How the pandemic made me lose my cool

Shortages are still happening nine months later

We went out of town over the weekend to a family Christmas get-together. What we found when we returned home was no Christmas gift. Not long after we unloaded the car, my wife yelled from the kitchen that the refrigerator wasn’t working.

I don’t know how old our fridge is. It came with the house when we bought it about three years ago. Since then, we’ve had to have it repaired at least three times. In the past, we had a home warranty that footed the bills for these repairs and the troubleshooting that eventually seemed to have replaced the entire guts of the device.

As an aside here, I’ll say that I’ve had mixed results with home warranties. They are nice if the problem is relatively straightforward. On the other hand, if troubleshooting is required or if parts need to ordered, you can be in for a long wait. Realtors often throw in a home warranty for a year with the purchase of a house. My strategy is normally to use this time to build a network of local contractors that I trust. When I know who I can call if needed and I’ve replaced the problematic appliances, I cancel the warranty.

In this case, the strategy backfired. My assumption was that we had a practically new refrigerator that would last a while. However, you know what they say about assumptions.

At this point, we decided to cut our losses and stop throwing good money after bad on the old fridge. So it was that my wife and I found ourselves shopping for a new fridge.

My first instinct was to look on the internet. We replaced our dishwasher last year with a purchase on a website where we got a really good deal. They had good prices on refrigerators as well, but then I noticed that most were out of stock. The few models that were available showed delivery slots a month away.

“We’ll head to Lowe’s and Home Depot,” I told the lovely Mrs. Kudzu.

To make a long story short, we found the same situation at both stores. They had plenty of floor models but almost nothing in stock. If you didn’t want to wait a month or more, you had very limited options.

On a whim, we stopped into a local appliance store. I didn’t expect much here. I thought if they had a decent selection that that their prices would be astronomical. As it turned out, I was wrong. The store had five fridges left out of a recent shipment. They were very close to what we wanted and the price was right, especially considering that they could deliver next week instead of next month.

Before heading to the stores, I didn’t suspect that the shortages from last spring were still haunting the supply chain, but that turned out to be the case. I was naturally curious what the reason for the continuing shortages was. It turns out that there are several reasons.

One problem is that Americans are spending more time in the kitchen. When appliances get used more, they tend to break more. That’s probably especially true if many of the operators aren’t accustomed to using them.

There are more technical reasons as well. Cincinnati’s WCPO (you have no idea how badly I wanted to type “WKRP”) recently spoke to Ken Reiman, co-owner of Fairfield, Ohio’s Custom Distributors, who explained the situation.

The original problem was factory shutdowns last spring that were combined with interruptions in shipping from China. Some of the back orders from months ago still have not been filled.

But the problem isn’t limited to imported brands. Even American-made appliances are experiencing shortages because not all parts are made in the US. Even American brands rely on imported components and raw materials.

Reiman also cites high demand as a third reason. Many families spent money that would normally be spent on vacations to remodel kitchens and replace appliances this year. The increased demand has prevented stores from rebuilding their inventory.

The lesson here is that worldwide supply chains are interconnected and vulnerable to cataclysmic events. That is a fact of life that will not change even after the pandemic is over. It’s simply not possible for Americans to produce every product and all of their associated components domestically.

We have also gotten used to having a wide array of choices that comes with the ability to buy products from all over the world. The competitive market pricing from worldwide trade is what allows us to have the high standard of living to which we have become accustomed.

The second lesson is to plan ahead. If at all possible, order a replacement appliance before you need it. If that’s not possible and, like us, you find yourself needing a rapid replacement, don’t be picky. If you find something that works, hopefully at a reasonable price, grab it before someone else does.

And that’s the story of how my wife got a new refrigerator for Christmas.