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Heat Fuels US Air-Conditioner Shortage

AMERICANS hoping to buy relief from the heat are finding that cold cash is not enough. Stores across the country are running out of air conditioners.

Retailers say their inventories were depleted over the winter by customers who learned from last year's heat wave to buy early.

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``Universally, across the board, retailers are having a hard time keeping up with demand,'' said Julie Mullian, a spokeswoman for the Circuit City appliance store chain in Richmond, Va. Temperatures were in the 90s and 100s throughout most of the country last week.

Shelves that usually hold small air conditioners were empty Monday at a Sears store outside Boston. A salesman said his department ran out of the units three weeks ago. Bob McHenry, a spokesman at Sears, Roebuck and Co. headquarters in Chicago, said the company's warehouses already were empty nationwide.

Circuit City said it had air conditioners available in cities like Dallas, where most buildings have central cooling systems. The extra inventory was being shipped to places like Philadelphia, where many people rely on window units.

Carolyn Verweyst, a spokeswoman for the Whirlpool Corporation, which makes air conditioners, said the shortage starts in Asia and South America, where factories build compressors, the cooling boxes inside air conditioners.

Because of the time it takes to import compressors, manufacturers must order them a year in advance.

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