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When will Woolies and Pick n Pay see the light?

*Correction: Since posting this blog, it has been brought to my attention that Woolworths does not in fact sell incandescent lightbulbs. As I understand it they decided a while back to remove these from their shelves and now only sell energy savers. I say big up to you Woolies (!), and my apologies for the false accusations. I’m so glad that you’re living up to your good business journey, and hope other supermarkets follow suit in the near future.

There is just no comparing incandescent light bulbs to their energy saving versions.

Energy savers last, on average, between six and 15 times longer, and they are also far more efficient, using about 80% less energy than standard bulbs. One study has found that by switching to energy saving bulbs, EU citizens would save roughly the amount of electricity consumed by 11 million European households: a reduction of 15 million metric tons of CO2 emission per year. That said, the down side of energy savers of course is that their initial cost is far more than normal bulbs, though that initial cost is easily recovered over a bulb’s lifetime.

The question then is why grocers continue to sell incandescent bulbs — particularly in the case of Woolworths and Pick n Pay who do so much to polish their images as environmentally aware businesses. I’m sure that their marketers have done their research and come to the conclusion that being ‘green’ — whatever that may mean — is a good public image to have; ultimately it means they sell more. But if that’s the case I think its time they stand up and take the decision to no longer sell incandescent bulbs. If you are going to present yourself as a green-minded business, and profit from the association of being seen as environmentally aware, then I don’t think taking this step is too much to ask.

I’m sure one of the common objections to this would be that while energy savers may be far better than standard bulbs, Woolworths simply has no place to go about telling me what I can and cannot purchase. If I want to buy normal bulbs, then, quite frankly, who is Woolies to tell me that I cannot? And your objection would be perfectly reasonable, if only it wasn’t so naïve. For starters supermarkets make decisions about which magazines and newspapers to sell you. Working for a magazine company, I know how grocery chains are able to control what types of images appear on the covers of magazines. If it’s not something they like, the mag simply won’t appear on their shelves, and sales for that month will plummet.

The industry’s response to the use of genetically engineered bovine growth hormone in milk is another example of suppliers making a unilateral decision about what to supply to consumers. Granted, the decision not to supply milk treated with hormones is very different to a decision on what light bulbs to sell, but the precedent of deciding on behalf of the consumer is there nonetheless.

There are clear cases where supermarkets play very active roles in controlling what can and cannot purchase. Sure there are many instances where grocers respond directly to what their customers want to see on their shelves. When demand for something increases they supply more of it. But I’m also convinced that their decisions about what to stock in their stores then shapes what we want to see on those shelves in future: they stimulate demand as much as they satisfy it.

The point is that companies such as Woolworths play a very active role in what we ultimately purchase. They are not simply a benign purveyor of goods from supplier to customer, but a powerful intermediary that consistently shapes what we buy, and when.

So then, it seems that the only reason they still sell incandescent light bulbs is because energy saving bulbs cost so much more in the short run. For many people, the extra R20 for an energy saver is R20 they just don’t have, regardless of the long-term benefits and savings. And in those cases I can see why people continue to buy normal light bulbs. However many South Africans could afford an extra R20 once in a five year period — especially those affording to shop at Woolies. Perhaps if those people were made more aware of how energy savers make sense in the long run, they’d understand why Pick n Pay took the initiative to no longer stock standard bulbs.

On that note, let’s not forget the decision Woolworths took to only sell free-range eggs, and the publicity they received as a result. I think in the long run taking a stand such as this would really pay off. It shows people that the respective retailer has got some integrity, and is really standing by the name it’s trying to make for itself. Anything less and they just come across as fake, having their green cake and eating it to.