In middle-class neighborhoods in India, people called dhobis collect dirty laundry and take it to the river to wash against the rocks. This ritual has been repeated for generations.
Whirlpool Corp., however, is betting that a growing number of young professional couples will opt for Western-style automatic washing machines. Last year, a Whirlpool joint venture began manufacturing compact washers with specially designed agitators that won't tangle saris, the flowing outfits worn by many Indian women.
SMALL POTATOES. India isn't the only country where Whirlpool is courting an emerging middle class. Variations of the same machine, internally dubbed the World Washer, are also built and sold in Brazil and Mexico. And Whirlpool is eyeing exports from those factories to other Asian and Latin American countries. Except for minor variations in the controls, the three versions of the bare-bones washer are nearly the same: They'll do just 11 pounds of wash, about one-half the capacity of the typical U. S. model.
It's all part of Whirlpool's dream to expand into markets less saturated with appliances than the U. S. In the near term, Europe is the hot ticket. "But when you look at the appliance market worldwide, much of the growth is going to come in Third World and Asian countries," says Ralph F. Hake, Whirlpool's controller. Chairman David R. Whitwam wants to be ready with simple, affordable appliances and sales networks when those markets take off.
At the same time, he wants to compete near the home turf of rivals such as Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd.--which have more experience building compact appliances.
By Whirlpool's standards, the World Washer is small potatoes. The machines, which sell for $270 to $650, are initially expected to make only a modest contribution to the bottom line. But with so many potential customers around the globe, Whirlpool must be ready to provide an alternative to the local riverbank.