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Home appliance sales -- just put through wringer -- start to grow

An ice cream-making refrigerator that amounts to ''a dream machine without equal''? The only limit to what you can stir freeze in it - soups, salads, yogurts - is ''your own imagination''?

The claims for the new ''refrigerators a la mode'' line - espoused by Admiral Home Appliances vice-president Chuck Dowd - are not exactly modest.

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But then innovation in the appliance industry is not exactly an everyday event. No flashy Chicken McNugget different-is-better sales strategy here. True, many appliances recently have been equipped with electronic sensors that can respond to the touch of a finger for cooking instructions or can alert consumers to operational problems. One Whirlpool refrigerator, for instance, has a panel with lights that flicker if freezer temperatures get too high and an alarm that sounds if the door inadvertently is left ajar. But most changes in major appliances have been less visible: improving product reliability and energy efficiency.

''The appliance industry is probably the dullest, least innovative business I've ever worked in,'' Admiral's president, John R. Green Jr., observed at a recent luncheon held to introduce the company's new refrigerator. ''The industry has been absolutely boring in terms of what it's done in the marketplace.''

''Most of the changes have had more to do with efficiency than looks,'' agrees Marian Johnson of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM). She notes that the industry is still ''excited'' over the 1950s introduction of microwave ovens, which really didn't sell until the 1970s. ''This industry isn't like video games where something changes every day,'' she says.

Yet even as Admiral now tries to reach for increased sales with its newest ice cream-making refrigerator - and vows to introduce one major new feature on a line of its appliances every year - appliance sales appear to be on the verge of picking up. They have been at a low ebb for much of the last three years.

AHAM now reports that appliances shipped to dealers were up almost 14 percent in January over the same month a year before - the largest jump since June 1981. Refrigerator shipments were up most sharply. Only dealers' requests for air conditioners failed to pick up. Many dealers have leftovers from last summer when temperatures did not soar as high as many expected.

The sales picture, too, is changing. Robert Anderson of the National Association of Retail Dealers of America says that sales of all major appliances except gas ranges and garbage disposals are ''markedly up'' over the last two months.

Another indication of a 1983 change for the better: improved department store sales. Several retailers have singled out appliances as a key factor in their sales gains. Sears Merchandise Group chairman Edward A. Brennan, for instance, says that sales of major appliances - particularly of washers and dryers, refrigerators, and microwave ovens - were up in February for the fifth straight month. ''We feel it's a very encouraging indication of growing consumer confidence in the economy,'' says Sears spokeswoman Kathy Gucfa.

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''During most of last year retailers never mentioned a word about durables . . . but things do seem to be turning around,'' says Evan Barrington, a senior economist with Data Resources Inc. ''I think we're going to see an (overall) improvement in appliance sales.''

One reason, say industry analysts, is the recent upturn in housing starts. Appliance sales generally benefit about six months later when the construction phase is over. Lower interest rates help. So do the increased sales of gourmet food magazines and the continuing popularity of entertaining at home. The increased number of single-person and two-income households is also viewed as a sales spur.

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