November 25, 2005

Front-loading washing machines clean up

By Karen Jacobs

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Washing machines that open from the
front as opposed to the top are making a splash in the United
States as energy and water savings, and stylish designs enhance
their appeal.

The washers, commonly called front-loaders, can hold larger
quantities of clothing, work faster and are gentler on most
articles because they don't have an agitator. They are equipped
with all sorts of bells and whistles, including wash cycles
that kill bacteria and pedestal drawers that store detergent.

As consumers look to make laundry rooms more stylish, many
of these front-load washers sport curved edges instead of a
traditional boxy look, and are available in such colors as
blue, smooth black and orange.

"They are avant-garde and better looking" than traditional
washers, said Greg Alford, senior partner with Peachtree
Consulting Group in Atlanta. "They are more expensive but not
so expensive that it would break most people."

Long popular in Europe, front-loaders are now catching the
eye of U.S. consumers willing to pay more for spacious,
high-performance washers. These washers are more efficient in
part because higher spin speeds extract more water from
clothes, reducing drying time and saving electricity.

According to research firm NPD Group, front-loaders had a
20.4 percent share of retail washing machine sales for the year
ended in June, up from 8.4 percent two years earlier.

"Our front-loading laundry business is growing three times
faster than the rest of our major appliance business," said
Bruce Ballard, merchandising vice president for appliances at
home improvement retailer Lowe's Cos.. "Customers are today
associating best products in laundry as being front-loading."

Though the largest front-loaders sell for more than $1,000,
smaller versions are available for as low as $600. By contrast,
top-loading washers can be bought for as little as $300.

Front-load washers are poised for further growth, spurred
by recent U.S. legislation that provides tax incentives to
manufacturers of appliances that use less energy.

Though Maytag Corp. is credited with bringing the first
upscale front-loader to the United States in 1997 with its
solid-door Neptune, experts say the machine took a big leap in
style and performance in 2001 when Whirlpool Corp. launched the
Duet, which has big, see-through round windows on the doors.

"Neptune did a great job of identifying the front-load
opportunity, but Maytag failed to execute and had all kinds of
problems," Alford said. "It gave the Whirlpool Duet an
opportunity to come in."

Maytag recently settled a class-action lawsuit that claimed
early versions of its Neptune caused mold and mildew. Now, the
company sells a redesigned front-loader.

Whirlpool's Duet, which sells for about $2,000 for the
washer and dryer pair, is the best-selling front-load washer in
the United States, according to NPD. Different models of the
Duet ranked first, third and seventh on the firm's Top Ten list
of best-selling front-loaders for the year ended in May.

"A truer commercial look, I think, has been one of the
great reasons for the Duet's success," said Alford.

Jeff Davidoff, marketing manager for Whirlpool brands, said
the Duet was one of the most expensive product launches
undertaken by Whirlpool, entailing trips to Europe and
extensive consumer research.

The Duet uses 68 percent less water and 67 percent less
energy than conventional washers, saving up to $100 a year,
Whirlpool says.

Though the $2,000 price tag for the washer and dryer may
give consumers pause, the company says the average household
income of Duet buyers is less than $50,000 a year.

"You might expect that people who would be willing to pay
thousands of dollars for a washer-dryer pair would fall into a
certain socioeconomic or geographic bracket," said Davidoff.
"That's absolutely not the case. What is common are people to
whom laundry is important."

In recent years, more companies have brought front-loading
washers to the American market. Other popular front loaders in
the United States include LG Electronics Inc.'s Tromm and the
Nexxt from Germany's Bosch, NPD sales data show.

"The number of players now is driving not only some new
design and features but also new price points," said Ballard,
the Lowe's merchant.

Whirlpool, which is seeking to acquire Maytag for nearly
$1.7 billion, is not just betting on front-loaders. Innovations
in size, design and energy savings are also in store for
top-loading washers, said Davidoff, who declined to elaborate.

"We don't see a market that's turning into 100 percent
front-loaders," Davidoff said. "People who prefer top-loaders
find comfort and security in the traditionalism of the