Now that home improvement stores have started peddling personal wind turbines and offering free in-store solar leasing estimates to the big box-shopping masses, it’s not entirely surprising that some retailers have taken things to the next level by partnering with utilities to sell actual energy to shoppers. That’s right — at some retailers, you can shop for juice boxes for your kids’ lunches and, a few aisles down, purchase juice to power your home.
In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal picks up on the growing trend and profiles several retailers that have teamed up with regional and national utility companies — utilities that “believe they can benefit from the retailers' superior customer-service practices and the trust consumers have in popular retail brands” — to offer electricity plans and other energy services to customers. One U.S. retailer that now offers home energy services at three brick and mortar pilot stores is Best Buy — not all that shocking given that consumers can already purchase energy-efficient appliances and electronics along with energy-saving home improvement items such as the Nest smart thermostat at most Best Buy locations. It seems like the next logical step.
In Texas, Best Buy has partnered with electric company Reliant, the Houston-based unit of power provider NRG, to sell electricity plans to customers at a pilot store. In Chicago, the retailer has linked with Constellation, a unit of Exelon, to offer a similar service. Not mentioned in the WSJ article is the partnership between Pacific Gas & Electric and Best Buy at a store in San Carlos, Calif. where shoppers can find a full range of home energy services and products.
Explains Jason Few, president of Reliant: "The better job we do to present a range of energy solutions beyond just providing power, we become a lot more valuable to that consumer."
It’s overseas that things get a bit more surprising when it comes to what type of retailers are venturing into home energy services. In the U.K., Marks & Spencer — the venerable, granny-friendly High Street department store chain specializing in clothing, flowers and upmarket edibles — has been selling both electricity and natural gas through provider SSE under the M&S Energy brand to loyal shoppers since 2008. In addition to fixed rate and standard energy plans, the bellwether retailer offers insulation and solar panels alongside popular items such as brassieres, school uniforms and Christmas cakes.
Of course, customer rewards are involved when signing up — and staying with — M&S Energy. During their first year with M&S Energy, customers can earn up to £70 in gift vouchers that can be used to purchase Marks & Sparks staples like Percy the Pig gift sets, bridal lingerie and wine. M&S Energy customers are also rewarded for reducing their annual energy usage by 10 percent or more.
Coles, Australia's second largest supermarket chain, takes a similar, incentive-based approach by providing shoppers with reward points if they switch their current gas or electric accounts over to energy provider AGL. The program, which is run through the retailer's customer loyalty scheme called Flybuys, also offers existing AGL customers with reward points for shopping at Coles. The points can redeemed and used towards purchases at Coles and a host of other businesses.
Greg Bolino, executive director of management consulting in the Resources Operating Group at Accenturel explains to the WSJ:" You've got to be able to understand consumers, to segment them and understand which ones are going to want what sort of things, and retailers are better at understanding the customer."
My question to you: Would you purchase electricity or natural gas at the same place where you shop for underpants, groceries and flat-screen TVs? Or are your utilities and your day-to-day shopping habits two entities that you'd like to keep separate?