Reading the thermostat

Then and now: Smart thermostats positioned for take-off.

Nest products draw reliable crowds at trade shows. But do they perform as well in an endcap?

Depending on whom you talk to, we’re either officially entering the age of the smart thermostat, or we’re a few degrees short of actual heat. But as it turns out, we’ve been in this holding stage for quite some time.

More than 30 years ago, National Home Center News (the forerunner of HBSDealer) published a Dec. 7, 1981, article on the Honeywell T800, the “$200 electronic digital thermostat” that promised a revolution in thermostats and energy savings. Then, just as now, the advent of the product raised immediate issues related to sticker shock and ease of use.

Today, these concerns persist for products like the Nest Learning Thermostat, and the majority (52%) of readers, polled in early March regarding whether smart thermostats were a hit among customers, said “there’s some interest in them, but only among early adopter types.” Another 32% said “they’re collecting dust,” and only 15% said “they’re flying off the shelves.”

Again, it depends on whom you ask. Robbie Kaplan, merchandise mix master for Ace chain A Few Cool Hardware Stores in the Washington, D.C., metro area has mostly good things to say about Nest’s performance in her stores.

This is partially because of the company’s partnership with Ace. The retailer program offers helpful merchandising options and an associate training program, allowing staff to communicate effectively to customers regarding features and installation.

"Will that work in my house? Will that work in my system?”

In addition, Kaplan says the stores carry the Ring Video Doorbell, app-controlled light timers, and app-controlled LED string lights, which sold well during the holidays and continuing into the outdoor entertainment season.

“We know we have only dipped our toes in the water of the smart home category,” Kaplan said. “We haven’t felt quite ready to fully jump in the pool since, as is always the challenge, technology advances so quickly. We are also listening to the customers to hear what they are looking for and waiting for.”

Kevin Day, heating merchandise manager for Do it Best, wagers that the category is finally taking off, but really only in the last year or so. According to Day, the products are more popular in big urban areas, partially owing to their larger share of millennial homeowners.

Though Day says thermostats are pretty flat as a category overall, Wi-Fi-enabled products are where the growth is actually happening, particularly in new home construction, or when homeowners swap out their existing HVAC systems.

The main challenge? Getting people to notice them. “I don’t think it’s top of mind for the consumer yet,” he said. “That’s why advertising is so important.”

Communicating value is the other big component. “A couple big questions in the consumer’s mind are: ‘Will that work in my house? Will that work in my system? And can I install that myself?’” he added.

A couple additional pointers from Kaplan: have smart home products on display, as well as linked to associates’ or in-store smartphones.

“This allows staff and customers to get real life experience with the products,” she said. “Watching a training video is one thing, but when an associate uses their own phone to change the temperature, see who is at their door, or turn on Christmas tree lights from across the room, their eyes light up and suddenly they are showing off the product to their teammates. There is no doubt that everyone on our team is excited about smart home products and looks forward to growing the category.”

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