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What's Behind The Shortage Of Refrigerators And Other Major Appliances?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Americans are used to having choices when they shop. If you need a new dishwasher, you expect to get one with your favorite features fast. But in recent months, lots of people who need new appliances discovered they're out of luck. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Shay Chandler did not plan to buy what seemed like the last full-sized refrigerator in all of San Antonio. When her fridge broke down Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, she did what most of us would do, went to her usual hardware store, Lowe's.

SHAY CHANDLER: All the Lowe's all over San Antonio - and San Antonio is a very large city - everyone was out.

SELYUKH: Chandler thought, this is nuts. All she wanted was a French door fridge with the freezer on the bottom - no dice. Her options were minifridges or an order she would get weeks later. And then a miracle - someone in the suburbs canceled their order, a side-by-side - not a fridge she wanted, but a fridge she could fit.

CHANDLER: That was the only full-sized refrigerator in a 50-mile radius. That's - I mean, that's how crazy it is. I didn't get what I wanted, but I just feel very lucky I got a fridge. I feel very lucky I got a full-sized fridge.

SELYUKH: This is happening for all kinds of appliances - dishwashers, dryers, even some of the microwaves - but it started in the spring with freezers. Here's Steve Sheinkopf, who runs Yale Appliance with stores outside Boston.

STEVE SHEINKOPF: People were storing stuff because we thought this was the end of times. We needed food. We sold more freezers in two days than we did all of last year.

SELYUKH: That run on freezers, and then refrigerators with freezers, set the stage for backlogs today. That's because it coincided with another factor. Makers and sellers had a hard time planning for the future. Remember; in March and April, stores shut down en masse.

SHEINKOPF: We expect 400 visitors on a weekend to three stores and we get eight total.

SELYUKH: We are in the middle of a historic recession, and so it was logical for companies to worry that shoppers would stop spending, for stores to pull back orders, for factories to scale back manufacturing. But now people are shopping, and spring was the key time to prepare for this.

SHEINKOPF: If you've made the fateful decision to cancel orders in March and April, come May, June and July - impossible to get those back.

SELYUKH: Did you make that decision to cancel orders?

SHEINKOPF: No, thank God.

SELYUKH: You were optimistic.

SHEINKOPF: Optimistic or lucky.

SELYUKH: Not all stores got lucky with forecasts. But even more critical was what actually happened, which is waves of spikes in coronavirus cases through major hubs for shipping and manufacturing of parts and appliances - China, the U.S., Mexico. Many factories had to slow down, close altogether or allow fewer people inside.

SANDY TAU: Factories - I think it's improved a little bit now, but I know that throughout the summer, they were operating at 25% to 50% capacity.

SELYUKH: Sandy Tau owns AHC Appliances in Long Island. After 25 years in the industry, she has never seen such a backlog.

TAU: We have freezers that are on backorder since the end of March that have still not come in.

SELYUKH: The final twist was big demand. Turns out when people are stuck at home, constantly reheating leftovers or baking insane amounts of bread, things start breaking. But also, when people can't splurge on trips and outings, they obsess over immediate surroundings. They move to new homes or go wild with home improvement. You take the confused supply, add the sudden demand, and you get shortages - maybe six options instead of 20, not a French door fridge, but a side-by-side, if you're lucky.

TAU: This business was started by my father-in-law in the '60s. And one of the things that he used to say was it was a lot easier back then because you really didn't have too many choices. Well, we're kind of back to that. We don't have too many choices.

SELYUKH: So if you're shopping for appliances, it's probably good to either be patient or ready to jump on something you may not want but can make work.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.