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|PROspectives: Art Christianson|
PROspectives: Art Christianson
In this new series, AESP talks with the professionals in the industry who are doing interesting things, to share their unique point of view with AESP members. Our guest is Art Christianson.
Art Christianson is the Senior Manager, Utility and Government Rebates, for The Home Depot, based in Atlanta, Georgia. He joined The Home Depot in July 2016 as the leader of their utility rebate programs, supporting rebate activity in approximately 1,300 of 2,200 company stores. AESP CEO John Hargrove had a conversation with Art to learn what he knows about consumer behaviors and purchasing preferences, and what new technologies he is most excited about.
John: What makes a successful rebate program?
Art: There isn't a one size fits all answer for program design that guarantees success. There are a lot of variables that make up a rebate program including the products, the customers and the geographical location, and those are all different from territory to territory. I focus more on consistent themes that make up a successful program.
No matter what the program is, it starts with goal alignment. Everybody needs to ensure the program design allows all of the program participants to achieve their own needs. We at the Home Depot strive to be the partner that can assist all utilities but we sometimes have trouble supporting programs if the goals are not aligned.
The second key piece is good communication. It is the foundation for excellent execution of program design. It's one of the things that allows the programs to drive great value for everyone involved.
There are also challenges with every program. For example, there are different requirements for data and that seems to stem from program design and the amount of savings for the individual product. Protection of our customer's data is very important to us, a trait we share with the utilities.
John: What are some of the biggest challenges you currently face in your stores around these programs?
Art: Consistency in the messaging for customers. With the sheer volume of utility programs in stores, we really do struggle to maintain a similar look and feel. One of the pitfalls of that is poor program messaging. It can confuse shoppers and really impact program savings goals as well as our sales numbers. It is something that we face on an ongoing basis.
When it comes to signage, partners may apply Point of Purchase standards somewhat loosely and liberally. Everyone has a different eye for what looks good and it can lead to things like sign pollution. We have regional merchandise managers who are engaged with programs in our stores. We also have corporate-based visual merchants who establish look and feel for what each department should have on their individual aisles. The answer to solving this challenge lies somewhere in the middle. Whenever we have the opportunity, we try to align everyone involved. We are constantly trying to find a better way to get everybody on the same page to drive consistency in this area.
John: What trends are you seeing in EE product sales in your stores?
Art: What we are seeing people get most excited about is the smart home products that play into energy efficiency. The jury is still out on what that means. We know that people like them and people are buying them. At the same time, we are still learning about the true energy savings from these connected products. Greater opportunities will arise as the efficiency picture becomes more clear. As we look for additional connected home products down the line, we are going to see a lot more items that drive efficiency based off of customer behavior and really pushing the envelope of efficiency past what we have historically seen.
We assort in our stores based on customer demand. The challenge is that energy efficiency isn't always the main driver of a decision to purchase a product. Until it becomes clear that efficiency is a main driver, it makes it harder to assort even larger numbers of efficiency items. People aren't walking in and saying "let me have the most efficient freezer," they are saying, "let me get the freezer that will hold everything I need it to hold. If it is efficient, great." We are always looking at emerging trends with available products. Our vendors are constantly bringing these items to us to demonstrate their new, efficient technologies. When we see that it makes sense for our customers, then we will absolutely work to get it on to our shelves.
At the end of the day, there are still some challenges from a supplier perspective making efficiency items cost comparable, so it takes additional motivation for a customer to make that decision to buy based on efficiency as much as any other attribute.
John: Regarding energy efficiency and energy management, what is the next big opportunity for The Home Depot?
Art: I don't look at this question in regards to specific products. I know that we have strong partnerships across the country in the form of utilities, implementers, manufacturers, and it's fundamentally driven by residential programs. What people don't always recognize is that The Home Depot has a large commercial customer base. This customer group is often underserved in regards to rebate programs. We are invested in this space. We now have the ability to support commercial programs and the increasingly stringent requirements around customer data. So I see the ability for us to connect commercial utility programs with our commercial customer base as one of the biggest opportunities to drive efficiency simply because of the sheer volume that we are capable of. Having the opportunity to serve the large volume commercial space is something we see an opportunity to really expand on. I know that we have customers who are buying these products from us and haven't even thought of these types of programs. That is a market for us that right now, could be of extreme value to utilities.
John: In your opinion, what new EE product in the market are you most excited about?
Art: One is integrated LED fixtures that are starting to be manufactured with a more attractive design. We know that LEDs drive efficiency but the challenge has been to get them in designs that customers want to purchase. We are starting to see those products now hit the shelves and it's making the decision easier for shoppers. The design itself is important from a purchasing aspect.
Another is probably the least sexy of energy efficient items but it continues to be one that has the largest impact – and that is insulation.
We recently announced an exclusive product being offered in partnership with Owens Corning, which is the only certified allergy and asthma friendly insulation. It has the highest R-Value in its class, it's fire resistant and it reduces noise by up to 50 percent. This is another one of those situations where product innovation is going to drive efficiency by appealing to other customer requirements.
John: What message do you have for industry stakeholders – those of us who have a role in shaping the utility of the future?
Art: Programs need to be simplistic and meaningful – "Customers don't do hard." It doesn't matter if it's an upstream, midstream, or downstream program, it has to be easy for the customer at the end of the day. Education and awareness is a key component of that. An educated customer, combined with painless execution of incentives, is something we should all be pursuing.
John: What do you see as the biggest opportunities for your company in the next 4-8 years?
Art: There is one other big opportunity on the horizon and it is the ENERGY STAR® Retail Products Platform (RPP). I will be part of the panel discussing it at the AESP National Conference this February 13-16. I see the RPP as a huge opportunity for innovative new program design. It flips traditional methods and takes a market transformation approach. It is delivering the incentive to the retailer in a midstream model, rather than pushing it along. A $20 rebate on an $800 item doesn't make much of a difference to a customer, but in aggregate, it allows us to take increased action such as additional advertising or promotion. These activities can really help drive the product volume and the associated savings.