Google, Microsoft and Cisco may have abandoned their home energy management products earlier this year, but Best Buy is betting that its customers' curiosity of emerging technology space will only grow as a wave of new technologies hit the market.
Best Buy is pilot testing home energy efficiency departments in San Carlos, Calif., Houston and Chicago, the retailer said Friday. Through these in-store departments, the company hopes to help consumers draw up efficiency road maps and navigate the growing suite of home energy management products and utility incentives. Consumers outside these three test markets can also access the company's new Online Learning Center at BestBuy.com to see virtual product demonstrations and take a self-assessment.
"The goal of the department is the bring energy technology to life for consumers, to create an immersive environment where they can come in and learn about a range of solutions around energy and things that will make their lives better and more productive," said Neil McPhail, senior vice president of Best Buy's new business customer solutions group.
I met yesterday with McPhail and Kris Bowring, senior director of Best Buy's home energy platform, at the BSR Conference in San Francisco, where CEO Brian Dunn delivered a keynote speech this morning.
McPhail told me the departments aim to demystify the technologies hitting the market. "Blue shirts" -- Best Buy-speak for its employees -- and Geek Squad agents will help consumers identify their biggest efficiency challenges. Consumers can take home energy surveys and schedule energy audits with Geek Squad agents trained in home energy management.
From there, consumers will receive a suite of possible solutions that make sense for the individual home, ranging from thermostatic control devices to integrated control devices that work with a smart phone or security system. They'll also receive information on relevant utility rebates and incentives offered in their area. For work beyond Best Buy's scope, such as the installation of a more efficient HVAC by a third party, "we envision either Best Buy creating a relationship on your behalf" or a consumer may use the contractor of their choice.
Best Buy is testing three different value propositions with each location. The San Carlos store will test a model that is deeply integrated with a utility partner -- in this case, PG&E, which offers a range of incentives and rebates aimed at helping its customers use energy more efficiently.
Best Buy also wanted to test the home energy efficiency department in a deregulated energy market. At the Houston location, Best Buy actually offers rate plans, acting essentially as "a reseller of those plans and solutions on behalf of the utilities," McPhail said.
The Chicago store will be largely focused on the consumer and their experience as the driving force, McPhail said. "If you think about the opportunities with utilities and subsidies around a lot of the energy efficiency products we'll be selling, we also think there is a demand that can be consumer-driven without subsidy," he said. "We want to test that hypothesis a little bit as well."
He pointed to the Learning Thermostat from Nest Labs as an example of a new cool and sexy technology creating a lot of demand and excitement. In fact, people are so excited about this product that the manufacturer just announced it is sold out through early 2012 after about a week on the market.