It Chills, It Microwaves, It Even Keeps Ice Cream, But Will It Sell?
BOSTON (AP) _ A new appliance that can chill beer, keep ice cream frozen and cook pizza has college students clamoring, and the inventor, a former computer salesman, crossing his fingers.
The Microfridge is a three-piece appliance comprised of a compact refrigerator, a separate freezer compartment and a mini-microwave. It retails for $429.
The founders of Microfridge Inc. of suburban Sharon did more than stack three appliances on top of one another and paint them the same color, however. Their machine, which stands under 4-feet tall, was invented to use no more power than a compact refrigerator.
″Quite simply, when one unit is running, the other one is off,″ explained co-founder Robert P. Bennett, 33, who said he holds two patents on the Microfridge’s circuitry.
When the microwave is turned on, the freezer and refrigerator shut off temporarily. They go back on when the cooking is done, Bennett said. Product testing showed that even when the microwave was on for 45 minutes, the refrigerator and freezer sections gained only 3 degrees, he said.
The first shipment of 1,700 Microfridges went out at the end of August. The company plans two more shipments by the end of November. Sales are expected to top $1.9 million this year, Bennett said, and ″the phones are still ringing.″
Microfridge has three distributors, which sell the appliance through colleges, military bases and a few stores. The device, whose components are made in various countries, is assembled in San Diego by the U.S. arm of Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., the Japanese electronics and appliance giant.
″The biggest problem is going to be eventually we’ll have to think about competition, ″ said Bennett. ″Once we create a market, either we’ll have built up until we’re the recognized name, or we won’t have - that will allow someone else to come in.″
For now, the efforts of Bennett and his co-founders, Peter Soriano, 47, and Ed Ward, 37, are focused on promoting the appliance for use in schools, hotels, office suites and military bases.
More than 88 percent of the first shipment was bought by colleges and their students, Bennett said. And students are forming waiting lists at Brown University in Rhode Island and the University of Southern California.
Lauren Massara, a freshman at Brown University, raved about her Microfridge.
″I think it could almost be considered a necessity if you’re not on the three-meal plan. You can make breakfast, Eggo Waffles,″ she said. Because of the Microfridge in her room, Massara said she plans to go off the full-meal plan.
Joseph Zannini, the executive director of housing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the school ordered 11 Microfridges for initial testing, welcoming the reduced power requirements.
Relying too much on the relatively small college market could ultimately sink Microfridge Inc., said Chuck Ryan, an industry analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. Ryan also said the retail price was high enough to be a probable stumbling block.
″I think he’s got a difficult sale on a price basis, because college students can buy a $99 refrigerator and a $99 microwave and save yourself a lot of money,″ said Ryan.
According to Bennett, however, a separate freezer makes up for that price difference.
″How much is the freezer worth? That’s really the question. And because we have an extremely high backlog, it seems to be worth quite a lot,″ he said.
Marassa agreed. ″You don’t have to worry about this teensy space not big enough to hold ice cubes,″ she said, referring to the minute freezer compartment of most compact refrigerators. ″I mean, this can hold ice cream.″