Why you can’t test-drive a refrigerator anymore

We have car dealerships, because you want to try driving a car before you buy it. We have mattress superstores, so you can lie on the bed before sleeping on it for the next five years. But apparently we’re killing off refrigerator displays in favor of online appliance shopping.

This is odd, because it seems computers are going the other way. Dell had taken over the world with online shopping and customization, but now retail is newly popular. Apple created its own boutiques (all white and shiny), which took off. Now even Microsoft is planning stores.

And it’s not just the branded stores that are doing well; Costco puts its displays of televisions, computers, and cameras at the very front of my local store. They’re interested enough in the electronics market to have recently announced a program for recycling your old electronics – presumably in hopes that you’ll use your Costco Cash Card trade-in money on a new toy to replace the old.

So if we like buying consumer electronics in stores (whether at Apple or at Costco), why are the refrigerators going away?

Apple’s and Costco’s big advantage is their selective product lines. Apple sells only a few configurations of computers. Costco picks a few products that it thinks will be popular and on which it can get volume discounts. The Sears website tells me “1033 products found for ‘refrigerator’.” How much space is that on the floor? How much space is that in warehouses? Isn’t it easier to tell people how wide the fridge will be and make them measure their own space to make sure it’ll fit?

It’s a do-it-yourself age. Shop online, base your decision on other consumers’ reviews, and check if your vendor has free return shipping. The best tip I learned when shopping for a TV was to cut out a piece of cardboard so you could see if the screen was actually the right size in your room. Now I’m starting to wonder if there’s a market for sets of plastic images of refrigerator insides. “Look, with this one you’d be the right height to see into all the shelves.”

Maybe virtual worlds or augmented reality can step into this gap. Maybe we’ll rely on architects and interior designers, who have memberships to professional showrooms that aren’t so decimated. Maybe someone will notice that people want to know whether the corner of the freezer door is going to hit them in the head, and a new boutique refrigerator store will be born. But it’s a good thing I’m not planning to design a kitchen soon: I’d want to pull open the appliance doors myself. Unlike my next computer, no one’s interested in helping me try a refrigerator out.

About Jennifer Berk

I'm an analytics and data leader with a marketing and product mindset. I like online newspapers, science fiction and fantasy, and ugly fish.
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