Shay Chandler did not plan to buy what seemed like the last full-sized refrigerator in all of San Antonio. When her old one broke a few weekends ago, she discovered she'd have to wait almost two months for a replacement.
"I found out that all I could buy was a mini fridge," she said. "It's nuts. ... All the Lowe's all over San Antonio — and San Antonio is a very large city — everyone was out."
Shortages have hit all kinds of major appliances: dishwashers, dryers, dehumidifiers, even some of the microwaves. That's because the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into both their supply and demand.
The stage was set by a springtime run on freezers, followed by refrigerators with freezers.
"We sold more freezers in two days than we did all of last year," said Steve Sheinkopf, who runs Yale Appliance with stores outside Boston. "People were storing stuff, because we thought this was the end of times, we needed food."
At the same time, makers and sellers faced the difficult task of planning for the future. They were calculating how many appliances they would sell later in the year (as in, now).
And months ago, it was logical for companies to worry that shoppers would stop spending. Businesses closed en masse. Layoffs swept the country. A historic recession began. It made sense for factories to scale back manufacturing plans and for stores to pull back orders.
An even bigger factor was the health crisis itself.
Spikes in coronavirus cases swept through major hubs for shipping and manufacturing of appliances and parts: China, the U.S., Mexico. Many factories had to close or allow fewer people inside, slowing down production.
The final twist was unyielding, unexpected demand.
Turns out, when people are stuck at home — constantly reheating leftovers and baking bread — things start breaking. Even more so, unable to splurge on trips and outings, people began obsessing over their immediate surroundings, moving to new homes and going wild with home improvement.
Now, experts are warning of backlogs on some appliance brands and models through the end of the year and potentially into 2021.
"It's kind of the perfect storm of all these factors that are creating this demand, and brands like LG are ramping up to meet it," said John Taylor, chief spokesman for LG Electronics USA. He said his company was less affected by supply disruptions than some others, but it's facing "unprecedented demand" for kitchen and laundry appliances.
Another manufacturer, Electrolux said, "American families continue to stay close to home, causing demand for kitchen appliances to exceed the industry's supply chain," but the company's been "very resourceful ... to meet consumer need as much as possible." Lowe's, Whirlpool and GE did not respond to inquiries; Home Depot referred NPR to manufacturers.
Across most types of appliances, manufacturers were shipping less to retailers and builders in the first half of the year compared to 2019, according to data from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Shipments of major appliances were down 7% year-to-date in June, the latest data available. Taylor said since then, the demand has really increased.
"I have never experienced a year where there were shortages like we've seen this year," said Sandy Tau, the owner of AHC Appliances on Long Island, who's been in the business for some 25 years. "We have freezers that are on back order since the end of March that have still not come in."
Tau said her father-in-law, who started the business in the 1960s, used to say it was easier back then because there weren't so many choices. "Well, we're kind of back to that," she said. "We don't have too many choices."
Fewer ready-to-go choices plus big demand were why this year's Labor Day sales didn't feature as many discounts on appliances — and why the same is likely during Black Friday and the holidays. Sellers say, if you're in the market for a new appliance, it's probably good to be patient, flexible on brands and features, and ready to jump on something you can make work.
That's what happened to Chandler, whose fridge hunt across San Antonio ended with a miracle: Someone in the suburbs canceled their order. It was a side-by-side instead of her preferred French-door model with the freezer on the bottom.
Not a fridge she'd hoped for, but a fridge she could fit.
"That was the only full-sized refrigerator in a 50-mile radius," she said. "That's how crazy it is. I didn't get what I wanted, but I just feel very lucky I got a fridge. I feel very lucky I got a full-sized fridge."