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SunPower wants to be the Dell of solar

SunPower plans to take a cue from Dell when it comes to selling solar. The company’s chief marketing officer, Erin Nelson, who held the same position at Dell, demonstrated a new online retail portal during the company’s annual analyst day Thursday and highlighted a new consumer marketing strategy for SunPower.

SunPower, which makes solar panels and develops power projects, has been selling its equipment through its network of installers in North America. Although the company doesn’t plan to employ its own installation crew, it wants to increasingly own the relationship with consumers as it moves into the business of selling home energy management equipment and software, which includes solar electricity and batteries to store it.

SunPower home installation

The concept of creating an online retail site isn’t new, but doing it well is tough. While there’s no shortage of online ads and websites to try to sign up solar customers, the most effective ways to get homeowners to sign contracts still involves a lot referrals from family and friends plus face-to-face sales. Leading solar installers such as SolarCity and Vivint Solar rely on sending their sales people to meet homeowners or flag down potential customers by setting up booths at Home Depot or BestBuy.

The need for in-person sales has been necessary because solar equipment and energy services are still pretty novel to the public, and it takes time to explain the various financing options. As consumers become more familiar with the products and services, as well as certain brands, they will be more willing to just by online.

A successful online retail site will help reduce the so-called “customer acquisition” cost, which refers to the money spent on attracting consumers’ attention, delivering the sales pitch and signing contracts with them.

SolarCity bought a sales and marketing firm, Paramount Solar, for $116.3 million last year because of Paramount’s expertise at using direct mail and online ads to reach consumers. In fact, direct mailing was more effective than online marketing, a Paramount executive told me then.

During a call with analysts to discuss its third-quarter earnings last week, SolarCity executives said they are focusing on creating “simple and frictionless” online process to sign up customers. Interestingly, both SolarCity’s chief operating officer, Tanguy Serra, and SunPower’s Nelson pointed to Amazon and Uber as examples of companies that have created superb online experience for their customers.

SunPower KB energy storage

SunPower is leaning on Nelson to create a user-friendly retail site. The basic set-up isn’t a new idea: by entering your address and some other personal information, you’ll be shown options for solar equipment and given estimates of solar electricity production from various systems and the likely energy savings. You can also choose to buy, get a loan or sign a lease before setting up an appointment for an installer to pay you a visit.

SunPower intends to collect data about each home’s major appliances and energy sources so that it could sell energy management services by operating those appliances and delivering energy savings.

SunPower plans to build a good number of social engagement features into the site. Nelson talks about creating milestones to generate the excitement of counting down to the day when the panels will go up on the roof (SolarCity’s Serra also talked about this idea last week). You can share those milestones on your social network and essentially become SunPower’s brand advocate. You get $500 for each person who chooses SunPower because of you.

SunPower also seems to be using behavioral science research that has been deployed by companies such as Opower to get consumers to reduce wasteful electricity consumption. SunPower’s retail site will show you how many neighbors have solar panels on their roofs because studies have shown that people take cues from friends and others around them about what to do and how to act, and then they measure how they stack up against others.

“For every 10 customers in the same zip code as you, you are 8 percent more likely to buy solar,” Nelson said during her presentation. “We want to keep people super engaged and excited. We want to drive that peer effect.”

The company plans to roll out the site in 2015. Part of its consumer marketing strategy will also involve recruiting more installers within its dealer network to agree to marketing plans that will essentially make those installers look a lot like they are part of SunPower.

9 Responses to “SunPower wants to be the Dell of solar”

  1. All, I as a consumer, need from such site is:
    1. whether it provides me realistic estimates online
    2. Whether such quote is instantaneous, like Air-fare or any other such service. There are plenty sites which takes your information and “then” someone calls you. Don’t’ want that.

    Is solar cost calculation and estimates really that complex that someone needs to “go over the figures” with me ? Because every min I talk to or meet with a so-called solar “expert”, guess who is paying for their time.

    • Every solar installation is unique. quoting a construction job, and yes installing solar is a construction job without visiting the job site is not considered a “best practice” an electrical service panel upgrade runs about $1200 in the market that I do business in. There is no way to know if that panel needs to be upgraded with out seeing it. evaluating the condition and age of the roof top is another issue. A thorough site inspection from an experienced installation professional is the only way to assure that you will not have any surprises come installation day. Purchasing a solar system isn’t like buying a computer. Any customer willing to purchase a custom installed product that requires multiple roof penetrations and the modification of the home’s electrical system over the internet is being foolish in my humble opinion.

      • Anonymouse

        Every “installation” is unique, but one can easily determine the costs of the equipment to be installed based upon the desired installed generating capacity. That would be like telling a power company when pricing a PIP “We don’t know how much the turbine is going to cost, even though we know how much installed capacity is required, that it is going to be a non-condensing topping turbine, etc.”. Complete turbine generator skids are available. That includes the auxiliary equipment, lubrication, and even purification system. The prices of the equipment are known….it’s not a secret….so it’s easy to determine a general equipment price before proceeding.

        The installation part is unique, as there might be a tree that blocks the sun which would need to be either trimmed or removed. The roof may need replacement, the roof might not support the load of all the hardware. Sure, there are variables in relation to the installation, and even those could be estimated so the customer knows what they are getting into. The home requires 4,000 watts, receives four hours of sunlight… the equipment would be around $17,000. Not very difficult. Batteries? Well, those prices are no secret either.

        Giving individuals an honest roundabout prepares them for what said installation may wind up costing them. They can weigh their options, and make a decision right after the numbers are in front of their eyes. This saves valuable time for the company. Instead of sending a tech there, the individual may decide to not even have the job done / purchase the equipment in the first place. This saves employee hours, which would go to more productivity, instead of being wasted on someone who doesn’t even want the install to happen after all their considerations. Ishekar is not foolish, but offered beneficial input that is helpful to a company. Your “way” would cost employee hours, which is a waste of valuable time and money, that could have went to results, instead of waste.

  2. Couple questions, since I’ve already rec’d quotes from SunPower’s biggest consumer installer in-state:

    Will they establish minimum/maximum pricing? Undercut existing installers?

    More important – the dealer who has built a quote for us only sells systems – doesn’t offer one of the leasing plans taking a competitive share of the market. Now, there are installers tied to regional firms building leased networks not only with the SolarCity style, e.g., 2% max increase annually on a low monthly; but, even a 20 year fixed price monthly lease.

    Will SunPower offer these alternatives?

    • SunPower hasn’t discussed the specifics of its online retail portal, so I don’t know the answers to your questions. I can tell you that SunPower wants to automate the selling of its equipment and financing options. It already offers leases and loans through working with banks, and it provides those financing options through its dealers. We will have to wait to see how it prices its systems and what options will be available.

  3. Ray Boggs

    Hyper X 2 Solar will be the Dell of solar before its competitors will.

    Hyper X 2 Solar and its Bifacial, glass on glass, frameless solar technology, that produce energy from both sides of the solar panel is going to revolutionize the solar PV industry.

    This advanced technology has been around for the past 6 years but it was always considered to be far too expensive to install. Now because of new technological advances Hyper X 2 Bifacial solar panels can be purchased at a much lower cost than many standard single sided solar panels.

    Instead of boxy looking 1 1/2 to 2 inch thick framed Gen 1 solar panels, these new higher performance Gen 2 solar panels are only 1/4 inch thin and are made with a stronger, see through, glass on glass, frameless, construction that allows sunlight to pass through and reflect off the roof’s surface, thus illuminating the backside of the double sided solar cells, producing additional power.

    The new 300 Watt, 60 cell solar panels that are used in Hyper X 2 solar systems offers a better PTC to STC ratio “Real World” performance according to the California Energy Commission’s performance rating listings than over 119 of SunPower’s solar panel models.

    And they offer a very high 94.3% PTC to STC performance ratio. They also offersa heat resistant -0.31%/degree C temperature coefficient for better performance in warm/hot climates. And when it comes to aesthetics, nothing even comes close to Hyper X 2’s panel’s glass on glass, see through, frameless construction.

    With N-type mono-crystalline bifacial cells for double sided power production, up to a 21.5% efficiency rating, superior aesthetics, and a price that outcompetes the solar lease and PPA company’s offerings, very few products on the market compares to Hyper X 2 Solar.

      • Ray Boggs

        There’s plenty of product information available as well as spec sheets and 25 year linear warranty information available. You can even visit our showroom and examine the product for yourself if you have doubts. Sounds to me like that “someone” fears the competition that Hyper X 2 offers.

      • Ray Boggs

        Huha, so why do you object to consumers learning about a lower priced higher performance product ? It’s just information, that’s all. If a consumer wants to pay more for poorer performance then they are free to do that. On the other hand, if they prefer to pay less while getting a better product then it’s their choice.

        You call it spam, I call it data. Data that helps consumers to make an informed decision. That’s what the Internet is all about. Even if you’re a competitor Huha, you shouldn’t fear information.