For a category that once depended on August back-to-school sales for a large chunk of its annual volume, compact appliances have made a remarkable shift to year-round sales.
The seasonal sales patterns very evident just a few years ago have flattened due to a combination of changing lifestyles and changing technology, compact manufacturers said.
With consumers spending more time entertaining at home, the idea of a second, third or even fourth refrigerator in the den or family room or out on the porch has gained popularity. And the broadening appeal of compacts has led to improvements in the products themselves -- in terms of both upgraded features and enhanced cosmetics -- which in turn have boosted sales still further, they said.
"The sales patterns the category has traditionally seen have changed as more and more people turn their rec rooms into entertainment centers," said Janice Luebbert, marketing director for compact supplier Danby Products.
Although the back-to-school period once accounted for a sizeable share of annual volume, Luebbert said, "compact refrigerators are not just a student market. For example, the Christmas selling period has become a big season, and we see sales right through the summer as people buy small refrigerators for the patio or backyard."
Michael Jemal, president/CEO of Haier America Trading, said, "When we first looked at the U.S. market for compact appliances, we thought it would be a niche category, for the dorm, for example. But we're finding that major appliance retailers who are putting these products on the floor are selling them to a wide spectrum of consumers."
"If they see compacts displayed on the selling floor, customers will develop their own applications for where and how to use them," Jemal suggested. "And as we introduce new products, we're learning that this is not a category with just one selling season, the sales are smoothing out across the entire year."
Danby, Haier and other compact manufacturers have been revamping their compact assortments to give the products increased versatility and style. For example, U-Line, a pioneer in the compact appliance business, launched a line of compact refrigerators with stainless-steel fronts early this year, tying in with design trends popular in full-size appliances.
"The refrigerator is the most frequently used appliance in the home, yet its location in the kitchen can make it inconvenient for entertaining and casual refreshment," said U-Line president Phil Uihlein. "Today's upscale undercounter refrigerators offer the function of their full-size counterparts. However, they are much more versatile and convenient, as their compact designs enable them to be installed in virtually any room in the house."
Other companies are targeting the leisure market with refrigerators specifically designed for use outdoors.
Marvel Industries introduced four new compacts engineered for outdoor applications earlier this year, while Viking Range entered the compact market with undercounter units designed for either indoor or outdoor use.
Other appliance suppliers in the compact category, such as Avanti Products, as well as the appliance divisions of a number of consumer electronics firms, are expected to show expanded lines at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show.
The increased popularity of compact appliances with consumers has not gone unnoticed by retailers, both those traditionally focused on major appliances and those for whom space or delivery considerations preclude stocking full-sized white goods in depth.
"The retail channels carrying compacts today are absolutely expanding," stated Danby's Luebbert. "We're seeing mass merchandisers and discounters do more with the category, and it's also moving into hardware and home-improvement stores."