of a substitute good is hamburger meat instead of prime rib. The cost of the latter will often drive demand for the former. In terms of scarcity, electric heat may substitute for gas heat. Natural gas is often less common in certain regions, making consumer more apt to purchase electric heat as the substitute.

The substitution of one good for another is typically driven by price. As consumer incomes fall, less discretionary income become available, forcing consumers to find cheaper goods. This scenario is often driven by external forces that consumers cannot overcome. Another issue that affects the price of goods and services can be inflation. During inflationary times, too many dollars are chasing too few goods. This increases the price of preferred products, causing consumers to look for cheaper substitutes.

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

In the case of scarce goods, consumers have somewhat more control over this factor. When preferred goods become unavailable, consumers can begin to immediately look for a substitute good. Consumers can start looking for alternate sources of the preferred good or move to an area where the item is readily available. Today’s environment allows consumers to look for goods sold from overseas suppliers to fill the need for preferred goods, making the demand for substitute goods lower than a domestic economy with few imported goods.

Consumer economic theory defines a substitute good as either perfect or imperfect. With perfect substitutes, consumers will simply purchase a product very similar in nature to the other with few reservations. A classic example is carbonated soda beverages. If Brand A is the preferred good that becomes overpriced or unavailable, consumers would most likely switch to Brand B with little thought. Therefore, the goods are seen as perfect substitutes.

Imperfect substitute goods are those that do not take the place of the preferred good, although the price is lower or the product has more availability. The classic example here is hot dog and hamburger buns. Although a consumer could theoretically make a hamburger bun work for the hot dog, it is not a perfect substitute good. Consumers are therefore less likely to purchase more hamburger buns when hot dog bun supply becomes scarce. In reality, consumers would most likely avoid purchasing hot dogs, which is the complement good to the hot dog buns.

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Discussion Comments


@nony - We use tofu and tempeh instead of meat. You can call that a substitute, and for all practical purposes it is, but it’s driven more by health considerations than price.

I am sure that price is part of the equation too but it’s not the main factor. We can get a lot more creative with tofu and Tempe, and we can always add a dash of meat flavor to it if we really want it to taste like meat.


@David09 - What would make someone buy an inferior good over something that is better? The article gives as an example brand name cola.

Perhaps you would go to a wholesale warehouse and buy their generic substitute. Is this driven by price, or because you don’t care either way what you buy?

I think people who are loyal to a particular brand would never buy the generic soda, regardless of how cheap it is. The taste may not be what they want either.

Other people on the other hand don’t care, even if the taste is somewhat bland compared to the brand name soda. For these people price is everything.


Not all substitute goods are driven by scarcity. Sometimes they are driven by health considerations, although you could bring scarcity into the mix there by saying that there aren’t enough healthy food products in the market.

One such example is sugar alternatives. People will buy sugar sweeteners instead; I don’t think it’s because there’s not enough real sugar, but because the sweeteners are supposedly low calorie alternatives.

That much is true, but the jury is still out on whether the sweeteners are healthy or not. I don’t think they are.

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