Retailers are turning consumers on to a new generation of energy-efficient lighting products
CONSUMERS ENJOY THE WARM GLOW and convenience of high-quality lighting — but they're uncomfortable with the environmental impact that comes with it. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, lighting products account for 7% of all energy consumed in the country. Incandescent bulbs, in particular, are a staple in most households, but recent data have shed light on their inefficiencies, like the fact that only 10% of the electricity they consume gets converted into visible light.
The response from retailers, manufacturers and legislators over the past couple years has been to promote a new lineup of energy-efficient products: timers, dimmers, motion sensors and, most prominently, compact fluorescent lamps — also known as CFLs — which last up to 10 times longer and save more than $30 in electricity costs when compared to incandescent bulbs.
Making the transition is and has been an uphill battle, but the impact on the market is evident. Figures from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association show that CFLs now account for 26% of all household bulbs in the United States.
“I think the consumer has a fair knowledge of CFLs, that the life in them is a bit longer,” said Josh Dwinell, category buyer for Nugget Market, Woodland, Calif., and its discount banner, Food 4 Less. “They reduce energy and save money, and right now everybody's looking to save money.”
As with many other retailers, Nugget Market has gotten a boost from secondary promotions. During the summer, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a San Francisco-based utilities provider, subsidized a 2-for-$1 deal on 23-watt CFLs sold at Nugget Market and Food 4 Less locations. It's a win-win for both partners: Nugget gets the sales lift, while PG&E gets a more efficient bulb in its customers' hands.
“That's a great opportunity,” said Dwinell, who promotes the bulbs in an endcap display.
On a national scale, no retailer has done more than Wal-Mart to encourage CFL sales. Back in 2006, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company kicked off a campaign to sell 100 million CFLs by the end of 2007, offering low-price private-label bulbs as a centerpiece of its strategy. By the end of that year, Wal-Mart had almost doubled its goal, selling 193 million CFLs.
Impressive sales numbers like this are encouraging. Indeed, the cost benefits that energy-efficient lighting products provide have resonated with consumers, especially in these lean economic times. Replacing five incandescent bulbs with CFL bulbs, according to the Department of Energy, can save consumers $150 over the course of the bulbs' lifetime. Besides the bulb switch, using dimmers, timers and motion-sensor devices further conserves energy and can shave additional dollars off an electric bill.
“The driving force is that they're saving money,” said A.J. Riedel, president of the Riedel Marketing Group, a housewares consulting firm. “Within a month or two, they'll see a drop in their electric bill.”
Long-term savings are possible for many consumers, though they can find it difficult. Energy-efficient bulbs and fixtures can pose technical hurdles for those used to traditional lighting products. CFLs, for example, do not work with most dimmers, timers and motion sensors. CFLs are also notorious for giving off a dull, clinical light that many incandescent consumers have a hard time adjusting to.
There's also been some confusion as to whether these products are as eco-friendly as they claim. CFLs contain a trace amount of mercury — usually around 5 milligrams or less — and that's been cause for alarm for some consumers, despite experts' reassurance that the amount is negligible. Some people also question the consistency of marketing something as “eco-friendly” when it comes packaged in Styrofoam and plastic.
“Consumers are being sent a very mixed message there,” said Mark Delaney, director of the NPD Group's home division, Port Washington, N.Y. “Here's something being sold as good for the environment, yet it's being sold with all this non-recyclable material.”
For its part, Nugget Market tries to be straightforward with its shoppers. Manufacturers of the CFL bulbs the retailer sells provide valuable pointers and statistics on package, said Dwinell. Any further questions, then, can be answered by a sales associate walking the floor.
“We're very service-oriented,” said R.J. Cushing, Nugget Market's housewares category manager. “If someone picks up one of these light bulbs and they're not sure about it, we have someone who can explain to them how it works and how much longer it lasts than other options.”
The learning curve for both retailers and consumers may grow larger as even more efficient lighting sources come to market. One technology being researched is LEDs — light emitting diodes — which can last up to 100 times longer than a standard bulb. Right now, high costs confine LEDs to commercial use. A 40-watt bulb carries a price tag of about $20, still a bit too pricey for most homes.
- Popular as they are, CFLs still require a bit of POS educational signage.
- If applicable, tie the store's use of efficient lighting to the availability of home options.
- Check with utilities and energy providers on the potential for sponsoring promotions.
- Use private-label CFLs as a nonfood foundation for green living initiatives.
Everyone from eco-organizations to retailers and manufacturers have pushed for consumers to use more energy-efficient light bulbs — but it appears the biggest push will come from the man up top, President Obama. This past summer, the Obama administration announced new energy-efficiency standards for incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs. Starting in 2012 and continuing through 2042, the rules will reduce energy use in affected light bulbs by 15% to 25%. That should save consumers $1 billion to $4 billion a year in energy costs, and it should spare the atmosphere 594 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Now I know light bulbs may not seem sexy, but this is a simple action that holds enormous promise,” said Obama during a news conference announcing the new standards.
Despite the savings and the growing demand in general for CFLs and other energy-saving lighting products, consumers are wary of federal government involvement. According to a recent survey from Rasmussen Reports, 72% say they don't want the government telling them what light bulbs to buy. Great Britain, meanwhile, phased out incandescent bulbs entirely earlier this month.
— Jeff Wells