Why is buying a refrigerator so hard?

Why is it more difficult to buy a refrigerator than a computer? A computer has become a pretty simple purchase. You choose a Windows or Mac operating system, compare the specs of the various models and brands, read the reviews and make your selection. Most of the reviews tend to agree with one another, the specs are straight forward, and you usually end up with a reliable product that will work for years.

But when our 10-year old refrigerator reached the end of its life, researching a replacement left my wife and I confused, befuddled with trying to make sense of so much conflicting information.

We had spent $450 to replace a faulty ice maker in our LG, but a couple of weeks later the refrigerator and freezer stopped cooling. I asked my appliance repair person for advice and he said he could probably fix it, but it was likely more economical to replace it because of its age.

He had no preferred brands; his advice was to spend the least amount possible, because all of the brands have issues and it will be less painful when it’s time to replace it again. He did advise to avoid models with an ice maker in the refrigerator door, because all makes have issues with that feature. And he noted French door models tend to be less reliable. Of course, that’s exactly what my wife preferred.

We began our research by checking the on-line ratings and reviews and bought a one-month subscription to Consumer Report online, specifically to access their recent refrigerator article and recommendations. Their report was extensive and detailed, but none of the recommended models had customer satisfaction ratings greater than 3 out of 5 and more than half got a 1. I had never come across a product category where every brand had such low satisfaction levels.

With a computer or phone you can find useful information such as battery life, speed, and storage, and even tear down videos, but buying a refrigerator is almost like buying a black box, once you determine the size and number of doors you need. No descriptions of any of its components, no technology to set one brand apart from another (other than useless WiFi connectivity or TVs in the door). The more we researched, the more confusing it became. LG and Samsung seemed to have a poor reputation for reliability, yet LG was the top choice of Consumer Report and a few other sites.

 I consulted nearly a dozen review sites and not only was there no consensus, there was also significant contradictions in which brands and models were best or worse. The review sites agreed on nothing and, in the end, their conflicting reviews and recommendation were useless. Nearly every brand could be found among the worst and the best on some list, which may reflect the quality of the lists as much as the products.

So, let’s try asking the sales people. We visited Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy and a local appliance store. Home Depot and Lowes had the most knowledgeable sales people and Best Buy the worst. But none would venture out and recommend a particular brand. The retailers also vary in how they handled defects. For example, Home Depot said if there were any problems once the refrigerator was delivered, we’d need to contact the manufacturer directly – no returns allowed. That was a non-starter for us, with so many stories about poor reliability and difficulties getting service.

With no clear leader, our choice came down to features over brand. My wife liked the spaciousness and layout of a French door LG that was similar to what we had. But she selected a less expensive model with a smaller ice maker in the freezer, not in the door. She decided that if they’re all unreliable, she might as well get one with the features she preferred.

We bought the $1399 LG model from Costco, who offers a 90-day return policy for any reason. They provided a slightly lower price, didn’t charge extra for delivery and removal of the old refrigerator that the others do, and extends the warranty an extra year. It was more important where we purchased it than the model we selected.

We ended up with a brand with one of the worst reliability records according to some surveys, but one of the top rated models from Consumer Report. Go figure!

by Phil Baker