APPLIANCE MAKERS' PRICING PROBED

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The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the nation's big appliance manufacturers in what seems to be an examination of longstanding pricing agreements between manufacturers and retailers.

The probe came to light last week when Whirlpool Corp. confirmed it would no longer sell its top-line Whirlpool-brand appliances through discounter Best Buy Co. In selling appliances at lower-than-average prices, Best Buy doesn't participate in a longstanding cooperative ad agreement between manufacturers and retailers: Manufacturers supplement retailers' newspaper ad budgets if retailers agree to advertise the appliances at set prices.

This practice now seems to be in question, as investigators attempt to determine whether retailers that sell items below the manufacturer's suggested price are treated unfairly by manufacturers.

"The antitrust division is conducting an ongoing investigation of pricing practices in the large home-appliance industry," said a Justice Department spokesman. He wouldn't specify the manufacturers or retailers being examined.

A Whirlpool spokesman said the Justice Department first asked the manufacturer for details about its pricing practices in June.

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