Google and YouTube are the new competition for the appliance repair industry

When our washing machine suddenly refused to operate last week, I had the moment of dread that precedes any call to anyone to repair anything.  It’s not uncommon for it to cost around a hundred bucks just to get the truck parked in front of the house, and labor is billed at a highly skilled level.  Then come the parts…

As a consultant, I did a lot of work for companies that made complicated industrial goods, and in every industry I saw, parts were the gravy train.  From home appliances to cars to airliners, you can charge really high prices because once the customers need the parts, they’ve already sunk money into an initial purchase and into the repair effort that generated the part order.  The fastest and cheapest option is to buy the part at prices very lucrative to the vendor.

So I knew that I could be in for a real hosing.

It bothered me enough that I started searching using the brand name and the visible problem: “frigidaire washer stuck pause.”

By the way, the page also showed that Frigidaire, once the proud appliance manufacturing arm of General Motors, is now owned by a Swedish appliance maker, Electrolux.  That is the way of mature industries, consolidating and exploiting global economies of scale.

After discovering that the simplest solution at the top of the page wouldn’t work, looking a bit lower on the page led me to discover that a common problem on front-loading washing machines is the door lock.  That makes sense, since the lock has to be secure, and that could lead to wear and breakdowns, considering how much of it is made of plastic.  (Plastic parts not only cost less to manufacture, but also can lead to lucrative parts sales.)

After that, it was a matter of moments before I found a YouTube video explaining exactly how to do the repair I needed to do with only a needle-nose pliers and a Phillips screwdriver. 

At this point, my masculinity was surging.  Not only could I save some bucks, but I could shock my wife with my omnipotence.  I would slay the dragon that threatened our happy home, by which I mean the trip to the Laundromat that the dirty clothes already piling up would too soon compel.

The video showed a similar model, not exactly the same as ours, but in all the important respects similar enough.

I love the earnestness of the man who made it.  He is willingly sharing the secrets of his trade and helping destroy customer calls for members of his industry.  Appliance repair is estimated to be a $4-billion-a-year industry, after all.  For now.

All that remained was for me to identify the part number that I would need to replace the gizmo  child’s play  and Google the part number.  That led to a range of prices from 25 bucks or so up to nearly $50.  I checked how fast I could get delivery and found that at least two days would be necessary, so I again searched for parts sales for Frigidaire washers and found three locations, one of them in Berkeley.

A quick call revealed that I was offered the full retail price, which was $84, more than 300 percent higher than the cheapest online price.  That’s probably what a service call technician would have charged me for the part at a minimum.

So I did something that would have been inconceivable for most of my life.  Really, I would not have known where to start, and certainly would not have pulled stuff apart on any appliance to get into the guts.  But I did it myself, with the help of Google and YouTube.  This seems somehow momentous at a societal and economic level at the same time it is mundane at the personal level.

The Maytag Man was a semi-comic advertising character that debuted in 1967.  Portrayed by the great character actor Jesse White, he was the “loneliest man in town” because Maytag appliances needed so little service.

A host of other actors portrayed the character over the years, and now it has been redefined beyond recognition.  But the lonely appliance repairman may join a host of other occupations downsized by technology.