Appliance purchases may soon net rebate

MANATEE — The home appliance market is showing signs of recovery as the federal government prepares to release money to stimulate sales of energy-efficient washers/dryers, refrigerators and dishwashers.

Floridians who purchase certain energy-saving appliances soon will be eligible for as much as $17.6 million in rebates, the U.S. Energy Department said Tuesday. The money is part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed earlier this year.

“Appliances consume a huge amount of our electricity, so there’s enormous potential to both save energy and save families money every month,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. “These rebates will help families make the transition to more efficient appliances, making purchases that will directly stimulate the economy and create jobs.”

Details, such as what appliances will be eligible for rebates and how much the rebates will be, aren’t expected to be available until mid-October at the earliest.

The program comes as appliance stores are seeing signs of sales picking up.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s monthly retail trade survey shows nationwide home appliance store sales of $5 billion through April this year, down from $5.5 billion in the January-April period in 2008. However, month-to-month sales increased slightly in both March and April, and the bureau’s preliminary estimates for May also show an increase.

Less competition and more demand by new owners of foreclosed homes apparently are driving the increased demand.

Marc Kimball, a Home Depot regional merchandising manager in California, said the chain is “seeing an uptick in the lower- to middle-priced appliances,” a development he attributed to home foreclosures and “short sales,” where lenders accept less than what’s owed to avoid the higher cost of foreclosure.

“There’s a lot of repair work that needs to be done in these houses,” Kimball said. “People are really driven by value right now, ... (and) there’s definitely a lot of focus on water-saving and energy-saving units.”

Analysts say that’s because consumers consider refrigerators, washer/dryers, dishwashers and ranges/ovens as household essentials. And the cost of replacement is relatively affordable, compared with a big-ticket item like a motor vehicle.

“If the refrigerator dies, and you have meat in the freezer, you want something done right now,” said Walter King, a New York-based retail/marketing consultant. “You can do that with a few hundred dollars, not thousands of dollars.

“Consumers are willing to go into the hole that little bit, even in this economy, and they can do it on their credit card instead of having to set up financing through a credit union or a bank.”