Lockdowns spark more spending on home appliances

Even big-ticket items such as washers and fridges are selling amid rising unemployment, as people shun repairs amid social distancing.
Even big-ticket items such as washers and fridges are selling amid rising unemployment, as people shun repairs amid social distancing.PHOTO: LG

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

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

Even as personal spending in the US plunged the most on record amid stay-at-home orders, people bought all kinds of appliances. Sales from March 15 to April 11 rose for about 70 per cent 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 per cent), soft-drink machines (283 per cent), handheld cleaning devices (284 per cent), water filtration machines (152 per cent) and air purifiers (144 per cent).

The much-written-about baking trend also showed up, with purchases of those breadmakers 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 will not change when the world returns to some semblance of normal, according to Mr Ian Bell, a researcher with Euromonitor International.

He noted that people will not fall back into a "psychology of abundance" once the crisis passed. That portends a major shift towards appliances, including adding more space for refrigeration and food storage.

"It won't be business as usual," he 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.

"People are using their appliances more than ever."

The appliance industry is poised to respond because wellness-certified designs and high-tech features, such as 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," she said.

Washing machines with sanitising cycles and Samsung's touchscreen refrigerators are primed to go mainstream more quickly 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, Ms 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 UK-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 Mr Joe Derochowski, a home industry analyst at 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 per cent from a year ago, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM).

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 has pushed more people to splurge on new dishwashers and refrigerators, according to Ms Jill Notini, a spokesman for the AHAM.

Deep freezers have done especially well, with sales up 45 per cent versus a year ago, according to AHAM data. Most models at the websites of Home Depot and Amazon.com 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 Ms Whitney Welch, a spokesman 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," she said. "They are spending more time with their families under one roof cooking, cleaning and storing food."

For Mr Camardella, the shop owner who sold about 40 deep freezers before running out, there is no relief in sight. He has tried to place orders through a buyer's cooperative only to have delivery dates pushed back.

But he said that has not stopped his customers from pulling out their wallets. "People have been buying refrigerator-freezer combos just to get the freezer."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 24, 2020, with the headline 'Lockdowns spark more spending on home appliances'. Print Edition | Subscribe