Stockpiling Germaphobes Ignite Unlikely Boom: Appliances

In the coronavirus era, stuck-at-home Americans are loading up on more than just bread makers. Take Peter Camardella, the 63-year-old owner of a small appliance store in Pelham, New York. He couldn’t find a deep freezer for his own daughter after his shop sold out.

“Customers have bought one, and they already have two or three,” Camardella said. “Many buyers are afraid of food shortages.”

Even as personal spending in the U.S. plunged themost on record amid stay-at-home orders, people bought all kinds of appliances. Sales from March 15 to April 11 rose for about 70% of the 88 subcategories for home and kitchen goods tracked by market researcher NPD Group. Some of the gains were just staggering, including electric pasta makers (462%), soda machines (283%), handheld cleaning devices (284%), water filtration machines (152%) and air purifiers (144%). The much-written-about baking trend also showed up, with purchases of those bread makers surging more than sixfold.

Lockdown life has forced people to rethink their homes, as they have morphed into spaces where schooling, working, exercising, inventory-stockpiling and germ avoidance are new, high-stakes activities. If history is a guide, that won’t change when the world returns to some semblance of normal, according to Ian Bell, a researcher with Euromonitor International. After Brexit and the Cape Town water shortage, people didn’t fall back into a “psychology of abundance” once the crisis passed, he said in a recent presentation. That portends a major shift toward appliances, including adding more space for refrigeration and food storage. 

“It won’t be business as usual,” Bell said. 

The phenomenon is global, with regional differences. In countries where people ate out a lot, like Singapore, there are now more pots and pans to clean, thus new interest in dishwashers. In places where domestic help was common, such as Brazil, the practice has ended due to social distancing, leading to a boom in cleaning devices.

The appliance industry is poised to respond because wellness-certified designs and high-tech features, like voice activation, were already in the innovation pipeline, said Seattle-based kitchen and bath designer Paula Kennedy. “It’s amazing, some of the sci-fi things they come up with,” said Kennedy, who’s been drawn to luxury appliances for her clients from Sub-Zero, Wolf and Electrolux.

21,495 in U.S.Most new cases today

-15% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-1.​082 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-4.​8% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), April

Washing machines with sanitizing cycles and Samsung’s touchscreen refrigerators are primed to go mainstream quicker with the added attention on home hygiene in the coronavirus era. For consumers stockpiling food, a fridge or freezer will be able to alert them when items are about to expire or need to be reordered, Kennedy said. 

There are also bathroom exhaust fans equipped with germ-killing LED lights from Wisconsin-based Broan-NuTone. Consumers can reduce the use of towels, which can spread germs, with hand dryers from U.K.-based Dyson, or full-body models from Spain’s Valiryo Technologies. Even motion-triggered faucets, so hard to turn on in public restrooms, may find traction in the new multi-functional, post-pandemic home.

“If we listen to consumers there's a whole lot of new need being created," said Joe Derochowski, a home industry analyst NPD. “This is when stress creates great innovation.”

Even big-ticket items are selling amid surging unemployment. In March, sales in the large-appliance category, which includes washers, ovens and fridges, rose almost 6% from a year ago, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. That bucked declines in January and February. 

One reason for the gains is that due to social distancing people are shunning appliance repairs—something they would normally do to save money in an economic downturn. That’s pushed more people to splurge on new dishwashers and refrigerators, according to Jill Notini, a spokeswoman for the AHAM. 

A move away from repairs helped Whirlpool Corp. eke out a small gain in North American sales in the first quarter, while markets in Europe, Middle East and Africa fell a combined 12%. “The demand decline in the United States is clearly not as pronounced as in China and Italy,” Chief Executive Officer Marc Bitzer said on a conference call with analysts.

Deep freezers have done especially well, with sales up 45% versus a year ago, according to AHAM data. Most models at the websites of Home Depot and were sold out at the time of writing this story.

The trend appears far from over. Fears over meat shortages spurred another surge in freezer storage, according to Whitney Welch, a spokeswoman for GE Appliances. The company, a unit of Qingdao-based Haier Group since 2017, continues to see higher demand. 

“People are using their appliances more than ever,” Welch said. “They are spending more time with their families under one roof cooking, cleaning and storing food.”

For Camardella, the shop owner who sold about 40 deep freezers before running out, there’s no relief in sight. He's tried to place orders through a buyer's cooperative only to have delivery dates pushed back. But he said that hasn’t stopped his customers from pulling out their wallets. 

“People have been buying refrigerator-freezer combos just to get the freezer.”


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