Major appliance retailers say they are experiencing a shortage of refrigerators — a result of U.S. manufacturers' not-so-seamless shift to new energy-efficient models mandated by tougher federal standards.
Among those finding inventory scarce is the MARTA buying group, whose member dealers "can't get enough to meet demand," reported executive director Warren Mann. He blames major appliance manufacturers for not stockpiling enough older models — as they usually do when transitioning to a new product line — on the assumption that the older units wouldn't sell after a certain point.
Vendors, through their trade group, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), had worked closely with the Department of Energy to develop the new minimum efficiency standards, which went into effect on July 1. According to Gene Foley, director of AHAM's major appliance and supplier divisions, the new standards require refrigerators to be an additional 30 percent more efficient than those sold just last year. This follows earlier mandates: refrigerators produced in 1999 consumed 46 percent less energy than 1980 models.
Many vendors were ahead of the curve, introducing their new lines as early as last year. But in most cases the new lines required manufacturers to retool their plants and build new assembly lines, and even though many are up and running, shipments are not up to speed with demand, sources said.
"Basically, everybody had to introduce a new line of refrigerators due to the energy laws, and there have been some start-up hiccups," said Bill Trawick, executive director of the NATM buying group. "I don't think these were major problems to the industry, and this is not uncommon when manufacturers change lines."
The problem isn't limited to any one manufacturer, but includes most of the top U.S. majap makers, retailers said. Likewise, it's not just one refrigerator type that is hard to come by. Trawick called them "spot shortages," explaining that one vendor couldn't provide its top-mount model while another couldn't provide its side-by-side.
At press time, executives at Frigidaire were unavailable for comment, and GE — whose refrigeration supply is steadiest, retailers reported — declined to comment.
However, a Whirlpool spokesman acknowledged some problems with the company's changeover.
"We had introduced our new platform, Conquest, one year before the new D.O.E. regulations went into effect, and now we're making some modifications on it," he said. "We're working our way through inventory on previous models, but depending on consumer demand and trade partner demand, there can be availability issues. There are production issues, as this is a very complicated transition."
To compound the problem, he said, the summer is refrigeration season, "so I wouldn't be surprised if there were shortages."
No. 5 majap maker Amana, which has just retooled its production line in preparation for a new generation of side-by-sides, and also sources top mounts from Frigidaire, said it hasn't generally been affected by constricted supply. Aside from one or two models, a spokesman said, "There's been nothing significant or notable" in terms of tightness. "We've invested quite heavily in all the new equipment and are getting ready to crank out the new models," he said, adding that there's "nothing out of the ordinary" related to the changeover.
"I would not in any way categorize this as a crisis," agreed Trawick, who emphasized that the shortages have been invisible to consumers as retailers have always managed to find refrigerators for their floors.
Still, some retailers think they are getting the short end of the supply stick.
"The big retailers are getting the shipments, and that's hurting us," said Ed Kelly, director of the Nationwide TV & Appliance buying group, referring to the big-box chains that tend to have greater sell-through.
Some retailers TWICE spoke with would not comment on the record, for fear of jeopardizing their relationships with the manufacturers, and thus their orders.
The general consensus, though, is that the new and improved refrigeration lines are among the most exciting events in the major appliance industry in awhile, and that they have the potential to be big sellers into the holiday season, if only they were available.
Trawick said he expected this difficult period to come to a close soon, and noted that in most cases, "production is getting better." — Additional reporting by Alan Wolf