By Katherine Tweed
In the United Kingdom, retailer Marks & Spencer already sells power in the competitive electricity market. In the United States, big box stores haven’t quite gotten that far into the energy sector, but they’re starting to circle the wagons.
Earlier this year, Lowe’s (NYSE:LOW) released Iris, a cloud-based home management system provided by AlertMe. Opower started working with Home Depot (NYSE:HD). Instead of focusing just on energy, the stores are offering products for the fully connected home, a sales proposition that is more about control and comfort than kilowatt savings.
Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), which has three test stores for its Home Energy Learning Center concept (Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco), has also released a home energy management system, Check-It Home Energy Monitoring, which uses a circuit-level connection to see how energy much different loads are using. The kit, which sells for $399, is available online and comes with the requisite mobile app. It has been selling despite its high price tag, according to Rich Peterson, director of growth operations for Best Buy.
In the three learning centers, customers spend an average of 35 minutes just talking to a sales rep and learning, said Peterson. For customers to waltz into a Best Buy to purchase a new phone or a television and then spend more than half-hour learning about their home energy use is no small deal.
It illustrates that in the right setting, with the right information, people are interested in learning about how to reduce their energy bills -- or at least understand it. In the California store, the staff in the learning center spent days with Pacific Gas & Electricity employees to learn more about how the utility works. In Texas and California, the learning center staff can help customers choose electricity providers.
Peterson would not give details, but the concept has "vastly exceeded expectations" and will likely expand across the country later this year. Along with energy-efficient televisions and light bulbs, the Geek Squad will also install your electric vehicle charger and Best Buy can help you set up a home energy audit.
For utilities, the big box stores could represent an opportunity to get to customers without actually having to rebuild the relationship. Best Buy sees itself in the perfect position to cash in on energy services. It partners with telecoms and utilities, both of which would like increased access to consumers.
Although most people think of Best Buy as a technology store, they’re also selling everything from weather stripping and dryer balls that can save energy. Best Buy doesn’t just want to sell you a super-efficient, flat-screen TV (although it’d like to do that too), it wants to help you understand your utility bill in the learning center and then show you how to reduce usage using the things you already own.
If Best Buy, Home Depot, and Lowe’s can continue to expand their programs, selling everything from Nest thermostats (assuming the lawsuit is ever settled) to a GE GeoSpring hot water heater to home energy audits, it will allow utilities to leverage a lot of technology without actually having to step into the home. But if utilities don’t focus on partnerships, there are plenty of other companies that would like to own that relationship. In Europe the competition is already between telecoms and utilities, and in more deregulated states in the U.S. that could also be coming.