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The Value of Online Marketplaces During COVID-19

Today’s consumers increasingly rely on technology in their day-today lives. According to the video interviews from the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative’s “Modern Customer Engagement Journey” research, consumers across the board are interested in engaging with smart energy technologies to meet their personal energy goals.

In addition, we know that consumers today are looking to Amazon, Lyft, Southwest, Apple and other companies as the standards of customer experience that they expect from their electricity providers. These factors have led many customer-centric electricity providers to launch online marketplaces where customers can purchase energy-efficient and smart home products – often with a discount or rebate included.

These platforms are enabling providers to deepen engagement with customers and serve as a trusted energy advisor, rather than simply a commodity supplier. While at their most basic these marketplaces connect consumers with items like LED light bulbs and smart thermostats, some online marketplaces are expanding to help consumers meet more complex goals, such as the installation of battery storage or the purchase of an electric vehicle.

The environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps making online marketplace even more beneficial to residential customers. Consumers are still remaining home more often than usual and are increasingly relying on e-commerce to meet their daily needs. According to data from IBM, the pandemic has permanently accelerated the e-commerce industry by five years. At the same time, many consumers have seen their household incomes decrease due to unemployment or reduced hours, while bills have climbed.

There are also challenges for electricity providers in delivering onsite energy efficiency programs. While many programs have resumed after temporary shutdowns earlier this year, consumers may be reluctant to proactively book services that require technicians coming into their homes. Online marketplaces are uniquely positioned to combat many of these challenges and help consumers save energy during this difficult time.

Case study: Helping consumers in Washington save during COVID-19

Snohomish County Public Utility District (SnoPUD) serves over 350,000 electric and 21,000 water customers in Snohomish County, Washington, one of the fastest-growing areas in the Pacific Northwest. The utility started its retail program in 2013 with only efficient lighting and showerheads but has since expanded to a wide range of efficient products that can be purchased both in store and online.

In 2016, SnoPUD launched its Smart Rewards marketplace with Enervee to give customers a better experience than a typical mail-in rebate option, which would often take up to eight weeks to be delivered. The Smart Rewards platform enables customers to comparison-shop in 18 different categories, including smart thermostats, lighting products, power strips and electric vehicle chargers. Customers can compare the efficiency of different types of the same product and instantly submit for their rewards.

After nearly four years since the launch of the platform, the Smart Rewards marketplace has been very successful in helping SnoPUD’s customers save energy. Over this time, customers have saved over 4 million kilowatt-hours, and over 7,400 rewards have been fulfilled. More than 343,000 customers have visited the site, and 95 percent of participants have stated that they would use the platform again. SnoPUD has also successfully used the platform to connect consumers with other programs that may help them meet their energy goals.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, SnoPUD used the Smart Rewards platform to share information on the utility's COVID-19 resources, including the Community Support Plan, which provides bill assistance and flexibility to residential and small business customers. Through this initiative, SnoPUD has been able to assist over 12,000 customers since April.

In addition, the Smart Rewards platform has been leveraged to obtain energy savings to make up for decreased participation in other programs due to COVID-19. SnoPUD increased their overall energy savings goal for its retail program, realizing that customers would not as be comfortable participating in programs that require in-home installs or high upfront investments. The current energy savings projection for the retail program is currently about double of what was expected for 2020.

One strategy that has been particularly successful for SnoPUD in engaging consumers in the Smart Rewards platform has been sweepstakes. Working with their partner Enervee, SnoPUD launched a sweepstakes in May in the midst of COVID-19 and encouraged customers to explore different sections of the Smart Rewards site and learn about other programs that could help them during this time. Customers were able to win monetary prizes simply by learning more.

The sweepstakes resulted in increased customer engagement across SnoPUD's programs. There was an 850-percent increase in Home Energy Profile completions. Visits to the Heat Pump Water Heater webpage on SnoPUD's website was three times higher than normal; and there was a 110-percent increase in profile creation on the Smart Rewards platform. This year, SnoPUD also saw much higher traffic to the Smart Rewards site during the sweepstakes compared to a similar sweepstakes last year.

As electricity providers look for ways to better connect with and serve their residential customers, the online marketplace is one method that has been successful in helping consumers meet their top energy-related needs and wants, including saving money, improving comfort and accessing technology. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these platforms may be even more valuable to the customer relationship than ever before.

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