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65: A Chat with ENERGY STAR on How the Program Continues to Evolve

Written by Rob Stott

April 13, 2021

independent thinking podcast EPA energy star

Ahead of Earth Day, we sat down with Dan Cronin, program manager at ENERGY STAR, to talk about how the nearly 30-year-old program has adapted over time, and how retailers can leverage the program within their stores.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and I’m real excited right now. I can’t say I’ve ever had the opportunity to interview someone that has had… They come from the US government. So, that’s what the Environmental Protection Agency is, right Mr. Dan Cronin?

Dan Cronin: Yes. That is correct.

Rob Stott: Energy Star program manager at the EPA joining us today, myself and Mr. Rick Weinberg our senior VP of business services here at Nationwide. Thanks for finding time. Are you in DC?

Dan Cronin: I’m indeed DC Proper. Northeast.

Rob Stott: Good area, I spend a few years down there. I wasn’t in DC Proper. I lived in Alexandria, but spent some time there on Ice streets and it’s a good area.

Dan Cronin: It is. It’s always changing. So, it’s a great place to be for sure.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, for those that don’t know, obviously Nationwide Marketing Group has a long history with the EPA and specifically the Energy Star program. Dan, we’re familiar with you, but tell us, our listeners a little bit about yourself and EPA and what’s going on with Energy Star.

Dan Cronin: Sure. Well, I’m Dan Cronin, as you said, I work for EPA Energy Star for a little over five years now. And before I was at EPA I was actually a consultant to EPA. So, basically the only thing I’ve done with my career is Energy Star. So, if there’s one thing I know about it’s this great program. It’s a little bit different from the rest of what EPA generally does, because EPA is a regulatory agency but, what we do is more on the voluntary side and we work hand in hand with manufacturers and retailers and utilities to help people save energy. It’s a great mission, makes you feel good when you get up in the morning that you are helping to improve the environment, you’re making life a little bit easier for people, and you’re actually helping to drive innovation in the products that ultimately bear the little blue Energy Star logo. So, that’s a very broad generalization of what I do and what we do as a group, but it’s fun, it’s really great work.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And I know there’s a lot of work that goes into it. Some of which we’ll talk about today, but as we’re talking right now, we don’t really ever get to break news on a podcast, but the day this drops, it will be announced that ‎Nationwide Marketing Group has for I think it’s Rick correct me if I’m wrong, the seventh year in a row, the Energy Star partner of the year for sustained excellence, has been bestowed to Nationwide. So, Dan. I want to ask you, can you tell us a little bit about that program, why it’s significant and what the awards mean?

Dan Cronin: Sure. I think it is year seven, so that’s a deep commitment that Nationwide has to going above and beyond because anybody could be a partner, if you’re a retailer or manufacturer or utility, anybody could just sign up and say that you’re a partner, but when you take the mantle of promoting Energy Star on a voluntary basis out to your members or out to your customers, we want to recognize that. So, we were very happy to show that Nationwide, they’re part of a rare few who actually are eligible to win an award, who apply for the award and then ultimately win. And like I said before, Energy Star is a voluntary program. So, that’s why it’s important that we show the world that there are some that are going above and beyond.

And I think the reason that it builds value for if you’re one of the Nationwide members, is that every appliance that you sell, that’s not the end of the products journey and that’s part of what Nationwide is trying to bring. It’s actually just the beginning of the product journey. So, designing energy efficient appliances and then stocking those energy efficient appliances that begins to save your customers money which makes them happier, which makes them perhaps more liable to go back to you the next time they need an appliance and the entire time through its bringing the energy efficiency message through at every stage. So, we’re happy to recognize Nationwide that they’re continuing that momentum that they’ve had for a little while now.

Rob Stott: Rick, to the program, can you talk a little bit about… Because I know we mentioned the seven years in a row, I know the relationship and all that goes back even further. Can you talk a little bit about the history of why Nationwide is so involved and deeply entrenched in the Energy Star program and I know you’ve been spearheading this effort for years. So, tell us a little bit about the significance of it to you and why it’s important from the Nationwide side.

Rick Weinberg: Absolutely. Thanks Dan for joining us today and thanks to the members and the vendors and the Nationwide leadership team and our merchants and everyone else our field representatives and every sales associate on the member floor, we’re able to make a major dent and sell a lot of Energy Star qualified products, which allow us to really showcase the most innovative and feature rich and energy efficient products. And people hear me say all the time when we sell and present Energy Star products with that certified label that are showcasing innovation and that consumers really want it. They know that we’re demonstrating and care about the climate, but they also know that we’re demonstrating we’re selling and presenting the best products. So, we really take Energy Star products to market, whether they are appliances or whether they’re electronics, or now a smart home energy management tools like smart thermostats or heat pump water heaters.

We take these things to market because their rate for the environment, the climate if you will, they’re great for our members business, they’re great for our vendors business, they’re great for the consumer. And everybody wins with Energy Star we mean that sincerely. So, we really have built since 1992, a relationship not just with the EPA and the department of energy, which is also a partner in under the hood in some of the many commitments to technologies and products that come to the marketplace and of course the Energy Star national team, but we’re our members and our vendors, because we know it’s really in the best interest of everybody in the sales chain including the consumer, they are looking for us to demonstrate our climate care. They’re looking for us to make sure we’re bringing them the most innovative and feature rich products. They’re looking for us to make sure that we are sustainably going to market and setting the best tone we can.

The fact that we do all this great work then does put us in a position to showcase those efforts to the Energy Star national team and earn an award. But the truth is, this isn’t an award you can buy off the shelf. I can’t get two tickets to the ball games and three burgers and two beers and say, Dan, come on, I need this award. It doesn’t work like that. It’s the year-long efforts from everyone I mentioned, whether it’s vendors or members or Nationwide staff and even consumers, and then showcasing all those efforts with a quantitative and qualitative evaluation that helps Nationwide’s members and vendors in our organization show our best in class work that gets us that awards and recognition. And of course, that award and recognition is only received by some of the finest organizations in the world. Toshiba, LG, Samsung are some of the names our members would know, but there are hospitals, there are schools, there are medical communities, there are other retail organizations and other businesses that hold those recognitions in high esteem. So, we’re in great company. And we thank the EPA for recognizing us.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And Dan. Rick alluded to it there a little bit, but what is it that you guys look for as you’re selecting and going through these applications to really help organizations stand out and get this designation?

Dan Cronin: Well, there are many things that we evaluate in the application process. Several people on my team and other teams look over what we’re given in an application for partner of the year. And it really comes down to what do you do? What do you do with Energy Star and with the Energy Star message and how do you bring that forward to consumers? Are you using it in side stacks? Are you using it on product displays? Are you using it in web advertisements? The Energy Star is a really powerful message that’s very simple and easy to understand over 90% of consumers understand what the Energy Star is.

We’ve built up that brand cachet over almost 30 years now. So, it’s done remarkably well and we have to attribute that not just to the folks who came up with the idea for the program, but for the people who understood the potential for the idea and built a foundation over many, many years, and Nationwide Group has done a really great job with that especially that role, but within the last year, because we only look at the last 12 months at a time.

Rob Stott: So, you mentioned that, I know you and Rick both have mentioned 1992 is obviously significant. That’s the date when Energy Star launched the program launched, coming up on 30 years, 2022 will be the 30th year. So, a lot can change in 30 years. A lot has changed obviously with the environment and the attention has been getting over that time, so how has Energy Star this program adapted and evolved over time to reflect the changing environment we all live in?

Dan Cronin: Well, Energy Star has succeeded because it’s grown with the times we started with one product category. I think it was computer monitors. The story that I was told about how it started was that someone working at the EPA was there late one night working with all the computer terminals still turned on and everybody had gone home for the night. And he realized that all these computer monitors are still on and there was no mechanism for there to be some detection so that we should stop wasting energy. And if you couldn’t get the people at EPA to do it and how is the rest of the world going to follow through? So, I think that was the oversimplified genesis of Energy Star. And now there’s over 75 product categories and Energy Star isn’t only just product categories.

It’s also a new residential home building as well as we label commercial space as well. So, it touches a lot of things because efficiency can come in many forms, but to the products that your membership sells which is it primarily appliances and electronics. What we do generally is take a look at an individual product category. We see whether or not there’s energy efficiency potential or if there’s varying performance within that one category. And if there is varying performance in terms of how efficient various products are, we try to generally look at the top 25% of that market, but the economics of every product is different. The savings of every product is going to be different from other products, but the principle is the same, right? The principle is, are there performance differences? And can we call attention to the fact that there are better options that will save you money in the long-term? And that’s worked out pretty well?

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. To see the range of products for that shows how going from one, I think you said 75 different categories, that’s impressive growth also just shows the level of innovation that’s been around in that time in terms of the different products. So, we’re always looking to evolve, right? So, what as you look ahead to where things are going with Energy Star and EPA, what initiatives stand out to you or what are the things you guys are focusing on more today than maybe you were the past couple of years?

Dan Cronin: Well our focus, it’s like changing and unchanged because we’ve always been looking for innovation, we are always looking to recognize innovation regardless of which product category we’re talking about. But, I think the overall value of Energy Star is going to grow because more groups like retailers are going to find more value in saving their customers energy. One of the carrots in front of the horse for energy efficiency are rebates that utilities provide to consumers for energy efficient or generally Energy Star products that goes for appliances, that’s in lighting, that’s even an HVAC products and sometimes even installation, but the changing attitudes in consumers it’s really stark when you look at like what was happening right after world war II, huge population family building and everybody was looking for ways to make life more efficient, but not necessarily in the energy savings way but just in the time-savings way.

So, people have clothes washers and dishwashers and they want to be entertained, so they have TVs that’s a new thing. And in those days, the invention of a new product wasn’t so much like, wow, what was that product journey like? It was the fact that it was there, that was the amazing part. And so no one was asking if the tubes and an RCA TV were sustainable in 1955, that just wasn’t the thing. But now, and this is repeating itself in a lot of ways and what I have a lot of conversations with manufacturers and retailers and other partners is that people really care now about where their products come from and how sustainable they are.

And what that means is they care about where their food comes from, they want to know the journey. They care about where their clothing comes from, they want to know the journey and now, and I think that this is going to grow. People really want to know how sustainable their appliances are. And it’s not just how slick the marketing is, it’s they really want to know relative performance and Energy Star is a really great way to recognize in a transparent way that there are real differences in performance. So, that I think is an advantage for Energy Star in the long-term as well.

Rob Stott: And I want to dive into that a little deeper in a second, but I want to ask a similar question to Rick. Dan mentions how consumers are obviously more aware of where these things come from, where their appliances come from, the amount of energy that you’re using. Having seen this program evolve within Nationwide over these past years, what’s the retailer attitude towards this program and what it brings to the table for them, the opportunities to talk about Energy Star and show this program to their customers?

Rick Weinberg: Our retailers really are very, very supportive as are frankly our manufacturers and like anything else over a period of time there are some days where things are more in focus and in some days where they’re less in focus, but it is what Dan said earlier back in the nineties when the Energy Star program was first conceived, I have to admit I’m old enough money to have been in some of those rooms where people said, we’re going to build these really efficient products, and they’re going to use less energy and they’re going to use less water and sooner or later they coined the phrase that they’re also going to create cleaner air and by doing that, we want to make sure everyone gets all the value they would have get make no sacrifice, but they’ll still be able to use less energy, less water, enjoy their products more.

Well, that was a great message in the nineties and the two thousands where I remember dealers could bring to market because the consumers that shop our members stores at that time traditional stores are now even online. They aren’t aware of the newest products, the newest features, the newest benefits, energy efficiency, innovation, the things that would make the product more enjoyable. Today, our members have built their entire businesses on working with consumers that have been out of a business segment and haven’t bought a refrigerator or haven’t bought a computer or haven’t bought a television in a while and they need to know what’re the features, what’re the content, what’re the benefits, what’re all the things that are really going to make this enjoyable?

Well, that includes innovative energy efficiency. That includes water, that includes air, that includes addressing climate. And so our member retailers, our sales associates and even the consumers that shop our stores, as Dan said, really care about these things and when a retailer and manufacturer come together and put some of those products into the assortment with the Energy Star certified label, and some, even with the Energy Star most efficient label or some with now to have called emerging technology products, the consumers really do gravitate to those and say, I like that, I care about that. Give me some more of that. And we sell an awful lot of it with the support of our member dealers.

Rob Stott: And Dan following up on that. You touched on this, talking about how consumers, you could say they care a lot about this. It’s one thing to say they care. I know EPA, you guys have done a lot of digging into this and trying to understand just how much consumers care and some people listening may be “It’s just a fad it’ll come and go.” But no this, you guys have some hard data that shows this is something that’s going to stick around. And it’s almost like a sea change, the way consumers are really starting to focus on the efficiency of their product.

Dan Cronin: Millennials are the largest generation right now and their purchasing power is grown and they’re going to be the deciders in terms of the direction of what is stocked in a store. Every retailer just wants to serve their customers and they’re only going to sell stuff that sells and that people want. So, this is going to be… Is it going to be overnight? I don’t want to say it’s going to be absolutely overnight, but I think generally the retailers that understand that attitudes are changing and the willingness to dig into efficiency claims and things like that are going to matter and to that end Energy Star put together a certification program over a decade ago, to make sure that every product actually performs the way that they claim that they do.

So, before that the product actually earns the Energy Star, it has to go through laboratory. It has to be then checked by a certification body, by labs and certification bodies that are actually trained and have the precise right equipment to do the specific tests because every product is different, every test is different. And when that product passes, let’s say only then does it actually show up on our qualified product list. So, there’s a really good degree of ensuring that there’s integrity in our program and then we verify after the fact that performance is continuing and that the products are actually performing the way that they should be after the fact.

Rob Stott: Right. So, to the retail side, we have mentioned the benefits of just talking about it is obviously something where you’re talking to consumers about something that they care about now in terms of these Energy Star products. But, to some retailers, it might just seem to be that blue sticker that is on an appliance that helps sell it. What else is Energy Star and EPA doing to ease that process for the appliance retailer out there and make their jobs a little easier?

Dan Cronin: Well, every year we put together a lot of opportunities for retailers to engage with us. this year we always like to have something for Earth Day. There are two big marketing or promotion days are generally Energy Star day which is in the fall and Earth Day which is in the spring and Energy Star day tends to be or tends to overlap with our annual partner meeting, which Nationwide has a big hand in participating. So, one way is through our free marketing resources that we put together and we just hope that more retailers, more partners generally take our promotional materials a lot of them have facts like savings facts. So, you know how much money are you going to save if you buy an Energy Star clothes washer versus a non-Energy Star clothes washer.

That message about how much money you’re going to save is really powerful. And that’s one way in a simple way try to make things a little bit easier and especially in the more recent months we’ve been having good conversations. And the more I learned about it, the more people really care about how much money they’re going to save. They don’t want an energy hog in their home, even if it does something cool, they really do, are now sensitive to energy prices and don’t want a big surprise at the end of the month.

Rob Stott: Definitely not. And I’ll attest to the marketing materials you guys as a partner, we dove in there you’ve got some great videos and great digital assets to use for your social media and all that stuff. So, kudos to the designers over there and your video teams that are putting that stuff together. So, a lot of great stuff, a lot of great resources, even for us at Nationwide so, thank you to that. I want to close. What other opportunities exists for retailers to engage with Energy Star?

Dan Cronin: Well, as it just so happens, I’m the main point of contact for retailing.

Rob Stott: You’re the right guy to ask.

Dan Cronin: It’s, great sincerely that the Nationwide group they have a great partner through Rick and through his group because they have a one-stop shop to say, well, this is where we could get our Energy Star information from and probably for your membership, that’s probably the best way to go. We work directly with Rick and his team. We show them all of our marketing assets, all of our savings figures and things like that that can be rolled into aisle displays or even online advertising and stuff like that or even social media, bring those assets and they distribute them outwards. And we just want to keep updating them and making them as great as they can be so that more folks use them and more consumers get a chance to identify them and pick Energy Star when they’re in the aisle or they’re online.

Rob Stott: Definitely. Rick, anything to add to that as far as what members should do, obviously just call Rick Weinberg is one way to get involved. But, aside from inundating your phone with calls and messages and emails, what else would you tell our members?

Rick Weinberg: Well, I have to tell you that I think the Energy Star national team, Dan, and his colleagues and the EPA and DOE representatives that interface with us throughout the year, they do a tremendous job, keeping us not only informed, putting a lot of assets and training materials and insights at our fingertips, but Nationwide over the years has also crafted a tremendous amount of tools to make it really easy for the member to be very successful taking their Energy Star products to market. We have our own promotional calendar, which integrates not only the Energy Star national promotions, but our own promotional calendar. And we work with our merchants to come up with special values on Energy Star qualified models that give our members strategic advantages, because after all they can’t just sell the products and sell Energy Star. They need to be profitable too, we often say everybody wins with Energy Star.

Well, that’s got to include everybody. The vendor that sells us the product, the retailers that bring it into their assortment, the sales associates that bring it to market, the consumers that need to end up with great value. So, we work to make sure all those tools are there. So, whether they need to use the promotional calendars that are at their fingertip at MemberNet, whether they use the assortment rationalization tools so they can find out exactly which products in the assortment are both very profitable, highly desired, and Energy Star qualified. Whether they are using the training tools, like our exclusive video training tools we updated for 2021 that are on MemberNet, where they can earn learning Academy assortment tools. All these things are at their fingertips through MemberNet, of course all of them are also available with additional support by calling our Energy Star team or working with their MSM team leader on a local level.

But we really do mean when we say everyone wins with Energy Star and I have to applaud the entire Nationwide membership and probably everybody who’s listening to this video, where the industry measures each of these categories in some categories give 37% Energy Star penetration, some have 47%. Nationwide in 2020, their members had more than 50% Energy Star penetration in every category in appliances where Energy Star was an option. So, we want to continue that great trend because we do want the climate, our vendors, our members, the sales associates, and even the consumers that shop our member stores to continue to win with Energy Star. So, we thank Dan and his team. And thank you for this opportunity to showcase the award and some of the things we’re doing and look forward to making it a great year for everybody and with Energy Star in 2021.

Rob Stott: Definitely. And I guess it’s time to get to work on that 2022 applications. So, we’re not going to rest a day. That’s awesome. Rick and Dan, I appreciate both of you guys taking the time today and shedding some light on what goes on at EPA and with Energy Star and Rick for bringing it home with what’s happening here at Nationwide. So, thank you both and look forward to catching up again soon.

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