Sometime in the late 1970s, we replaced our stacked washer/dryer which we had bought for the mobile home we lived in, with two appliances. I subscribed to Consumer Reports than and read about different brands of washing machines and clothes dryers. From that reading we bought appliances from two different companies. It’s been a long time now, and it doesn’t matter, but I can’t remember who made them.
Those two appliances were moved to a different location where we had a home with natural gas and I replaced the electric dryer with a gas dryer. Our next move – according to the owner – was to a total electric home. I sold the gas dryer and bought an electric dryer. The house we had bought, practically sight unseen, had a gas hook-up in the utility room. The man’s wife said I should have called her, that her husband didn’t know anything about anything except selling stocks and bonds.
So, from the mid-80s we had a washer form the 70s and a dryer from the 1980s. When we moved in 2008 to our present home we still had those appliances. Because clothes came out of the dryer covered with fine white material of some kind my wife thought we needed a new dryer. We replaced both washer and dryer and clothes still came out covered with something white.
We still don’t know what it is. L dresses mainly in black and, while I can’t see the stuff, she says it is horrible. The appliance store ventured that it could be the detergent we were using. New, low water use washing machines, need a different detergent. We switched detergents without relief.
All of that, though, is not what this is about. What it is about is that, when the dishwasher in our new home went out and we bought a Maytag we found that everything had changed since our decades old washer and dryer purchases.
Maytag wasn’t Maytag anymore and Amana wasn’t Amana. All of the appliances, including the revered Kitchen Aid, were simply Whirlpools with another mother. The replacement dishwasher quit within the warranty period and the serviceman told us that we needed to buy an extended warranty because all of the appliances now were designed to last about five years, that we would likely experience failures much sooner than that, and service and repairs could cost as much as a new appliance.
The dishwasher quit because the push button controls simply change the contact point on a paper circuit board in the dishwasher door that will fall apart if moisture gets in the door. We are now on our third circuit board.
The washer and dryer – knock wood – have worked well except for the horrible white stuff issue.
We replaced the electric range and oven when we moved in with a gas stove. The replacement was a “Maytag” that worked for the next 8 years. About a month ago the oven quit working. We called the extended warranty company which actually is a division of Whirlpool, and a young man came out, looked at the oven and ordered a new valve. He came three days ago, spent the morning switching valves, other parts, talking with the engineering department in Wisconsin, changing the “gap” and after running the oven through its paces declared it fixed. The next day it wasn’t.
We’ve been back with the service department and we will need to schedule another service visit. Meanwhile I am baking on the gas grill on the deck. The grill actually does a great job. The problem is that it’s not exactly grilling weather.
Whirlpool pulled off an industry coup. They first obtained an oligopoly of the appliance industry. They then changed the mechanisms on all of the appliances so that they looked like something that would work, but work only briefly.
The industry had to do something. Do you remember the advertisement for Maytag years ago that had the serviceman waiting for the phone to ring. That was their selling point; buy a Maytag and you never have to have it repaired. Whirlpool had another idea.
This business plan has been called engineered obsolescence, planned obsolescence, and a variety of names – some of them unrepeatable in polite company – and goes back at least to the 1930s. Opinions vary, but some credit G.M. with coming up with the plan. By making cars so that they would fall apart in a few years, changing the style every year, and working out a credit plan, the company got itself through the depression by encouraging owners to buy a new car every two years.
Planned obsolescence works on what has been termed an information asymmetry; the manufacturer knows how long a product will last, but the consumer doesn’t.
The automobile industry didn’t lie about how long their products would last, they depended on the consumer desire to own the newest and most fashionable product. If you were trading every two years you didn’t care how long the car would last. Consequently, a ten year old car on the road in the 1950s and ‘60s was a “junker.”
Times changed, however, and the entry of the Japanese automobile into the American market made Americans realize that they had been buying junk for decades. By the 1990s the average age of an automobile on the road was over ten years, and Toyota, Honda and Nissan had largely captured the market.
Although American automobile manufacturers tried to make Americans think they were making good products with slogans like, “where quality is job one”, they didn’t live up to their slogans, largely lost the market, and only exist today because of the restructuring that occurred during the Obama administration. Apparently, General Motors fired “Mr. Goodwrench” as a result of “radical restructuring.”
So far, the mergers of European and American automobile companies, the venture of companies like BMW of building vehicles in the U.S. that primarily sell to the U.S. market, and the working arrangements between Japanese companies and American companies have not lessened our car buying choices.
The same can’t be said for home appliances.
A friend bought a Swedish made washing machine, which held up better than any of the Whirlpool family of appliances, but when it failed he had a difficult time finding anyone to work on his washer. There seems to be no good option for American consumers in the home appliance business.