WEB EXCLUSIVE: Jane DOE goes shopping - Experiences from the CALiPER program

Sept. 19, 2008
Mystery buyers that make anonymous purchases of LED products for the CALiPER program have learned some important lessons about the buying experience.
[Editor's note: The following material describes authentic encounters experienced by the CALiPER mystery shoppers, and related to LEDs Magazine's Contributing Editor, Brian Owen.]

The Commercially Available LED Product Evaluation and Reporting (CALiPER) program was first instituted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2006 to test quickly evolving LED products as they came to market. DOE’s past experience with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) had shown that consumers would reject products that did not meet their expectations for light output and color, even if those products saved energy.

CALiPER tests current LED products and makes the resulting test reports available to the public – see CALiPER reports. To ensure that the lamps and luminaires tested are exactly the same as those purchased by consumers, CALiPER buys the products anonymously.

The primary purpose of CALiPER is to provide technical data about key performance attributes of LED lighting products. This information can be used by buyers and distributors and manufacturers to learn how to recognize and select high-performing products, and by manufacturers who need to know what competitive challenges they face as they enter the marketplace. Unexpectedly it was discovered that some of those challenges might include product availability and customer service.

Several “Jane and John Does” make anonymous purchases of LED products for the CALiPER program. CALiPER buys products from around the USA through a variety of different channels, including online, wholesale distributors, retail stores, and direct from the manufacturer.

Initially, the program was not terribly concerned with the shopping experience; instead, the focus was solely on the products and how they measured up in the testing lab. But then they realized that difficulties encountered while trying to obtaining LED products could seriously impact consumer opinion as well.

While not all of the shopping trips have been negative, the CALiPER purchasing team has encountered several purchasing problems numerous times. As a lighting manufacturer or distributor, you may wish to ask yourself these important questions before putting your product - and your reputation - on the market:

1. Is your product really available?

Press releases have gone out, the product is featured prominently on websites and in magazines, and the industry is excited by the latest, greatest LED luminaire. Can we buy it? Sure, it’s on sale now! Well…maybe not now. But soon.

Approximately one-third of the products the CALiPER team has ordered to date were delayed by one to three months, even though all were advertised as readily available. There have even been instances when a credit card has been charged, but no product was shipped for several weeks.

Some purchasing experiences have been frustrating. In August 2007, one of CALiPER’s anonymous buyers contacted a company about an LED desk lamp. This lamp had received quite a bit of press, so the DOE program was eager to test it. Over the next five months, ‘Jane DOE’ had multiple communications with the company, which always maintained that the product was “coming soon” or “sold out.” A sample was finally provided in January 2008.

CALiPER buyers report that the longest wait for an item was for an LED track light. Ordered in November 2006, it was finally received in September 2007. Yikes! Hopefully it contained a next generation of LEDs and produced more lumens per watt in that year of waiting.

While these are the more extreme examples of delay from the CALiPER archives, they are not that different from other LED buying experiences. If this had been an actual consumer, would they have been so tenacious and forgiving? Probably not.

LEDs Magazine advice:

If your product is not available, let your customers know and give them your best assessment as to when it will be available – honesty is a good way to build customer loyalty.

2. Do you know who your distributors are?

If you are a manufacturer, you want to make sure that your distribution channels are open and working smoothly. It was a little surprising to the CALiPER purchasing team to realize that this is not always the case.

Case in point: while reviewing a manufacturer’s website, a CALiPER buyer came across a new A-lamp. Selecting a fairly large distribution company from the online list, she called to order the item. The salesperson who answered was bewildered: “We are not a distributor for YYY Lighting.” The buyer pointed out that his company was listed on the YYY Lighting website, but he still had no idea what she was talking about.

It turned out that he was correct. Although the manufacturer had made overtures to the distribution company, no formal relationship had been finalized. Amazingly, this is not an isolated incident.

LEDs Magazine advice:
If you list distributors on your website or sales materials, make sure the information is accurate and up-to-date.

3. Is your sales force really selling your product?

This is a classic marketing problem. Once again, it is best illustrated by a true story. An LED downlight went on sale at a local lighting showroom. A CALiPER buyer called and had a conversation with a salesperson that went like this:

    Jane: Hi, I understand you have some LED downlights for sale. I’m really interested in buying one.

    Salesperson (lowering voice): Oh, uh…you don’t want that product.

    Jane: Yes, I do! It’s energy saving, right? I’m all about saving energy.

    Salesperson: Yes, it saves energy, but it’s just too expensive. What you want is a fluorescent fixture. They save almost as much energy and they’re less expensive.

    Jane: I’m thinking about replacing the downlights in my kitchen with this LED fixture.

    Salesperson: Oh, it’s got a very nice color, but fluorescent lights have improved quite a bit. I’m sure we could find a color you’d be happy with.

As a manufacturer, how can you convince your sales force to sell your new LED products, especially if you do not have direct control over sales? Educating the public will stir up demand, but if your sales force is not enthusiastic, your LED fixtures and lamps will remain unsold.

One possible solution may come from a lesson learned from CALiPER program representatives while working with CFLs. Interested in how distributors and lighting salespeople learn about new products, an informal poll was taken. The thought was that most people in the industry relied on trade magazines, the internet, or maybe tradeshows to keep up with trends and technology, but overwhelmingly, the number one trusted source for new lighting information was … the sales representative.

The first few times the inquirers were told this they were unsure they heard correctly: “Are you telling us that the source of information you trust the most is the guy trying to sell you a product?” The respondents nodded affirmatively, explaining that the sales representative and the lighting buyer had developed a long-term relationship based on honesty and friendship. The rep helps the buyer find products that make his customers happy and the buyer rewards the rep with continued business.

LEDs Magazine advice:
Keep in mind that this conclusion is based on an informal poll of lighting buyers and your distribution channel might be quite different. However, if you have limited marketing resources, it might be a good investment to focus most of your marketing and training on the sales force instead of the buying public.

4. Do you have the answers?

Pop quiz: Which of these numbers indicate a warm colour: 2700K or 6500K?

This may seem like a no-brainer to you, but the CALiPER purchasing team has talked to many salespeople and distributors who could not answer fundamental questions about LED products, including this one.

LEDs Magazine advice:
Anyone who might interact with a customer should have LED and lighting basics under their belt.

5. Returning the favour?

An online distributor sold CALiPER some A-lamps that were advertised on the box as lasting for 35 years. When one of the bulbs failed, the buyer called for an exchange, only to be told that there was a "14 day return policy" which was not at all evident on the website, nor was it written on the invoice. Of course, this was just after the 2-week deadline. After pointing out that quite a bit of money was spent on a product that was supposed to last 35 years, the buyer was transferred to a supervisor. That person eventually authorized a replacement to be sent.

LEDs Magazine bottom line:
How many times have you gone to a new restaurant only to find that the food was bad or the service was terrible? Did you ever go back to that restaurant for a second try? What if the food was overcooked but the server was helpful and prompt and the maitre d’ apologetic? Such attentive customer service might be enough to persuade you to try again some time.

The CALiPER purchasing team has encountered helpful salespeople who went out of their way to provide good customer service, but the issues recounted here were not uncommon. Yes, quality and performance still matters, but having available products, a responsive distribution channel and knowledgeable staff can make a favorable first impression that can help overcome initial market barriers. Consumers will respond to your superior customer service, perhaps helping to transform them into lifelong customers.