This article was originally published in the November/December 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online November/December 1999


My Discouraging Visit to Costco

A new Costco recently opened near my home and I--with family in tow--had to inspect its huge aisles chock-a-block full of megasize detergent containers and diapers by the ton. While the kids were distracted by the toys and free food samples, my attention turned to the appliances. All the big ones were present: refrigerators, clothes washers, dishwashers, microwaves, and many others. There were only a few models of each appliance, and all were the house label (though manufactured by Whirlpool or another company). The prices were seductively low, and it was hard to restrain the urge to buy. So much money to save!

But then I started inspecting the EnergyGuide labels on the display models (which, I'm happy to report, were almost always present), and a different picture emerged. Almost without fail, these models had the worst possible energy rating. The EnergyGuide arrow was typically pinned to the highest edge of the scale--or even off the scale! In other words, virtually every appliance sold in the store was a guzzler. Costco is by no means alone; I have observed the same situation in Home Depot.

Fortunately, other large chains (Circuit City and Sears, for example) offer a whole range of models with varying efficiencies, so that consumers can make the mental trade-offs among price, energy efficiency, and features. There are even Energy Star endorsements to guide consumers to the most efficient units. But at this Costco, consumers don't even have the opportunity to survey the range of efficiencies. Millions of consumers are buying these appliances without realizing that the seductive low prices are locking them in to years of higher utility bills.

One argument goes that higher efficiency won't sell. Maytag punctured this myth by developing and marketing a wildly successful horizontal-axis washing machine that cost much more than traditional designs. The secret to Maytag's success was a combination of good design, clever marketing, and consumer information. There's no reason that Costco (or any other retailer) can't do the same.

Energy experts sometimes wonder why EnergyGuide labels don't have much influence on the buying habits of American consumers (although consumers in other countries apparently do look at labels)*. I think my discouraging visit to Costco provides one important explanation.

* See Performance versus Projections: Does your Refrigerator Measure Up? HE Jan/Feb '93 p. 29; New Appliance Labels Emphasize Energy Use, HE Jan/Feb '96, p. 7; Label Lessons from Thailand, HE Nov/Dec '98, p. 11; and European Appliance Efficiency Revs Up.


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