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The humble white fridge: so yesterday

Today's models come with options aplenty -- how would you like your ice, Madame?

June 29, 2008|Mary Umberger | Chicago Tribune

We ask a lot of our refrigerators. That once-humble big white box still may be big and it still may be white, but manufacturers are trying hard to make it anything but humble, arming it with an array of capabilities, including spitting out three types of ice on command and alerting you that it's ailing, even if you're out of town.

Manufacturers who displayed their wares recently at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Chicago said they were packing the next generation of refrigerators with all manner of techno-wizardry and just plain novelty because they had to. Your good old fridge is probably good (though it probably is, indeed, old), and you don't really need a new one.

So, instead, they want you to want one. "It's like the consumer is saying, 'I may drive a Honda, but I want a Lexus,' " said Allen Bundy, a spokesman for LG Electronics.

Bundy's car analogy was an apt one as he reeled off the attributes of a new LG: two side-by-side French doors for the refrigerator atop two separate slide-out freezer drawers.

Apparently, the more doors the better these days. The four-door models are just taking hold, but three-door combos -- French doors for the fridge on top and one freezer door or drawer on the bottom -- were ubiquitous at the trade show.

In the mere two-door category, side-by-side (refrigerator alongside the freezer) is still the largest-selling category, though it's starting to lose favor to models with the refrigerator on top and the freezer on the bottom, Sears spokesman Mike Kelly said.

Indeed, the top-mounted freezer may become an endangered species, he and other company reps said. The industry is pushing bottom-mount freezers, they said, because consumers use the refrigerator portion much more often than the freezer, so they reason that it's more practical to put the latter below.

Figuring out how to rev up consumer desire through design shifts such as these is particularly crucial to the appliance business as the housing downturn drones on. Last year, overall appliance sales slipped about 1.6%, to $25.6 billion, according to NPD Group, an industry researcher. Though some appliance categories, such as dishwashers, did fairly well last year, refrigeration didn't. Sales fell nearly 10% in terms of dollar volume, NPD Group's data show.

Americans don't buy refrigerators often these days because the appliances have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years now, said Lora Donoghue, a Charlotte, N.C., appliance distributor who's on the board of directors of the National Kitchen & Bath Assn., the show's sponsor. Packing the devices with technology is aimed at impressing younger buyers, she added.

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