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Introduction to Business

1.7 Competing in a Free Market

Introduction to Business1.7 Competing in a Free Market

  1. What are the four types of market structure?

One of the characteristics of a free-market system is that suppliers have the right to compete with one another. The number of suppliers in a market defines the market structure. Economists identify four types of market structures: (1) perfect competition, (2) pure monopoly, (3) monopolistic competition, and (4) oligopoly. Table 1.3 summarizes the characteristics of each of these market structures.

Perfect Competition

Characteristics of perfect (pure) competition include:

  • A large number of small firms are in the market.
  • The firms sell similar products; that is, each firm’s product is very much like the products sold by other firms in the market.
  • Buyers and sellers in the market have good information about prices, sources of supply, and so on.
  • It is easy to open a new business or close an existing one.
Comparison of Market Structures
Characteristics Perfect Competition Pure Monopoly Monopolistic Competition Oligopoly
Number of firms in market Many One Many, but fewer than perfect competition Few
Firm’s ability to control price None High Some Some
Barriers to entry None Subject to government regulation Few Many
Product differentiation Very little No products that compete directly Emphasis on showing perceived differences in products Some differences
Examples Farm products such as wheat and corn Utilities such as gas, water, cable television Retail specialty clothing stores Steel, automobiles, airlines, aircraft manufacturers
Table 1.3

In a perfectly competitive market, firms sell their products at prices determined solely by forces beyond their control. Because the products are very similar and each firm contributes only a small amount to the total quantity supplied by the industry, price is determined by supply and demand. A firm that raised its price even a little above the going rate would lose customers. In the wheat market, for example, the product is essentially the same from one wheat producer to the next. Thus, none of the producers has control over the price of wheat.

Perfect competition is an ideal. No industry shows all its characteristics, but the stock market and some agricultural markets, such as those for wheat and corn, come closest. Farmers, for example, can sell all of their crops through national commodity exchanges at the current market price.

Pure Monopoly

At the other end of the spectrum is pure monopoly, the market structure in which a single firm accounts for all industry sales of a particular good or service. The firm is the industry. This market structure is characterized by barriers to entry—factors that prevent new firms from competing equally with the existing firm. Often the barriers are technological or legal conditions. Polaroid, for example, held major patents on instant photography for years. When Kodak tried to market its own instant camera, Polaroid sued, claiming patent violations. Polaroid collected millions of dollars from Kodak. Another barrier may be one firm’s control of a natural resource. DeBeers Consolidated Mines Ltd., for example, controls most of the world’s supply of uncut diamonds.

Public utilities, such as gas and water companies, are pure monopolies. Some monopolies are created by a government order that outlaws competition. The U.S. Postal Service is currently one such monopoly.

Monopolistic Competition

Three characteristics define the market structure known as monopolistic competition:

  • Many firms are in the market.
  • The firms offer products that are close substitutes but still differ from one another.
  • It is relatively easy to enter the market.

Under monopolistic competition, firms take advantage of product differentiation. Industries where monopolistic competition occurs include clothing, food, and similar consumer products. Firms under monopolistic competition have more control over pricing than do firms under perfect competition because consumers do not view the products as perfect substitutes. Nevertheless, firms must demonstrate product differences to justify their prices to customers. Consequently, companies use advertising to distinguish their products from others. Such distinctions may be significant or superficial. For example, Nike says “Just Do It,” and Tylenol is advertised as being easier on the stomach than aspirin.


An oligopoly has two characteristics:

  • A few firms produce most or all of the output.
  • Large capital requirements or other factors limit the number of firms.

Boeing and Airbus Industries (aircraft manufacturers) and Apple and Google (operating systems for smartphones) are major players in different oligopolistic industries.

With so few firms in an oligopoly, what one firm does has an impact on the other firms. Thus, the firms in an oligopoly watch one another closely for new technologies, product changes and innovations, promotional campaigns, pricing, production, and other developments. Sometimes they go so far as to coordinate their pricing and output decisions, which is illegal. Many antitrust cases—legal challenges arising out of laws designed to control anticompetitive behavior—occur in oligopolies.

The market structure of an industry can change over time. Take, for example, telecommunications. At one time, AT&T had a monopoly on long-distance telephone service nationwide. Then the U.S. government divided the company into seven regional phone companies in 1984, opening the door to greater competition. Other companies such as MCI and Sprint entered the fray and built state-of-the-art fiber-optic networks to win customers from the traditional providers of phone service. The 1996 Telecommunications Act changed the competitive environment yet again by allowing local phone companies to offer long-distance service in exchange for letting competition into their local markets. Today, the broadcasting, computer, telephone, and video industries are converging as companies consolidate through merger and acquisition.

Concept Check

  1. What is meant by market structure?
  2. Compare and contrast perfect competition and pure monopoly. Why is it rare to find perfect competition?
  3. How does an oligopoly differ from monopolistic competition?
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