November 26, 2005

Front-Loading Washing Machines Cleaning Up

By Karen Jacobs

ATLANTA -- 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 platform."