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Practicing light bulb diplomacy

By John Paul Quinn

Homeowner customers walking into lighting showrooms may not know very much about the federally mandated lamp energy-efficiency standards, but they do know one thing—they’re not happy about what’s going on.

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, which set the timetable for the phase-out of various lamps starting with the 100W incandescent this year, is arguably one of the least-thought-out pieces of legislation emanating from inside the Beltway in recent memory.

Why? Because it imposed a stringent series of unrealistic deadlines on manufacturers to retool their production operations and thrust contractors and distributors into the position of having to explain to residential customers a complex array of alternative lighting options that, in many cases, consumers don’t adequately understand and definitely don’t like.

What makes the situation more regrettable is the fact that it might have been avoidable as the electrical industry and the general population in Europe went through this same painful process three years ago.

The German newsmagazine Spiegel reported in July 2009: “As the Sept. 1 deadline for the implementation of the first phase of the EU’s [European Union’s] ban on incandescent light bulbs approaches, shoppers, retailers, and even museums are hoarding the precious wares—and helping the manufacturers make a bundle.

“Many have mocked the light bulb legislation as just another example of the European Union bureaucracy gone wild,” the report continued. “One Member of the European Parliament [MEP] has even accused the EU of imposing ‘light bulb socialism.’”

In Germany, the incandescent hoarding process was referred to as “hamstering” and people were vocally skeptical as to the acceptability of CFLs or LEDs as alternative technologies.

Unfortunately, few people in the United States picked up those early warning signals.

Withdrawal symptoms

“Some distributors are aware that in the EU there was a mad dash to stockpile incandescents,” said Nick Frisella, project manager at Metro Electric Supply, St. Louis. “We haven’t encouraged this because that would circumvent the process of promoting the more energy-efficient solutions. But there is definitely reluctance and resistance on the part of homeowners as far as replacing incandescents is concerned.”

Opinions differ among distributors as to how to assist homeowners through this period.

“Over the six months prior to the scheduled January 2012 phaseout of the 100W incandescent, probably 15% to 20% of our homeowner customers coming in for lamp refills expressed concern at the prospect of switching to CFLs or LEDs,” said Kathryn Gatlin, advertising manager, NESCO Electrical Distributors, Tupelo, Miss. “And a lot of them were irate about what they perceive as the government telling them what light bulbs to use. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to talk to them about larger environmental implications.

“This issue is difficult for distributors doing a significant lighting showroom business, because it puts us at the tail end of the supply chain dealing with a confused retail customer base,” she continued. “Anticipating a problem, we made sure we had a little healthier than normal inventory of 100W incandescents. We didn’t encourage them to stockpile but said they could buy some extras to hold them over if they were worried.”

Another strategy is to explain to the customer that this is an interim situation with finite limits.

“The reaction from these customers is mostly panic, so when they ask whether they should stock up, we say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ” said Rob Del Signore, vice president of Desco Lighting, New Castle, Pa. “We tell them that the manufacturers have stopped making incandescents, but as long as they’re in the supply pipeline, they can be sold. However, once they’re gone, they’re gone—so buy extras if you want. They have an indefinite shelf life.

“But we’re also trying to get people to transfer to one of the optional technologies because the necessity for them to change is inevitable,” he noted. “Distributors should be proactive in this process rather than reactive. Ultimately, homeowners will have to adapt. It seems that psychologically the biggest issue for them is not that some incandescent bulbs are going away, but that they didn’t have a say in the matter and won’t have the kind of choice they’re used to.”

But under closer consideration, the present stage of lightbulb legislation really only affects homeowners using the 100W lamp; it is not a sweeping outlawing of incandescent lamps.

“If customers are reluctant to switch from using 100W incandescents specifically, the first question to ask is what they’re using them for,” said one lighting industry observer who asked to remain anonymous. “If they’re putting them in fixtures inside the home, that’s a huge fire hazard. There are few fixtures that can legally use a 100W lamp today. And that’s the only bulb on the first stage of phase-out that’s of any significance. The bigger attitudinal problem for customers will be the phase-out of the 60W and 40W bulbs over the next few years.”

In any case, distributors are caught in interlocking fields of fire.

“From the manufacturer down is where the upset sets in,” Del Signore said. “The distributor will take the heat because the homeowner is asking us why is all this happening, and the contractor is asking us what they’re supposed to do to calm the homeowner down. We just have to try to get through the next six to eight months.”

Baby steps and ABC data

The consensus is that one of the biggest mistakes a distributor can make in discussing the changeover from incandescents to alternative lighting sources with homeowners is to talk to them as though they were commercial or industrial customers. They don’t speak the same language.

The commercial or industrial purchasing agent who pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in electric bills every month understands exactly what the energy-efficient benefits of switching to CFLs or LEDs means. Plus, in many states there are sizable rebates offered to businesses for making the change.

But these economies of scale and government refunds don’t apply to the homeowner.

“Residential customers may get the energy-efficient concept, but if they’re on a fixed limited income they’re going to think twice before buying a CFL or LED,” said Cory Szatkiewicz, vice president of Turtle & Hughes, Linden, N.J. “Residential decision-making is all about up-front money, so don’t try to impress them with statistics about the 25-year life expectancy of an LED that’s going to cost them $50.”

What homeowners need is to be led through some basic baby steps and to be fed some ABC (already-been-chewed) data, keeping the information and options simple.

A good place to start is explaining the concept of lumens per watt:

  • Lumens are the amount of light produced by a bulb, and the number for lumen output is printed on the lightbulb package.
  • Wattage is the amount of electricity needed to light the bulb, and the higher the wattage is, the brighter the light will be. The wattage is printed on the package and on the bulb itself.
  • Divide the light bulb’s lumen output by the number of watts the bulb needs; more lumens per watt means more light for your money.
  • Use analogies the consumer relates to: “Lumens per watt is like how many pounds for a dollar or miles per gallon,” for example.
  • As a visual aid, the new FTC “Lighting Facts” label can be used to illustrate this equation to the homeowner.

Now the alternative lighting sources can be introduced.

“We promote halogen as the next best alternative to incandescents,” said Martha Delgado, product marketing manager for Bulbrite Industries (bulbrite.com). “Many customers don’t know that halogen is a form of incandescent that burns more efficiently. After halogen, you can explain to the customer that CFLs are now available in a variety of shapes, some that even resemble incandescents for use in open fixtures. Many people formed a poor impression of CFLs when they were first introduced and were really not ready for the marketplace. And for the homeowner, LEDs are still somewhat problematic, perceived as a new technology that continues to change and is also expensive.”

Believe in the process

There’s no question that this will be a difficult learning process for the homeowner—in fact, for everybody in the supply chain.

“This is a temporary adjustment period driven by technology and regulation,” said Mary Beth Gotti, manager of the GE Lighting Institute (gelighting.com). “People are faced with new options, but they will overcome their initial opposition when they realize they can have as good or better quality lighting, can save energy, and the products will last longer. All of us are creatures of habit, but people do have a way of catching on to recognizable economic benefits. Public attitudes will progress from annoyance to acceptance to comfort and finally to satisfaction.”

But for the time being, we are still in that exasperating interim holding pattern of transition, and the distributor has to keep reassuring the disgruntled homeowner customer.

“We try to encourage the reluctant customers to be patient and to believe in the process,” said Gatlin. “We’re all going to have to change the way we’ve been doing things all along—us and them. We advise them on selecting the best lighting source available right now for their particular application and budget—but to be patient and stay tuned for further developments.”

John Quinn reports on a broad range of business topics for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203-323-9850 or mirabel@snet.net.

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