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Asian Invasion Adds To Domestic Makers’ Woes

ORLANDO, FLA. — As if slumping factory sales and market share price wars weren’t enough, the major domestic white goods manufacturers now find themselves faced with another foe: Asian imports.

The sleeping tigers that were China’s Haier Group and Korea’s LG Electronics awoke with full force at last month’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show here, presenting expansive, competitively priced lines that positioned the companies as serious and committed competitors.

“Our company is a full-line supplier,” stressed Michael Jemal, president/CEO of two-year-old Haier America Trading, the manufacturer’s U.S. joint venture, which was once considered a source for compact refrigerators and room air conditioners solely. “We have something for everyone and won’t limit ourselves to one sector of the market.”

Indeed, buoyed by a $5 billion head of sales steam, 16-year-old Haier Group expanded the product line to some 100 models, including a range of full-size, 18.2 cubic foot refrigerators. The platform is now being pumped out of a new $35 million plant in Camden, S.C. to the tune of 200,000 units per shift per year.

“We’ve made a commitment to large-volume refrigerators and big box laundry products,” Jemal continued, “and we’ve found great acceptance at retail because we offer a very good value with features that are important to the consumer. Both retailers and consumers are great beneficiaries of us joining the industry because it gives them a better choice.”

Among those choices highlighted at K/BIS was a new tier of energy-efficient front-load washing machines with a 2.0-cubic-foot capacity, and a 2.0-cubic-foot capacity washer/dryer combo that includes a self-venting dryer with removable lint trap.

Haier also introduced a stainless steel, 1,100-watt, 1.0 cubic foot microwave oven that is priced to retail for $159.99, and a 1.5 cubic foot stainless steel convection oven with electronic timer and six-function selector that will hit stores this summer at a suggested retail of $399.

But leading the lineup was the aforementioned refrigerators, whose suggested retails start at $399. The frost-free units feature two full-width and one half-width adjustable, cantilevered glass shelves, flat-back design, reversible door hinges and an up front adjustable automatic thermostat.

The assortment was equally formidable at the LG display, where 25 new microwave, refrigerator, washer and room air conditioner models were touted. The 43-year-old company, whose better known CE operation — which includes Zenith Electronics and had U.S. sales of $9.4 billion in 1999 — was previously known in appliance circles for its Goldstar value line of microwave ovens, air conditioners and floor care products. But after tripling its sales in three years, the home appliance division believed the time was right to aim high and leverage the LG brand into a full-line majap resource.

Said Simon Kang, president of LG Electronics U.S.A. “We are leveraging our ingenuity in consumer electronics to develop smart appliances that make life easier for busy families.”

The first fruits of that effort, a line of room air conditioners that feature a plasma-treated and corrosion-free heat exchanger, hit retail shelves last month, while the balance of the new line is slated to ship early this summer. Suggested retails for the a/c units range from $249 for the 5,200 Btu model to $499 for the 12,000 Btu model. According to marketing manager Jae Park, the patented plasma treatment process renders the heat exchanger’s aluminum surface water resistant, effectively eliminating condensation.

Innovation also informed the company’s home laundry line, where a direct drive washer — reportedly the world’s first — made its debut. Available in the third quarter, LG’s 15-pound capacity IntelloWasher DD boasts a brushless, beltless operation that delivers power to the drum with a motor attached directly to its center.

LG says the novel design reduces vibration levels by as much as 60 percent and noise levels by 18 percent; lowers electricity usage by 38 percent; and uses 17 percent less water than conventional models. But all that innovation comes at a price: suggested retail is $1,299, and $1,499 for the combination washer/dryer.

LG also believes that it has built a better refrigerator. It’s full-size line, which ships in July, features a patented door-vent cooling system that cools food fast and maintains stable temperatures despite repeated opening and closing. The units are also powered by a linear compressor that’s engineered to operate more quietly and efficiently than conventional reciprocating compressors and crankshafts. The 18-cubic-foot model is priced to hit a $749 retail while its 20-cubic-foot cousin will retail for about $849.