This may be the beginning of what I’ve been arguing for over the past decade plus … today in Smart Grid News, Jesse Berst reports that Constellation Energy has teamed up with Best Buy to enable customers to come into the store, switch their retail provider, and buy home energy management devices (see also the brief note in the Chicago Tribune). Jesse observes that
It has been fascinating to watch power retailing develop in areas such as Texas and the United Kingdom. In the early days, we thought it would be all about price. As it turns out, price is important but it is just the table stakes. To become a market leader, you have to establish brand trust. You have to bundle the power with other products or benefits. And you have to make that bundle ultra-easy to find and purchase.
Absolutely correct. This is the kind of Schumpeterian retail innovation that is a value-creating hallmark of competitive rivalry.
At first blush it also has some similarities with mobile phone retailing — I presume that the retail provider to which a customer can switch is Constellation, and not Direct Energy or any of the other retail providers in the Illinois residential market. I’ll be interested in seeing if Best Buy is willing to make similar arrangements with those retailers. If their contract with Constellation precludes such arrangements, then we run into the murky area of whether or not exclusive dealing contracts are anti-competitive. But if, say, Target strikes a deal with Direct Energy, and Costco and Walmart get in on this innovation, then the retail landscape really starts to look like mobile communications retailing, and things get very interesting.
Note also that this type of market channel is a way for consumers to learn, which is a crucial process in the liberalization of retail sales in an industry that has been vertically integrated and regulated for over a century. Regulation defines product characteristics and boundaries and thus determines the type of product that the consumer is purchasing, so for over a century residential customers haven’t had to think about what they are buying and whether there are ways for them to get more value out of the transaction and relationship. They had no choice, so why give it any thought? Now starts the process of individuals learning how and why they may create more and different value from changing their retail relationship and changing the technology they use in the purchase and management of the electricity they consume.
As it happens, the Best Buy in this pilot is my neighborhood store, so I’ll check it out and report back what’s interesting and important. Free the electricity consumer!