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        Source: CHEAA-run China Appliance magazine

        Washing machine sector struggled in 2020 with output and sales suffering in the first half of the year and rebounding in the second half amid the pandemic. In this context, washing machine enterprises have been exploring possibilities to change the game through actively looking for opportunities in the fast-changing situation and upgrading their product mixes.

        Overall performance of washing machine sector for 2020

        For washing machine industry, the sudden outbreak of the pandemic completely upset the pace of the industry in 2020, resulting in a decline in market demand and a slowdown in industry growth. The industry suffered a slowdown in both retail sales volume and value in the first half of 2020, but rebounded after entering the high season of sales in the second half, particularly at online market.

        Washing machine sector posted retail sales volume of 36.9 million units in 2020, down by 3.6% year-on-year, and retail sales value of 71.4 billion Yuan, down by 6.2% year-on-year, according to All View Cloud.

        Looking back at the overall yearly performance of the sector, I find that it is a mix of pleasant and unpleasant surprises.

        The weak domestic market has been hindering industry growth. I learn from my interviewees that, the current domestic market is mainly powered by replacement needs. With high product homogeneity, little technical breakthroughs and weak demands from the existing market, the industry growth is stalled. Beyond that, rising raw material price just makes it worse. Speaking of it, my interviewees say that they have made as much efforts as they can to prepare for the changes in the upstream of the industry chain.

        Hard-hit by the pandemic in the short term, the industry also embraces new opportunities as consumers show growing interests in models with large capacity, healthcare function, drying function and smart functions, which means product upgrading will be an engine for the industry to break through barriers. My interview with Haier lends credence to this. My interviewee says, models with functions including air cleaning, high-temperature washing, bacteria removing, and disinfecting play a key role in fueling the market growth as consumers pay increasing attention to healthcare products.

        It’s worth noting that sales performances of dryers and dryer washer combos have been exciting in 2020 with dryer washer combos accounting for 31.2% of online market by online retail sales value in 2020, up by 5.6% year-on-year, and 48.6% of offline market, up by 7.7% year-on-year, according to All View Cloud.

        My interviewee from the washing machine division of Midea Group believes that, dryer washer packages and washers with drying functions will be the mainstream of washing machine sector after the pandemic. He says, “These products are capable of bacteria killing without causing secondary pollutions. Plus, they save 3-5 square meter space of the balcony which are previously used for clothes drying, making them the best options for consumers.”

        As a category that needs home installation service, the export performance of washing machines has been affected by the complicated situation worldwide amid the pandemic. In the fourth quarter, shipping volume slid due to the shortage of containers. On the whole, the export volume of washing machines from China rose slightly in 2020 due to the growing demands from European and North American markets.

        But as the pandemic gradually gets contained worldwide, my interviewees are optimistic about the export of washing machines. One of my interviewees who refuses to be named says, industry players should tailor product and sales strategies based on consumer needs of different countries as a way of effectively expanding market and boosting export. He believes the future of the sector is promising.

        Distribution channel innovation injects vigor into the sector

        Distribution modes have been fast-changing since the outbreak of the pandemic. E-commerce operation is carrying more loads, be it live streaming sales or sales on online platforms. Distribution channels are more and more diversified.

        The stay-at-home order during the pandemic expedited the shift of washing machine sales from offline to online. In 2020, online market took a share of 64.6% by retail sales volume of washing machines, and 48.3% by retail sales value, according to All View Cloud. In this context, washing machine enterprises successively make their own distribution channel strategies to reflect the market changes.

        My interviewee in charge of the washing machine division of Midea tells me that, “The washing machine division of Midea has been making distribution channel reforms amid and after the outbreak through cutting the tiers of offline distribution hierarchy, optimizing and integrating middle representative agencies and streamlining SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) to improve the efficiency.”

        Whirlpool has been actively deploying sales through social media and establishing its own e-commerce platform while stepping up its efforts in traditional channels and emerging e-commerce platforms to deliver better products to consumers at lower prices.

        Shan Lingxuan, General Manager of the Marketing Division of Refrigerators and Washing Machines at Whirlpool, believes that the pandemic has shaken up the distribution channel pattern of the sector significantly, and more and more consumers choose to go shopping online, which drives online sales of whirlpool to surpass its offline sales for the first time. He reveals that, online market account for 20% of Whirlpool’s total channels as the company branched out into online market quite late. “Given the status of our channel operation, we rolled out our own e-commerce APP.”

        The Whirlpool e-commerce APP has three advantages compared to third-party e-commerce platforms: (1) it covers more product lines of Whirlpool; (2) it will be more flexible in pricing during promotions as the APP removes off middle agencies; (3) The shopping process is different. “With our own APP, consumers will have more convenient shopping experience as products go directly from our warehouses to their homes. Plus, our sales teams and after-sale service teams can offer more direct support to consumers.”

        Speaking of his expectations, Shan Lingxuan reveals three goals of the APP: (1) to better connect Whirlpool, consumers and other brands while offer better communication and services to consumers after getting to know consumers’ actual demands regarding installation and use; (2) to manage the distribution system of Whirlpool while reducing the inventory and capital pressure of middle distributors; (3) to provide more options for consumers by launching targeted promotion activities.

        Outlook for 2021

        With market competition getting intensified, premium models, healthcare models and models designed for niche markets become key directions of the sector. In 2020, washing machine sector has been struggling to recover. Entering 2021, washing machine manufacturers hold high expectations for the coming year.

        My interviewee from Samsung believes that home appliance consumption will be further boosted with the development of China’s economy, the growing confidence of Chinese consumers, manufacturers’ stepping-up efforts in premium market and the supporting policies of the government. Plus, upgraded models will be more and more popular with the growing healthcare awareness of consumers. For the long term, washing machine market will experience a steady increase with upgraded models leading the growth.

        Apart from health-oriented and differentiated products, models with functions such as smart dosing, quiet mode, tailored modes for different textures, stylish designs and built-in models are expected to become hit models down the road. My interviewee from Haier reveals that, Haier will further advance cross-boundary integration to improve user experience and establish brand new smart home scenarios.

        The expanded product category will bring opportunities to the industry too. Shan Lingxuan says, washing machine sector is evolving, from twin-tub washing machines, top loaders, front loaders to dryer washer combos. “Meanwhile, emerging products such as models for mother and baby use, portable washing machines and heat pump dryers grow fast. That’s why we believe it is an opportunity to branch out into new categories based on the existing market.”

        My interviewee from a manufacturer who stands out in mini washing machine category tells me in the interview that, more and more enterprises extend their reaches into this niche category, and both floor-standing and wall-mounted mini front loaders will grow fast. But he points out that, new players must have the self-discipline awareness and provide the market with quality products and services rather than cheap products to inject new vigor to the market and advance the steady development of the industry.