The big chill


I can talk about it now. Three weeks after our refrigerator died and nine days into its replacement, I can objectively understand the economic recession’s impact on big-ticket item purchasing.

A couple of weeks ago, in my Minnesota 2020 Journal column, I wrote about our fridge dying. We moved refrigerator contents into a plastic picnic cooler, a step requiring a five pound bag of ice daily to keep things cool. After the service technician informed us that repair would start at $600 but could likely spike to $1000, replacement rather than repair made more sense. That’s when I ran into the recession.

Appliance purchasing is not a discretionary spending activity like buying a book or going out to dinner. Appliance costs tend to prohibit impulse spending but purchasing decisions can roughly be categorized as “we have to replace a dead fridge,” “we’d like to replace our old fridge with a newer, better, more efficient model” and “OMG, I simply have to have that shiny, high-end Sub-Zero or I’ll die.” Business models largely dictate which retailers embrace which market segments.

My spouse identified several models at our price point. We were surprised to learn that no one had any in stock. Every option would take a week. Warner’s Stellian said that, as did Best Buy.

I know from previous experience that buying an appliance one day and getting it delivered the next just doesn’t happen. Still, a week? Seven more five-pound bags of ice? Geez. Then, I pulled up the national inventory reports.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Manufacturing and Trade Inventories and Sales report for May 2010, spring inventory levels are the lowest they’ve been in ten years. Manufacturers and retailers are very cautiously managing supply. Big-ticket items aren’t moving so manufacturers aren’t eager to make goods that retailers can’t sell. All of it is driven by recession-sensitive consumers’ reluctance to buy.

Insight doesn’t lessen my exasperation but it does temper my expectations. We built a consumer culture around instant gratification. Now, in this prolonged recession, we’re paying a steep price for the high cost of wanting and getting. Surviving a refrigerator loss and surviving a persistent economic recession are two very different things but they both point toward a similar lesson: a growing economy yields more opportunities than a shrinking one. It came free with my new fridge.