Don't dally if you're planning to take advantage of the federal 15 percent instant rebate on Energy Star appliances that starts Thursday.
The money may not last long.
The rebates, which are part of a federal program to encourage shoppers to buy more energy-efficient washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and freezers, have been extremely popular in other states.
In Florida, consumers snapped up that state's allotment of $17.6 million in a day and a half. In Illinois, it took 11 hours for the second half of its $12.4 million to disappear when it became available Friday.
In North Carolina, $8.8 million is available.
Area retailers are expecting the event, which runs through Sunday or until the money runs out - whichever comes first - to rival holiday shopping. They have brought in extra staff, are planning extended hours and have stocked up on merchandise. Still, with the shaky economy, there's no guarantee that people will buy. So many retailers are adding their own incentives.
Garner TV & Appliance is offering an additional 15 percent off. Home Depot is offering 10 percent on top of the rebate for appliances costing $398 or more. Lowe's Home Improvement is offering 10 percent off all Energy Star appliances. And Sears is offering a 30 percent discount through Saturday on top of the state's rebate for a total discount of 45 percent.
The federal rebate alone takes $75 off a $500 dishwasher. With the additional store discounts, you'd get another $50 to $150 off. To qualify, a shopper must also certify at checkout that he or she is turning in an old model, and then have that model taken away when the new appliance is delivered.
"This is probably our biggest sale chance this year," said Garner TV & Appliance manager Randy Pleasant.
But most say that once the rebate money is gone, it's gone. Customers can still qualify for the additional discounts being offered by stores, but the 15 percent discount from the state is only available while the money lasts.
"We'll be able to see the [federal] money that's there in real-time," Pleasant said.
"Every sale is entered in, and if we [the state] run out of money, Garner TV & Appliance will still be honoring the 15 percent discount that we're doing."
Representatives from Home Depot, Lowe's and Sears also confirmed that their stores will continue to offer the store discounts if the federal funds run out.
Consumers like 'instant'
States have been handling the distribution of rebates in different ways, said Craig Fishel, Home Depot spokesman. But states such as North Carolina that are offering the rebates as instant credits at the register are the ones going through the funds faster because it's easier for customers to participate.
"What I've been telling customers is if you're interested in taking part in the program, go ahead and do it early," he said. "It's been a very popular program. We have seen a lot of traffic."
Like last summer's Cash for Clunkers rebate on cars, the appliance program is designed to give people an incentive to take energy hogs off the grid. Each state received an allotment from $300 million in federal stimulus money, based on population, to design and run its own rebate programs, so the discounts have been rolling out across the country for months.
The bulk of the rebates nationwide are happening this month. Customers can receive the discount on one Energy Star-rated appliance in each category.
"Consumers are very concerned about energy savings," said Clint Davis, senior vice president of merchandising for kitchen and bath products with Mooresville-based Lowe's. "The main thing they're focused on is, 'How do I save money?' "
Sales have fallen
In part because they're closely tied to the housing market, major appliance sales have fallen in the recession: Between February 2008 and 2009, they were down 10 percent, and they decreased 3 percent in the year that followed, according to the most recent data available from the NPD Group, a consumer research firm.
Sears, the nation's largest appliance retailer, has been preparing for the rebates for more than a year, establishing a Web site in which customers can search for rebates and eligible appliances by ZIP code and ensuring it has high-speed information terminals in stores. The company has also set up a dedicated phone center for customers with additional questions, said Doug Moore, the company's president of home appliances.
"Cash for Clunkers made people move forward more quickly to perhaps replace a car, because they saw it as an unprecedented opportunity," he said. "We think [the appliance rebates] will focus more interest in a condensed period of time than almost anything we could think of on our own, because the extra dollars thrown into the puzzle make it really attractive to customers."
Still, it may take a lot to move customers to buy, said the NPD Group's Mark Delaney.
"You still have 50 percent of the appliance sales being replacement in nature," he said. "The washing machine goes out tonight, that's not planned."
Cautious about buying
Indeed, shoppers such as Suzan Cheek of Chapel Hill are still on the fence. Cheek would like to spend $1,700 to replace her refrigerator, which has needed several repairs over the years. But even with a hefty discount and the federal rebate, she's not sure she's ready to buy.
"We are both retired, so we tend to make big expenditures very carefully," she said. "Our current refrigerator is working fine except the ice dispenser has had it."
Cheek said she probably won't make up her mind until she does some more price comparisons and research.
"I'm just kind of teetering on the edge, but this is I think a very good deal," she said.
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