First it was books. Then groceries. But does the world really want to buy refrigerators online?

It's too early to say. But Amazon's plans announced last week to start selling appliances from Sears' iconic Kenmore brand will test the thesis by addressing each retailer's key consumer pain points.

It could be a game-changer for both retailers. Amazon has perfected the online shopping experience but has yet to crack the code on selling major appliances online. Sears, on the other hand, is one of the top sellers of major appliances (after Lowe's and Home Depot) but has been forced to close hundreds of underperforming stores over the past few years.

The two retailers think they can help each other by improving the consumer appliance-buying experience. Consumer Reports' survey data support this idea.

In CR's most recent retailer survey, with 56,514 readers reporting on 80,052 appliance purchases, Sears scored Very Good for installation and haul away. But on important aspects of the appliance-shopping experience, including price, selection, and in-store service, Sears' scores were mediocre. And forget about its website's usability: It was rated Poor.

Amazon got top marks from CR readers for website usability and ease of checkout. It also scored very well for price, selection, and shipping.  

There are dozens of Kenmore models in Consumer Reports' appliance ratings, including refrigerators and air conditioners. And nearly one in three U.S. homes contains a Kenmore major appliance, according to Sears. Yet until now, they were available only at Sears and Kmart locations or on their websites. (Sears Holdings also owns Kmart.)

“Amazon is the No. 1 search word in the country; customers go there first,” says Tom Park, president of Kenmore, Craftsman, and DieHard for Sears Holdings. “We couldn’t have picked a better partner.”

Matt Furlong, general manager of home improvement and major appliances at Amazon, said in a statement: “We’re constantly working to expand our selection, and are excited to be offering customers Kenmore appliances on Amazon.com.” Kenmore will be the only major-appliance brand sold by Amazon itself, although others are sold by third-party sellers in the Amazon marketplace.

How It Works

The Amazon-Kenmore partnership started quietly when Amazon began selling the Kenmore Smart Room Air Conditioner, which can be controlled using Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service, a few weeks ago. (“Alexa, can you raise the temperature?”)

Appliance Shopping

Kenmore Smart air conditioners are available nationwide, but the major appliances will be rolled out market by market starting in the Los Angeles area this week. All Kenmore Elite, Kenmore Pro, and Kenmore Smart appliances are included. 

The program is rolling out city by city so that Amazon can tap into Sears' existing distribution centers, which will handle delivery, installation, haul away, and returns.

When you order a Kenmore appliance on Amazon, you’ll be funneled into the Sears delivery and distribution network at checkout, just as you would if you purchased the appliance at a local Sears or Kmart. Park said the company will monitor the pilot program in Los Angeles “to make sure things are running right,” and then begin rolling out distribution across the U.S. “as soon as possible.”

Park declined to discuss pricing, but said the Kenmore appliances would eventually qualify for Amazon Prime.

Performance and Reliability

Plenty of major Kenmore appliances have performed well in Consumer Reports’ lab tests over the years. Dozens of models appear on our recommended lists in ratings of dishwashers, refrigerators, ranges, washers, dryers, microwaves, and window air conditioners.

Our experts just tested the Kenmore Smart 77087 window air conditioner, $380, which works with Alexa, and it made our top picks list. We haven’t yet tested it with Alexa.

Of course, not every Kenmore is a winner. "While some Kenmore models are at or near the top of our appliance ratings, there are also Kenmore models that are near the bottom of our ratings," says Jim Nanni, who oversees our appliance testing. "This just reinforces the fact that performance varies among models, so if you want to make sure you're happy with performance, choose by model, not by brand."

In terms of reliability, Kenmore appliances have held their own in our surveys, in which we ask our readers about the repair rates of the appliances in their homes. Kenmore currently makes the most reliable French-door refrigerators and gas ranges in our tests, according to our readers. Its washers, dryers, vacuums, and dishwashers have also been solidly reliable; none have been called out for high repair rates.

Kenmore has become an iconic brand since its first agitator washer was introduced 90 years ago, but it’s worth noting that Sears doesn’t actually make any of the Kenmore appliances. Instead it works with other manufacturers on the design of its machines, often adding new features, and rebrands them Kenmore. “Kenmore has been pretty smart about the manufacturers they partner with,” says Mark Allwood, our market analyst for major appliances.

It’s not always easy to tell which manufacturer is behind the Kenmore badge, and they’ve changed over the years. But in general, the cooking appliances are made by Frigidaire and GE; refrigerators by Electrolux, Whirlpool, Frigidaire, and LG (depending on type); freezers by Electrolux and Frigidaire; dishwashers by Whirlpool; laundry appliances by Whirlpool and LG; and window air conditioners by Frigidaire and LG.

As for whether people are ready to buy large appliances online, Sears and Amazon think so. Consumer Reports has seen an uptick in major-appliance sales online in recent reader surveys. In the latest one, 13 percent of our readers bought a major appliance that way—a threefold increase since our 2008 survey. Sears is banking on that trend continuing.

“Selling on Amazon will bring in a whole new customer,” Park says. “The younger generation wants to buy appliances just like they do everything else—online.”