THIS year's Great Heat Wave has gradually turned into the Great Air Conditioner Shortage of 1988. In a Boston appliance store, Marcos Bigil gazes at a display of room air conditioners. He twists the knobs and looks longingly at the exposed and gleaming cooling coils. All of these models, he knows, are already sold out, and have been for about two weeks. No new shipments are expected.
Still, hope springs eternal.
``I thought I would look now - for next year,'' says Mr. Bigil, who is no stranger to hot weather. Bigil and his family moved from El Salvador to the United States eight years ago.
Now, however, he lives in a small apartment in Cambridge, Mass. The apartment has been so hot this year that Bigil has found himself lugging his family's lone air conditioner (a small window unit) from room to room.
``In San Salvador it is hot,'' Bigil says. ``You get used to it. But the weather here in Boston was terrible last week, and it is beautiful today. Tomorrow, who knows?''
Room air conditioners lately have become nearly as endangered as the snail darter. Bigil's plight is mirrored a thousandfold across the nation's heat belt, as air conditioner manufacturers and appliance dealers concede there is indeed a nationwide shortage.
``There are virtually no air conditioners in the marketplace,'' says Michael Piraino, a Whirlpool merchandising manager in charge of air conditioners. ``Dealers in the Midwest, East, and South are out of them. The only place I know of any smattering of goods is in the Pacific Northwest.''
Most manufacturers of room air conditioners, like Whirlpool, General Electric, Emerson Quiet Kool, and Carrier, completed production of 1988 units by the end of July. Most factories were idle for the first two weeks of August, and will begin production of 1989 models soon. Last year more than 3 million window units were sold. This year, that number may top 4 million.
One reason for the shortage is that manufacturers base production quotas on orders that come in from retailers throughout the country nearly a year earlier. Guessing at next year's sales, however, is tricky.
``It's just a long-term dart throw or crap shoot that starts with the impact of the previous summer and ends with what the weather will do tomorrow,'' says Jeffrey Dick, a spokesman for General Electric's appliance division. Normally air conditioner sales slump in mid-July. But because air conditioners are impulse items, demand can be as hot as the weather - leaving supply way behind.
Last summer was hot, too, and most of the inventory, though not all, was sold. Heavy sales nearly ``emptied the pipeline'' last year, according to manufacturers. Thus, retailers and distributors put in big 1988 orders last August, and manufacturers supplied them, but it just wasn't enough to meet an even hotter summer and bigger demand this year.
Hardest hit are people in places like Fargo, N.D., Detroit, Boston, New York, and Washington - mostly cities in Northern tier states. Residents of Massachusetts, Maine, and Michigan, for example, are accustomed to hot summer weather, but still are not used to long periods of high temperatures, appliance store owners say.
Many people in these states who ordinarily use fans to survive short hot spells of a typical summer gave up after the first bout with intense heat in July. Others, who endured until August, are now unable to purchase icy relief.
``I called five or six of them, and they were so adamant,'' says Maggie Thomas, a Boston resident. ``Everybody said, `There are no air conditioners left in New England.' One place told me they might have an air conditioner at their store in Warwick, R.I.''
Since Ms. Thomas could not find an air conditioner, she has resorted to another method for cooling.
``I freeze a loaf pan full of water, and then put the block of ice on a cake cooling rack in front of the fan, so it will blow on my son while he's playing. It creates a kind of cool draft.''
There are isolated pockets of air conditioners sitting on store shelves in certain parts of the country. Some are places you might not expect: Los Angeles, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Miami, for instance.
Dealers in these places anticipated the high demand (possibly because these places always get hot) and many have plenty of air conditioners on hand. Some have been shipping truckloads to the North. But in many cases, the excess in these regions has already been shipped, and finding a cache of unsold air conditioners is beginning more and more to be about as speculative as drilling for oil.
``There are none left in the country to the best of our knowledge,'' says Eugene Mondry, president of Highland Stores, which operates 74 stores in 10 states. ``We've been trying to buy them and can't get them.''
A few big department store chains, such as Sears, Roebuck & Co., which has 821 outlets, have been able to ship air conditioners from the Northwest, West, and South to Midwest and Northeast stores. But in other parts of the nation, brisk air conditioner sales have screeched to a halt as supplies dry up.
``We don't have any room air conditioners, and I doubt if anyone else has any, either,'' says Lester Rawitz, president of Economy National Sales, a New York air conditioner retailer. ``We've been trying to pull from the West and South, and they don't exist. Customers are pulling their hair out trying to get them.''
Now manufacturers say they have shipped virtually every unit they have, with little likelihood that quantities of air conditioners will arrive on the scene before next year.
Heat waves also show that when people get hot, they often do more than just hang around a hot apartment getting cranky - they also get resourceful.
``People are buying them here, and shipping to their relatives on the East Coast,'' says Ernest Castillo, owner of Freeway Air Conditioning, a Los Angeles dealer. ``I've had five or six customers buy them retail and pay $110 to $150 per unit to ship them by truck.''
Mr. Castillo says relatively mild heat and humidity in Los Angeles have meant slow sales for his store. But he's glad to lend a hand to anyone around the country who just can't stand it anymore. ``I've got plenty of air conditioners,'' he says. ``If you need any just give me a call.''