Refrigerators, ovens get a hygiene makeover during COVID-19 pandemic

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SEOUL—The roughly $500 billion home-appliance industry is making a hard pivot toward hygiene as the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of moderating.

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LG Electronics Inc.’s refrigerators have been retrofitted with sterilizing ultraviolet lights previously used in its water purifiers, while Whirlpool Corp. has touted washing machines with built-in heating that removes germs and allergens from clothes.

Samsung Electronics Co. is scooping up scientists who specialize in water and air quality, and Beko Electrical Appliances Co., a Turkish manufacturer, recently rolled out “HygieneShield,” a range of appliances such as refrigerators and ovens equipped with disinfection drawers. It is also offering a cleaning cabinet, a stand-alone appliance that resembles a microwave oven but is designed to disinfect everyday items such as wallets and mobile phones.

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According to Mark Choe, a senior vice president at Samsung’s digital appliances business division, “all of our product development now is being done through the lens of hygiene.”

Indeed, hygiene is driving the home-appliance industry’s extreme makeover. For decades, firms saw sales grow sluggishly, especially in lucrative markets in the U.S. and Western Europe, churning out a predictable cycle of dryers, ovens and microwave ovens. A push toward digitized “smart homes” failed to captivate consumers who saw little reason to track their milk levels through artificial intelligence or get text alerts when the laundry was done.

But now, virus-weary buyers are perking up everywhere. Household appliances are breaking down faster than before with increased use as people shelter at home, and existing malfunctions have now become more intolerable. As travel remains limited because of the pandemic, wealthier consumers flush with cash are choosing to upgrade household products or splurge on new purchases.

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“The Covid-19 situation is not actually a crisis for us,” said Song Dae-hyun, the departing president of LG’s home appliances and air solutions division. “People now think of home as the safest area—and they’re using their appliances more because they’re at home.”

Even with pandemic fatigue vexing virus-prevention efforts, two-thirds of global respondents polled in recent months prioritized staying home over leading a normal life, according to Gallup survey results released in mid-November.

Months spent isolating in southern Spain prompted Jaime Gómez Moreno to look for a top-of-the-line upgrade to keep his four-bedroom home clean. In April, Mr. Gómez Moreno, a 31-year-old entrepreneur in the city of Cádiz, splurged on a roughly $600 robot vacuum cleaner made by China’s Xiaomi Corp. It not only swept away dust but also scrubbed his floors, he said.

“I spent more money because it was the latest model,” Mr. Gómez Moreno said. “Certainly we went a little crazy to have the cleanest and, above all, sanitized house, without fingerprints, without viruses.”

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All the extra attention on the domestic front has also breathed new life into existing offerings. There are monthslong backlogs for refrigerators and dryers in the U.S. Nationwide sales of kitchen appliances such as air fryers and slow cookers shot up 40% from spring to the end of August, said the NPD Group, a market tracking firm.

“There’s a new set of needs being created as we speak,” said Joe Derochowski, a home-industry analyst for NPD.

Growth is most dramatic for products used in the kitchen and for cleaning. From mid-March to the end of August, sales of vacuum cleaners, fans, humidifiers and water filters grew 32% from the year-earlier period, NPD said. Demand for washing machines with purifying steam functions grew 46% during the May-to-August period, while sales of air-treatment appliances surged 23%, according from GfK SE, a market researcher.

Industry analysts forecast that the breakneck pace may slow somewhat next year as vaccine breakthroughs herald a potential end to the pandemic, though GfK forecasts demand for major home appliances will still grow by 5% in the first half of 2021.

“The pandemic has changed how consumers think about being at home,” said Norbert Herzog, an expert on major home appliances at GfK.

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For Samsung, Latin American vacuum-cleaner sales have more than tripled in the first half of the year from a year earlier. In its home country of South Korea, demand for a clothes steamer—about the size of a phone booth —has doubled, with advertisements now prominently pitching its disinfecting features.

Haier Smart Home Co., the Chinese company that bought General Electric Co. ’s appliance unit, tapped influencers to hawk products on live streams to juice online sales as the pandemic forced many physical stores to close. Domestic sales of its air conditioners rose 27% in the third quarter, while dishwasher use in Europe soared by 24%. In its most-recent quarter, Haier reported a 58% rise in overseas operating profit.

Amid the rising demand for hygiene appliances, LG is guaranteeing that some of its cleaning products with steam functions “kill over 99.9%” of viruses” when sanitizing items like face masks. It is also starting to sell what it calls a new “wearable” air purifier. Worn over the face and made of plastic, the gadget has tiny motors that direct air through a pair of HEPA filters.

“People are being educated on how important hygiene is, and how important cleanliness is,” said LG’s Mr. Song.

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Sanam Ijadi and her family are building a new home in Great Neck, N.Y.—and they are spending extra throughout their home because keeping the family safe and healthy is her top priority. Deliveries for many of the appliances she has ordered have been delayed for up to nine months due to backlogs, but the 43-year-old, who helps with her husband’s leather-manufacturing business, doesn’t expect life to return to normal for at least another year.

“We decided to use higher quality because we wanted to use everything longer,” she said. “I do think it’s a change in your mindset.”

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