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Following the immense popularity of the Cash for Clunkers car exchange program last year, you may have expected that a follow-up program aimed at giving people discounts on energy-efficient appliances would also draw attention. And it has.
If anything, the Cash for Appliances program was too successful for its own good. Faced with limited funds and huge demand, the program has created as much controversy as it has new business for once-ailing retailers.
How it works
Last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act authorized $300 million toward incentives for people to replace old appliances with new, more energy-efficient models. Each state was responsible for developing its own method of distributing its shares of the funds. The programs began as early as last December; a few states haven't started their rebate programs yet.
Experiences have varied greatly from state to state. In some places, demand was fast and furious. The Texas version of the program went through $23.3 million in just eight hours, while Massachusetts ran through its $6.2 million in just two hours. Illinois' $12.4 million lasted only 11 hours. Arizona quickly ran out of money for certain programs, and Iowa also went through its money in less than a day.
On the other hand, some states have seen less demand. New York still has money available after rolling out its program on Feb. 12. California's program is a couple of weeks old, and has used only about 10% of its allocated funds.
Part of the explanation for the uneven demand is in the details of the programs. Some states offered sizable rebates that dramatically cut the net cost of new appliances. Other states set rebate amounts at more modest levels, spreading the benefits to more people but diluting their effects.
Impact on business
One obvious beneficiary of the Cash for Appliances program is the appliance retail industry, which suffered as consumers pulled back from buying high-ticket items during the recession. From the beginning, Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) got on the program bandwagon, offering to help customers take advantage of any rebates they were entitled to. With California's program, big-box retailers Lowe's (NYSE: LOW ) , Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) , and Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) were named official "platinum full service partners" in the program, along with a handful of local retailers, arguably giving them an advantage over other sellers.
With each of those big retailers having annual revenue between $40 billion and $50 billion, $300 million isn't likely to have a big impact. The same is true for appliance manufacturers General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and Whirlpool (NYSE: WHR ) , especially when you consider that appliances are a relatively small piece of GE's business.
But many said the same thing about Cash for Clunkers, with its initial $1 billion in funding and additional $2 billion. Yet the program went a long way toward helping Ford Motor (NYSE: F ) earn strong profits during the quarter when the program ran last year.
In fact, the difficulties that some states have had in keeping up with rebate demand may have actually enhanced sales beyond expectations. Some customers who didn't manage to sign up for rebates likely ended up buying appliances anyway, spurring more demand.
A worthy investment?
Looking at Cash for Appliances purely as a stimulus plan is shortsighted in any event. Many believe that the underlying purpose of the program -- to encourage greater use of energy-saving appliances -- will more than pay for its cost over the long run. For consumers who don't always think of a return on investment that takes years to enjoy, the rebates simply helped them pull the trigger on what was already a smart purchase.
So even if Cash for Appliances was largely a nonevent for the big businesses involved, it definitely wasn't a failure. Although some would-be beneficiaries got only frustration for their efforts, many will benefit from their purchases for years to come.
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