The National Enquirer, a tabloid newspaper with a reputation for questionable journalism, is often found in a rack near the checkout line of a supermarket. There it sits, trying to attract the attention of the bored shopper waiting for his or her turn at the cash register. Its front page blazes with headlines that assume we are desperate to learn about Britney Spears’ latest love interest, an actor’s escape from rehab, the size of Jennifer Lopez’s engagement ring or the secret passions of Hillary Clinton’s security escort.
The National Enquirer’s advertising slogan is “Enquiring Minds Want To Know!” But take a look – there are certainly plenty of people who don’t buy this newspaper. Apparently they don’t want to know. What? Could it be that they don’t care enough to buy the tabloid? Perhaps they don’t want to be seen buying the National Enquirer. Is it possible that these Enquiring Minds have other things they would rather think about? Perhaps other knowledge is more useful to them?
Oh, I know! It must be that some of them would rather go home and read their electricity bill. Sure, that must be it! The bill is simply loaded with facts for the Enquiring Mind.
How about you? Do you have an Enquiring Mind? You are in this utility business, so surely you must carefully study your electricity bill when it arrives. What? Did you just say that you simply look at the monthly cost, you groan and you reach for your chequebook? But wait! What about all the other information on your bill? Don’t you care about the change in the ratio of your energy charges to your delivery charges? What about how many kilowatt hours you used last month, and how that compared to the prior month or a year earlier?
Maybe the bill is wrong. Better go read the meter. When was the last time you actually read your electricity meter? For that matter, how many times have you visited your utility’s web site for the purpose of better understanding and managing your energy consumption? If you’re like 98% of us, probably never! And, my friends, we are in the business! If we don’t care, who does? 1-2% of the population, that’s who, according to some studies. At least until they get bored or get a life.
It is wonderful that we have bills that are positively oozing with information. It is even nicer that utility web sites are laden with information. Some sites allow access to our individual energy consumption data. That’s fine too. But let’s not delude ourselves that most energy consumers have an insatiable appetite for energy information. On the contrary, most consumers are already suffering from information overload. No matter how colourfully it is presented, most consumers don’t want to know.
Where am I going with all this? Well, there seems to be a delusion circulating among otherwise sensitive and intelligent beings that consumers want and need more information about their energy consumption. There is also a notion that the average consumer would cheerfully embrace a complex electricity rate structure if we provide him with timely information so he can respond to the price signals that are implicit in those rates.
Yes, there really are such consumers, although they are extremely rare and certainly deserve protection, just like your average snail darter. A much larger number of consumers would probably prefer to pay a little more and have someone else worry about interpreting the information for them, but that isn’t a very politically correct idea.
It is entirely a different matter, of course, for the much larger consumer who has both the financial imperative and the technical sophistication to deal with complex rates in the desired manner. Large commercial and industrial consumers have been tuned into the process for years. But I am not talking about them.
I am talking about what enquiring residential consumer minds really want to know. And I am suggesting that energy information is not at the top of the best seller charts. Sure, detailed energy information should be there for those who want it. But let’s not delude ourselves about what the greater mass of consumers really want. Simplicity, perhaps? We do our industry a disservice if we accept fantasy as fact and proceed accordingly. We make bad decisions when we plan programmes or design products that are based upon the way we wish the world was, instead of the way it really is. Our own experience should tell us that. But sometimes, apparently, it doesn’t.
Now, what did Britney say last week about the guy from Louisiana…?
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This column is to create a forum for ideas, passions and perspectives on our industry that are controversial, provocative and energising. The views expressed here may be unpopular, politically incorrect, heretical or simply humorous. The views expressed may be ideas that all of us have had but didn't care (or dare) to articulate. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone, but are probably shared by many who have yet to say so.