Cash for Clunkers is history. but starting this week in North Carolina, consumers can meet its younger sibling: Cash for Appliances, a government incentive that promises a 15 percent instant rebate for people trading in an old washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator or freezer for a new, efficient model.
Customers already in the know about the rebate have been calling stores and stopping by in person to research their choices. Retailers, meanwhile, are gearing up for a buying bonanza that they expect to rival or surpass the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday weekend.
"It's probably one of the strongest promotions the appliance industry has ever seen," said Bill Pleasants Jr., general manager of Plaza Appliance, a six-store, Charlotte-based chain. "We're pulling out all the stops."
An N.C. resident buying a $500 dishwasher, for instance, would receive $75 off at the register under the federal discount. to qualify, a shopper must also certify at checkout that he or she is turning in an old model, and then have that model taken away when the new appliance is delivered.
Some experts wonder whether discounts on appliances that promise long-term energy savings will be enough to spur spending in an economy still focused on immediate money needs. but stores aren't taking chances: Across the state, they'll vie for your dollars by bringing in more stock, boosting staffing and extending hours for the event, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, in conjunction with Earth Day. And if it helps the environment in the process - well, they're fine with that, too.
"Consumers are very concerned about energy savings," said Clint Davis, senior vice president of merchandising for kitchen and bath products with Mooresville-based Lowe's. "The main thing they're focused on is, 'How do I save money?'"
Like last summer's rebate on cars, the appliance program is designed to give people an incentive to take energy hogs off the grid. Each state received an allotment from $300 million in federal stimulus money, based on population, to design and run its own rebates, so the discounts have been rolling out across the country for months. South Carolina's, for instance, began March 31 and offered set dollar amounts off - an approach retailers say hasn't resonated with consumers as strongly as percent discounts like North Carolina's.
The bulk of the rebates nationwide are this month, with North Carolina disbursing $8.8 million. Customers can receive the discount on one Energy Star-rated appliance in each category. As with Cash for Clunkers, the deals last until the money runs out.
In part because they're closely tied to the housing market, major appliance sales have fallen in the recession: Between February 2008 and 2009, they were down 10 percent, and they decreased another 3 percent in the year that followed, according to the most recent data available from the NPD Group, a leading consumer research firm. though declines have leveled off, retailers are counting on Cash for Appliances to push shoppers off the edge and into the pool, said mark Delaney of NPD.
That could be a challenge: more than half of consumers buying major appliances do so under duress - because their existing ones are broken, Lowe's Davis said. but newer appliances also use far less energy than older models, which could save buyers money in the long term.
Lowe's, for instance, has sought to position itself as an authority on energy savings, with Energy Star products clearly labeled and signs and brochures describing potential energy savings stationed throughout the store. The chain has invested money - and found success in - growing its appliance sales generally, even in the recession, and appliances are the company's single biggest-selling category.
Appliance retailers have also seen sales gains during North Carolina's fall sales tax holiday on qualified Energy Star appliances, which has taken place the last two years. but the federal incentive is twice as good, noted Roddey Player, the CEO of Charlotte-based Queen City Audio Video & Appliances. That has him expecting a "huge, huge weekend," and advertising accordingly.
His stores are also offering the opportunity to buy a washing machine in person at 3 a.m., should you choose to do so: N.C. Queen City stores will open at 11 p.m. on Wednesday and stay open 22 straight hours, until 9 p.m. Thursday, to capture early sales. The company will also offer Sunday deliveries, normally unavailable.
Sears, the nation's largest appliance retailer, has been preparing for the rebates for more than a year, establishing a website in which customers can search for rebates and eligible appliances by zip code and ensuring it has high-speed information terminals in stores. The company has also set up a dedicated phone center for customers with additional questions, said Doug Moore, the company's president of home appliances.
"Cash for Clunkers made people move forward more quickly to perhaps replace a car, because they saw it as an unprecedented opportunity," he said. "We think (the appliance rebates) will focus more interest in a condensed period of time than almost anything we could think of on our own, because the extra dollars thrown into the puzzle make it really attractive to customers."
The promotion also will likely have a halo effect on appliance sales generally by raising awareness of a trend - energy-efficiency - that is becoming a larger part of the decision-making process, he said.
Indeed, that was one of several subjects on Barbara Harris' mind as she browsed at the Huntersville Lowe's last week. She'd come to the store to replace a broken microwave, but began considering whether to hold off a week and also buy other appliances after sales specialist Alex Brown told her about the rebates, she said.
Replacement was in the back of her mind anyway, because all of her appliances are at least a decade old. "I like the energy efficiency of the appliances," said Harris, 44, a nurse, as Brown showed her features of a stainless steel Samsung refrigerator, with French doors. "Price, everyone wants to get a good value. Of course, it has to look pretty, too."
In the back of the store, the shelves were stacked high and fuller than usual with appliances, thanks in part to a full truckload that had arrived the night before, appliance manager Matthew Mulkeen said.
Whether the rebates will be enough to push those out the door, though, remains to be seen. The savings, NPD's Delaney notes, have to be enough to prompt action, especially if a person's current appliance is still functioning.
"It's not like people are going out, buying appliances like they are MP3 players," he said.
"While I think it is an incentive to purchase, I don't think it's going to be the highest incentive to purchase when you're in an economy like this," he said. "(At the same time), we're looking for any incentive that we can to get consumers coming back into stores."
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Retailers ready for rebates