Once relegated to the dank corners of the basement, freezers are being embraced again by shoppers who are stashing bulk-sized purchases of meats, fruits and vegetables there as they work to combat rising food prices.
Across the country, shoppers bought more than 1.1 million freezers during the first six months of the year — up more than 7 percent from the same period last year, according to research firm NPD Group.
That rings up to nearly $400 million in freezer sales — a staggering figure compared to the rest of the home appliance sector, where industry data shows shipments are down nearly 8 percent.
And, experts said, it’s a trend that’s expected to continue at least through much of next year as penny-pinching shoppers buy in bulk to take advantage of deals or bundle grocery shopping trips to conserve gas.
“We’re not going to let our food costs rise faster than our food budgets, so if we can buy in bulk, we can save in a per-eating effect,” said Harry Balzer, a NPD vice president.
About half of all U.S. households already have a chest or upright freezer, separate from the refrigerator-freezer combo that’s a kitchen stalwart, according to industry statistics.
To accommodate the rest — or cater to shoppers who want to upgrade to newer or more spacious models — some appliance makers are redesigning their products and marketing them as a way to put the freeze on rising food prices.
This summer, Frigidaire’s revamped upright freezers began hitting stores, as the brand owned by Swedish manufacturer Electrolux AB added specially designed shelves, baskets and other features to accommodate the appliances’ growing popularity.
The models retail between $399 and $799 and are a bright spot in the otherwise slowing appliance market, which is struggling as consumer spending and the housing market falter.
“Overall, these trends last a long period of time, because consumers adjust their buying habits and they change their routine,” said Marty O’Gorman, a vice president and general manager of the freezer division of Electrolux Major Appliances.
Elizabeth Lyng and her husband spent $150 in early August for a small freezer chest for their kitchen.
After her family switched from buying fresh fruits and vegetables to frozen items, the gadget has become the holding area for bags of frozen blueberries, strawberries and meats, along with dinnertime leftovers.
“I wanted to be able to buy in bulk when things were on sale or at a pretty good price and have the room to save and freeze and store anything that we can get a good price,” said Lyng, 31, of Norcross, Ga. “We ... really had to have the extra space.”
Executives at home improvement chain Lowe’s Cos. Inc. said they first noticed the rise in freezer sales this spring and correlated it to food prices. They also attribute some of the increase to a bumper crop for home gardeners, whose plots were damaged by last summer’s drought.
“It made sense,” said Chief Executive Robert Niblock.
At The Home Depot Inc., unit sales of compact freezers are up in double-digits percentages over the past 12 months.
“Freezers tend to be countercyclical, meaning that they generally do better when the economy is soft because people go out less and buy groceries in bulk,” said Home Depot spokeswoman Paula Drake.