The Indicator from Planet Money - The Great Fridge Freeze-Out

For months now, there's been a shortage of refrigerators and freezers across the U.S. Shoppers can't find appliances to buy and stores can't find enough appliances to sell. Alina Selyukh joins The Indicator to explain why.

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Alina selyukh NPR business correspondent visiting the indicator. How are you? Hello. Hello. You were brought us a story here today and I'm super excited about this one tell us about it. So I don't know about you. But since I've been stuck at home everything around my apartment just seems to be crumbling in like bursting at the seams. No joke. I actually broke a microphone stand right beside my microwave broke the other day and I've been hearing this happening to a lot of people one of them is Shay Chandler from Texas who a few weeks ago discovered that her fridge had decided it had enough. My refrigerator went out on a Saturday afternoon inside the fridge for new Frigidaire. So complicated that's right. I had this nice French door models got two doors on the top of the freezer.

And the bottom is nice pretty old. So when it broke she thought no reason to panic. I've got some money saved. I'll go to the hardware store and get a new one easy peasy. I'm guessing by where the story is going. It's not easy peasy never is she walks into her local Lowe's. We're normally there's like a whole wall of fridges and she found nothing for sale. No refrigerate Bureau refrigerators all I can buy with a mini fridge.

I mean all over all over San Antonio San Antonio of a very large city all the words all over San Antonio. Everyone was out if she looked in the computer for the entire city, that's crazy. And to order one, you know, just order what I wanted. I was going to get it for like the end of October or something she wants out so she could have gotten three mini fridges and just stack them on top of each other right considering that but then decided that her children would not really put up with that.

Busy indicator from Planet Money. I'm Carlos Garcia here today with Alina Celiac's the NPR business desk and today on the show The Great refrigerator freeze out. Why is it so hard to buy a new fridge a global pandemic wreaks havoc on our kitchen appliances.

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I know we said this is a story about refrigerator is but it actually begins with I don't know what freezers r242 the cousins it's so stifling siblings. Basically, it starts with prepping for the end of the world back in early spring when people were like hoarding food and supplies and things like that shoots spikes for example in demand for Frozen and you got to store it somewhere right? So you had people likes and eat out who's been selling appliances for 25 years. She runs the store Age The Appliance in Long Island, and she's watching this insane thing happening in stores like hers. Some people were Panic buying freezers. I can't even begin to tell you how many we sold. We just went all out and orders as many freezes as we could.

Usually those add-on boring Appliance you who gets excited about a freezer, but now people were buying fridges because they had freezers in them like a package deal on with the other I get it. So there's this big boom in demand for both freezers and fridge has that's part 1 of a shortage. I think that's pretty easy to understand. But obviously, we've also heard a lot about the supply-side too because the manufacturing process got really disrupted by the pandemic and a fridge is kind of like other complicated products like cars. It's a machine that's made of parts that come from all over the world So when you buy one the Box might be stamped in you know, Ohio or North Carolina, but it's probably got some wiring from China maybe a compressor from Brazil some assembly done in Mexico. You can see how much research I just found.

Parts at different times. So it became like this messed-up Supply change some things were just taking way longer to get it when one part of the change shuts down it threatens to rupture the whole thing the whole chain might just fall apart and in the end if your appliances getting married or shipping off to sellers like Sandy, right when demand is booming and so she could call up her suppliers to say give me more stuff to sell and that didn't always go out. I remember speaking to my Sub-Zero Wolf rap, probably in about June and I said, oh we okay for inventory and he said I know we're good for the next three months will then all of the sudden the middle summer one of their major Factory's is in Arizona as we know Arizona had a very bad, I'll take this comment on the fact we shut down three time of three months for new fridge and freezers Sandy's still waiting on a bunch of freezer. She ordered back in March.

Six months. She's been waiting half a year. She still waiting still waiting and this to me is the weirdest part of the story because right it is the classics order situation confused Supply Plus high demand, but it wasn't your victim and it wasn't totally unexpected Demand, right? That's the idea that even though the economy was melting down in there was a lot of American Choppers actually still were buying big appliances and just how resilient surprisingly resilient home improvement stores. Like Home Depot have been for the pandemic their sales are actually higher now than they were last year and it imagine that's because there's still a lot of people going to new homes by new homes and remodeling the redecorating they want this place. We're spending all this time now to be to be nicer to be better exactly. It's like when people can't splurge on trips and outings be kind of redirector cooped up energy and money to their immediate some manufacturers Just

Can keep up with that unexpected demand. Sandy says with a blind says she has never

just like this year the entire industry washers dryers you name it and what you can see is that they're kind of declining last year, but then climbing again this year all the way through August which is consistent with there being a shortage of these things. They become more expensive shortages were actually so bad this Summer that lots of storage.

How to skip you know the classic Labor Day Sale because they're like, how am I supposed to put a sale on this imaginary appliance that I don't actually have something on sale. If you don't have it in the first place. Very bizarre new situation, I guess for for sellers like Sandy, right? It's pretty new but she says the result was actually kind of old-fashioned it reminded her of the strop. She used to hear from the old timers in the industry by my father-in-law in the sixties. And what are the things that he used to say was it was a lot easier back then because you really didn't have too many choices. Did you think is of course Americans famously. We are a picky people. We like our choices. We like being spoiled for Choice were used to sort of getting anything. We want with all the like custom bells and whistles in and everything else and it's like now right now and I don't want to make it sound like you can't actually buy it and you fridge now you can it's just instead of say 20 on

You might find 6. And if your heart's desire, is that picky fridge with your four doors and three temperature zones and an internet-connected air filter have to wait a little and the sellers actually say they are not expecting the shortages to ease up that much for the rest of the year. What ended up happening to Shay from Texas with the with the broken French door fridge someone in the suburbs saved her by canceling their orders. She was so excited to find this out even though it wasn't the model. She wanted it was a side by side where the freezer is on the left not on the bottom of the only full size refrigerator in a 50 mile radius. That's what I wanted. But I just feel very lucky. I got her fridge. I feel very lucky. I got a full size fridge.

Fine and emigrate is an accomplishment indeed when I really hope that your own microwave ends up holding out until these. These shortages are passing or across from NPR's businessdesk. Thanks so much. Thank you.

This episode of the indicator was produced by Darren Woods. In fact check by Shawn. Saldania. Patty Hirsch is the indicators editor and the indicator is a production of NPR.
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