Your friends may never know

Special to The Times

A mini-backlash is brewing against stainless-steel appliances, and it’s not necessarily being driven by the price of stainless steel, which has risen as much as 60% in the last year. The cheaper faux stainless appliances — made from aluminum or even plastic painted to mimic their popular and pricey siblings — are being sought out by people who want the high-end look without the drawbacks.

Stainless steel is quick to show fingerprints and, perhaps more important, it usually doesn’t hold magnets because the nickel content effectively foils using the fridge as a family message board. This may be an obstacle for the huge percentage of American families — some estimates put it at 90% — who treat the appliance as a communication center. (Who hasn’t hung a report card or clipped a “be back soon” message to its front?)

Smudges on the shimmering steel are such an issue that a niche market specializing in cleaning products for it has popped up, and consumers are trading how-to advice on the Internet. In one Garden Web discussion forum on faux versus authentic stainless appliances, several recent postings touted the ease of premoistened Stainless Steel Magic Wipes.

If fingerprints seem a mundane issue, perhaps you’ve never tried to keep a toddler from breaking into the fridge. But smudges, and consumers’ deep-seated need to post Dear Abby columns and pictures of their cats on the refrigerator, prompted manufacturers such as General Electric and Whirlpool to introduce lines of faux stainless steel a few years ago.

Designers say no one shows up saying “I want the fake stuff,” but manufacturers and some appliance stores say the alternatives have been popular from the day they hit the sales floor. And they’re probably being purchased by those without room for a designer in their budgets.

The faux-stainless appliances attract the customer who wants “a nice-looking fridge that is going to be durable for the kids, and it’s not just the same white refrigerator,” says Chris Wilson, manager of Warehouse Discount Appliance Center in Agoura Hills. Although he says the appliances sell well, he would not provide sales figures.

When Maureen Hennessey of Yardley, Pa., went to buy a refrigerator to match her stainless steel range, a fingerprint-resistant finish was most important. Being able to post her kids’ artwork on it was a distant second.

“I have a friend with a stainless refrigerator who says fingerprints aren’t a problem, but she has one child. My brother has one too, but he has no children. I have three kids, so I was hesitant,” says Hennessey, who bought a titanium-finish French-door model by LG Electronics. “It still does show fingerprints, but not as badly as the stainless.”

Fingerprints aside, now could be a pivotal time for marketers to push for wider acceptance of stainless-steel look-alikes because prices for the authentic metal are expected to keep spiraling upward.

With China experiencing a building explosion, it is consuming more than a quarter of the world’s production of stainless steel, according to various estimates. That and the demand for nickel, an important stainless-steel component, are sending the price of stainless steel soaring. Estimates are that it will rise 35% in 2005. That could translate into as much as a 10% price increase on a stainless-steel appliance — a chunk of change on, say, a $5,000 refrigerator.

The price differential in some lines can be significant. The top-of-the-line GE Monogram series, for example, could set you back about $6,900 for a side-by-side refrigerator, double ovens and a dishwasher, all in stainless steel. GE’s painted silver metallic Hotpoint line comes in at a little more than $1,700 for a similar suite of appliances but with a single oven. A single top-of-the-line stainless appliance from a company such as Viking or Sub-Zero can easily go for $7,500 or more.

One downside to some lower-cost alternatives: Whirlpool’s Satina and GE’s CleanSteel finishes are only available in refrigerators, which may put off some consumers who want a uniform look — the exact same curve of a handle or shade of stainless — running through their kitchen.

You can’t have “any design integrity if it is just one piece” that requires customers to mix and match finishes, Wilson says.

Although her titanium refrigerator doesn’t exactly match her stainless range, it’s close enough for Hennessey. “They’re both gray,” she says. Plus, she can display her kids’ art if she uses strong magnets.

Attitudes like that are why such brands as Kenmore and KitchenAid are also jumping on the masqueraders’ bandwagon with their own lines of stainless-steel look-alike products that feature a vinyl-coated finish over steel, engineered to defy would-be smudgers and provide a magnetic surface.

“What we have are two markets running in tandem,” says Audrey Reed-Granger, a Whirlpool spokeswoman. The company’s Satina refrigerator is coated aluminum laminated over carbon steel, developed to resist fingerprints and smears. An added bonus: The surface can be shined with window cleaner and gripped by magnets.

“People who don’t have a maintenance need go for stainless steel. But Satina was created for people who do not want to deal with fingerprints,” Reed-Granger says. “It gives you the look of stainless steel minus the fingerprints and smudges.”

The demand for stainless alternatives is “very strong and growing,” says Bob Byrne, vice president of new product development at American Trim, a Lima, Ohio-based company that supplies decorative metal products and metal components to the appliance, transportation, architectural and sports and leisure industries. “The bright stainless appearance has become a color, and consumers are willing to pay a premium for it.”

Byrne says that stainless steel and what he calls “near-stainless” products account, by some estimates, for as much as 20% of total kitchen appliance sales.

Demand “will continue indefinitely unless there’s some radical thing that happens,” says Ron Fields, who runs an eponymous interior design company in Los Angeles. Fields, who has been in the business for more than 30 years and who works both nationally and internationally, says he is often asked to design a kitchen using stainless steel but has never been asked for faux stainless steel.

Sandra Costa, a Los Angeles interior designer, says traditional stainless is here to stay. “People stay with it because it’s not a trend, it’s a classic,” she says. “It never fades, it never will. It does maintain, you just have to clean it.”

She discounts price as a factor in pushing the alternatives, at least for those who aren’t on a budget. “Most people will pull the extra money to make sure the kitchen is done the way they want it,” Costa says. “If something is $700 more and you are spending $80,000 and up, that’s nothing. You’re going to get what you want.”

It’s that mentality that status manufacturers such as Viking are banking on. They are staying the stainless course. “In our particular market, our customers are very particular. We’re mimicking a professional or commercial-style appliance,” says Brent Bailey, director of design for Viking in Greenwood, Miss. “I’m not saying we would not use any faux finish, but until I see a good reproduction used in the appropriate application, we are probably not going to use it.”

The faux stainless finish was only a momentary consideration for Gina Moye and her husband. “The only one we considered is the one they say won’t leave fingerprints,” says Moye, of Camarillo. “But the guy at the appliance store said it is an applied finish and it will scratch. With stainless steel, if it scratches, you can basically sand it off.”

Still, Byrne and others believe that faux stainless-steel appliances are here to stay in a big way. “They give consumers the style and appearance of the trophy appliance,” Byrne says — without the high-end price.