The 20th century is winding up on a positive note for the major appliance industry, as both retailers and suppliers end 1999 with impressive white-goods sales gains.
This year has been a relatively stable one on the retail side of the majap business, although uncertainty about the role of e-commerce in major appliance sales -- including the possibility of appliance manufacturers selling directly to consumers -- has kept many retailers wondering what the new millennium will bring.
On the manufacturer side, a flurry of changes in suppliers' executive suites has brought new leadership to take appliance companies into the year 2000.
Saleswise, a strong room air conditioner season has helped push industry volume to another year of strong gains, coming on the heels of a 10.2 percent increase in manufacturers' shipments in 1998.
After a slow start, the room air season took off in June. The kind of high temperatures AC retailers dream about were producing even more business than they'd hoped for in July, ultimately creating shortages by midsummer as retail sell-through levels topped 90 percent.
Other appliances have also shown sales strength throughout this year, particularly in the home laundry category, as product innovations spurred consumers to accelerate replacement cycles.
The Internet had a definite impact on appliance sales this year, with perhaps the biggest news on the retail side being the entry of Sears into appliance e-commerce through its sears.com site.
In addition to Sears and other appliance chains launching white-goods sales online, several Internet operations -- such as ApplianceOrder.com, HomeAppliances.com and Brandwise.com -- got under way this year with sites that sell major appliances to consumers, either directly or through affiliated brick & mortar retailers.
Another site, 24/7 Showroom.com, is working to set up Internet sites for retailers to sell appliances online in specific markets. Retail veteran Charlie Palko left Roberds to help establish that operation.
But the big question for many appliance retailers remains the specter of white-goods manufacturers selling their products to consumers via their own Web sites.
This year Carrier became the first majap supplier to go Internet-direct when it kicked off room air sales on its site. Other manufacturers now offer replacement parts and/or appliance accessories on-line but not the appliances themselves.
Maytag's acknowledgement that it is investigating Internet possibilities sparked retail concern this fall, and rumors persist that other suppliers are also quietly considering their e-commerce options.
Traditional appliance chains and independent dealers also found themselves facing new retail competition for white-goods sales this year.
In addition to its online sales effort, Sears targeted the upscale appliance customer with a new Kenmore Elite product assortment. Costco entered the appliance field with a new Whirlpool-produced line of Kirkland Signature private-label appliances, and Home Depot concluded a year-long test of majap sales by deciding to go chainwide with Whirlpool and GE appliances in 2000.
In the meantime, appliance manufacturers produced a raft of new merchandise for retailers to sell this year. Other suppliers broadened their reach by entering new white-goods categories.
Much of 1999's appliance product news came in the cooking area, with "speed cooking" the key buzzword.
Both GE Appliances and Jenn-Air spent much of the year talking about their new, fast-cooking ovens; GE's halogen-based Advantium went on sale in October; and the Jenn-Air Accellis FXP, which combines microwave energy with rapidly moving hot air, will bow at next month's Builders Show for spring distribution.
Maytag also made news with the industry's first two-oven freestanding range, the Gemini.
Among the suppliers entering new appliance categories, Sub-Zero introduced its first wine coolers, Viking began selling undercounter refrigerators and Samsung unveiled its first line of full-size refrigerators.
Also, LG Electronics began marketing its first GoldStar floor care line, Avanti offered its first automatic washer, Danby Products introduced its first countertop dishwasher, and Haier America Trading expanded into washers and chest freezers.
Retailers got a look at possibilities for the next millennium at trade shows this year, as well, through prototypes such as Eureka's Robot Vac, Frigidaire's Screenfridge and Maytag's interactive innovations.
Finally, retailers will enter the new century dealing with a whole new crop of manufacturing executives, following a flurry of top-echelon personnel changes among appliance suppliers.
In May, Maytag president Lloyd Ward succeeded Len Hadley as the company's chairman/CEO, followed in June by the appointment of former Whirlpool Europe head Jeff Fettig to succeed Ralph Hake as president/COO of Whirlpool.
Last month GE veteran Larry Johnston was named president/CEO of GE Appliances after Dave Cote left for TRW, and on December 10, Ward appointed former Polaroid executive Carole Uhrich as president of Maytag Home Solutions.
Longtime Fedders execs Bob Laurent and Tom Purcell resigned from the company. Gary Koetters is now Fedders' senior VP of sales and marketing; Jim Campbell replaced Brian Kelley as sales VP at GE Appliances; and Harry Gianetti succeeded Dick Tipton as sales VP at Thermador.
Steve Piro replaced Leon Bausch as president of Asko. Also, Nelson Woodbridge succeeded Jim Ruberti as executive VP of marketing at Brown Stove; Bernie Tymkiw left Goodman Products and joined Haier America as senior VP of sales; and Richard Miller took over Bill Mayhew's responsibilities at Sanyo's home appliance division after Mayhew resigned.
Finally, Joe McGuire became AHAM's first new president in 17 years, following the resignation of industry veteran Bob Holding.