Sun, Dec 02, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Solar industry making inroads following the Tupperware model

By Diane Cardwell  /  NY Times News Service, GOODYEAR, Arizona

Almost half the towns have exceeded the 5 percent solar goal, with Goodyear and three others passing 10 percent. SmartPower is now expanding its program in New England.

“On-the-ground outreach tied to the online communication is really what’s making the difference here,” SmartPower president Brian Keane said. “You need to meet people in the communities where they live, work and play.”

The party-plan model has traditionally been aimed at women, selling products for the home, bedroom and body, from Botox injections to Longaberger baskets — but the solar parties are intended to sell big-ticket items and appeal to men as well.

Just as Tupperware failed to fly off store shelves without a salesperson showing customers how to work the airtight seal, which inspired the party-plan model, solar panels often require demonstration and explanation to make the sale.

“If you can talk to someone who’s gone through it who has a positive view, then they could really alleviate some of the concerns,” said Bryan Bollinger, an assistant professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University who has studied patterns of solar adoption.

Bollinger found that people were more likely to install solar once their neighbors had. He said it was not clear what was behind that phenomenon, known as the peer effect, but it could be the combination of a conspicuous way of being green with the momentum of word-of-mouth.

That dynamic has been particularly strong in Pebble Creek, which has an active online network where residents offer referrals and advice.

“People here are real big on references,” said Joe Wallace, one of the Peapers’ guests, who said that he and his wife had thought about installing solar for a long time, but decided to take the plunge only after learning more from their neighbors.

Dru Bacon, a former Solar Coach who lives in Pebble Creek and has been a driving force behind solar adoption there, said that while the promised savings on electricity had spurred many customers to install solar, that was not all that motivated them.

“I’ve had at least 10 people say: ‘I have the biggest solar system in the community,’” he said. “They don’t say: ‘I have the lowest electric bill.’”

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