TURLOCK, Calif. -- The evolving energy crisis in the Western United States is shining a spotlight on a niche often overlooked by supermarket shoppers: energy-efficient light bulbs.
Although some grocers have long incorporated these items into their assortments, some are hoping that consumers will finally start to see the low-wattage light, thanks to some new pricing incentives and a growing emphasis on energy conservation.
Food Maxx here, for example, is adding energy-efficient bulbs to its Wall of Values this month, thanks to rebates that the stores will receive from San Francisco-based Public Gas and Electric.
"[The energy crisis] is on everyone's mind," said Frank Capps, nonfood and specialty-food buyer for the chain, which is a banner under Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.
He said the retailer will offer the energy-saving bulbs, which are equivalent to 75-watt incandescent bulbs, at $3.99, and stores will receive a $3 rebate from PG&E for each bulb sold.
Energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use up only one quarter of the energy of incandescent light bulbs and last 10 times longer (approximately 6,000 to 10,000 hours, vs. incandescents' life span of 700 to 1,000 hours), often cost more than twice as much as traditional bulbs. In recent months, however, they have been selling at higher-than-normal volumes, manufacturers say.
"Because of the high energy costs and the brownouts in California, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of units sold for compact fluorescent light bulbs, but I've seen it in other parts of the country, too," said Ken Schedin, vice president of consumer products for Osram Sylvania, Danvers, Mass.
He said the Washington-based Environmental Protection Agency, through its Greenlights initiative, has been pushing all market channels, including supermarkets, to offer rebate incentive programs in conjunction with utility companies.
During the past five years, Schedin said the lighting category has been dimmed in supermarkets by do-it-yourself stores like Home Depot and Lowe's. "Supermarkets have not expanded the category -- they use it as a convenience item rather than a broad offering," he said.
Steve Goldmacher, director of public relations for Philips Lighting North America, Somerset, N.J., also agreed that food retailers are not seen as a destination outlet for lightbulbs.
"When consumers go to the supermarket, generally they are there to pick up eggs, milk, the staples -- people usually don't have light bulbs on their list," he said. With average prices for compact fluorescent bulbs ranging from $9 to $23, taking money out of the grocery allowance to buy a $15 light bulb "just doesn't work," he said. "With home centers, [consumers] are buying on a different paradigm."
Although sticker shock might drive consumers away from fluorescent bulbs, Schedin said retailers must communicate to consumers that the products have a longer life span and are better at conserving energy compared with incandescent light bulbs. Schedin suggested that retailers could easily replace an incandescent bulb stockkeeping unit with another comparable compact fluorescent bulb.
"Communicate to the consumer that even though they may pay $5 for one bulb, it lasts longer, and the energy consumption pays for the bulb itself many times over," he said. He also pointed out that fluorescent bulbs often have higher margins than incandescent light bulbs.
Although sales of energy-efficient bulbs in California might be getting a boost, at least one retailer said it's business as usual on the East Coast.
"The light bulb category is stable from one year ago," said Joyce Smart-Buchanan, a spokeswoman for Bi-Lo, Greenville, S.C. "Resources have been adequate in the Southeast, so there have been no purchasing habit changes because of the energy crisis on the West Coast."