Flourescent Light Bulbs Get Push From Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is trying to coax consumers into buying light bulbs that they don’t actually want. It’s an interesting study in the power of zealots, especially if they sit atop a mega-billion dollar retail behemoth.

As a way to cut energy use, it could not be simpler. Unscrew a light bulb that uses a lot of electricity and replace it with one that uses much less. While it sounds like a promising idea, it turns out that the long-lasting, swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation’s energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer, if only Americans could be persuaded to swallow them.

But now Wal-Mart Stores, the giant discount retailer, is determined to push them into at least 100 million homes. And its ambitions extend even further, spurred by a sweeping commitment from its chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., to reduce energy use across the country, a move that could also improve Wal-Mart’s appeal to the more affluent consumers the chain must win over to keep growing in the United States. “The environment,” Mr. Scott said, “is begging for the Wal-Mart business model.”


Regular and Flourescent Light Bulb Comparison Chart (NYT) A compact fluorescent has clear advantages over the widely used incandescent light — it uses 75 percent less electricity, lasts 10 times longer, produces 450 pounds fewer greenhouse gases from power plants and saves consumers $30 over the life of each bulb. But it is eight times as expensive as a traditional bulb, gives off a harsher light and has a peculiar appearance. As a result, the bulbs have languished on store shelves for a quarter century; only 6 percent of households use the bulbs today.

Which is what makes Wal-Mart’s goal so wildly ambitious. If it succeeds in selling 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs a year by 2008, total sales of the bulbs in the United States would increase by 50 percent, saving Americans $3 billion in electricity costs and avoiding the need to build additional power plants for the equivalent of 450,000 new homes.

Scott was convinced at an environmental conference that selling more of these bulbs would be good for Wal-Mart’s image and good for the country. Since then, “Wal-Mart publicly embraced the bulbs with the zealotry of a convert.”

How, though, could Wal-Mart radically increase the sales of a product that has been around over a quarter century to little public interest? Through pressuring manufacturers and using the power of their store displays to entice customers.

Light-bulb manufacturers, who sell millions of incandescent lights at Wal-Mart, immediately expressed reservations. In a December 2005 meeting with executives from General Electric, Wal-Mart’s largest bulb supplier, “the message from G.E. was, ‘Don’t go too fast. We have all these plants that produce traditional bulbs,’ ” said one person involved with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an agreement not to speak publicly about the negotiations.

The response from the Wal-Mart buyer was blunt, this person said. “We are going there,” the buyer said. “You decide if you are coming with us.”

In the end, as Wal-Mart suppliers generally do, the bulb makers decided to come with the company. Philips, despite protests from packaging designers, agreed to change the name of its compact fluorescent bulbs from “Marathon” to “energy saver.” To keep up with swelling orders from the chain, Osram Sylvania took to flying entire planeloads of compact fluorescent bulbs from Asia to the United States. “When Wal-Mart sets its mind to something with a narrow objective like that, they are going to make it happen,” said Jim Jubb, vice president for consumer product sales at Sylvania.

At the same time that it pressured suppliers, Wal-Mart began testing ways to better market the bulbs. In the past, Wal-Mart had sold them on the bottom shelf of the lighting aisle, so that shoppers had to bend down. In tests that started in February, it gave the lights prime real estate at eye level. Sales soared.

To show customers how versatile the bulbs could be, Wal-Mart began displaying them inside the lamps and hanging fans for sale in its stores. Sales nudged up further. To explain the benefits of the energy-efficient bulbs, the retailer placed an education display case at the end of the aisle, where it occupied four feet of valuable selling space — an extravagance at Wal-Mart. Sales climbed even higher.

I have little interest in paying a lot of money for bulbs that put out inferior quality light. I’ve bought various “long lasting” bulbs over the years but have found them to be a big rip-off, as they only last longer if left on continuously; they are just as prone to blowing when switched on as cheaper bulbs.

It is interesting, though, that Wal-Mart, which founder Sam Walton built on the premise of giving customers what they wanted at the lowest possible price, is shifting gears to fulfill the agenda of one man. It’s certainly their right to do so. My guess, though, is that it will prove a very unsound business strategy in the long haul.

UPDATE: Megan McArdle weighs in on the controversy:

Personally, my home is practically a cave. I have to burn lights even in the day, because I’m in a first floor apartment shaded by tall buildings. I’m also really cheap, and a fairly committed green. So if you can’t get me to use the things, you know there’s a big problem. And that problem is not, as the article suggests, that light-bulb companies are resisting producing enough of them, that consumers are uneducated, that they are not displayed in the stores correctly, or that the bulbs are a funny shape. The problem is that after five minutes of sitting under a compact flourescent bulb, I feel like an extra in a Fellini film. I use one in the range hood, and if I had closet lights, I’d install them there. But there’s no way I’m using them as my primary form of illumination unless legally forced to do so; it’s just too murderously depressing. Which is what every single other person who writes about the things says.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Funny–I was in a Wal*Mart a little over a week ago to buy lightbulbs. I stood there for a minute trying to decide whether to buy the Sam’s Brand (or whatever they are called) el cheapo bulbs or try the funky energy saving ones. If the newer bulbs last longer as promised, they would be a good buy, however, the choice was between the known and far cheaper item and the far more expensive unknown item (I don’t even know what the light cast by the newer bulbs looks like). I chose the known and cheaper.

    If Wal*Mart wants me to try to the newer ones, a free sample to try might induce me to give it a go. As it is the choice is between something like .75 for 4 older ones v. $6 or $7 for the new ones.

    Yes, I understand the energy savings and all that, but since i have never seen one in action, there is a certain short-term risk involved.

    Also: given that I have a ton of ceiling fans in my house, I have to wonder if the twisty newer bulbs would look right.

  2. Rodney Dill says:

    They are good in the right spot/location, but not with a dimmer switch. Since the price has dropped in the last few years from the $12-15 price range to the $2-3 price range per bulb they don’t seem so expensive. They don’t burn out anywhere near as often and they are getting closer to instant on, but not quite as instantly bright as incandescent. I still only use the flourescent bulbs in a few locations in my home.

  3. Dale B says:

    Like you, I’ve tried various low power and long life bulbs over the years and also have been disappointed. They didn’t put out enough light and their life wasn’t that much better.

    There has been a lot of progress in compact fluorescent bulbs in recent years. Their light output is now on par with incandescent bulbs. The power of a 100 W CF equivalent is about 22 W. I actually measured it. The power factor is 0.6 as opposed the the 1.0 for an incandescent. This means that although you pay for 22 W the power company has to generate 37 VA. This isn’t a huge problem as everything with an electric motor, as well as most modern electronic power supplies, have a low power factor and the electric companies already have to deal with this. The CF is an improvement but it doesn’t help as much as some people say.

    The light output of the CF has a bit more blue in it and that is a problem for some people. Another irritation is that CF bulbs do not turn on immediately. There is about a 500 msec delay. They also take about a minute to get up to their full brightness.

    The CF bulbs I bought have a ceramic base. The light tube runs fairly cool but the ceramic base is quite hot, nearly as hot as the glass envelope on a incandescent. I assume that this base contains an electronic ballast. If there are electronic components running at high temperatures, that’s not a good thing for long term reliability. Heat is the enemy of all things electronic. Also, large frequent swings in temperature are generally bad for long term reliability.

    This is sort of an experiment for me. We’ll see how long the new CF bulbs last in real world use. In the end, the savings, even if as good as claimed, will be a small percentage of my electric bill. The vast majority of my electric usage is from the refrigerator, stove, oven, and dehumidifier (in the summer). I don’t have an air conditioner so that saves a lot of money.

  4. LJD says:

    Wal-Mart began displaying them inside the lamps and hanging fans for sale in its stores

    In lamps for sale?
    How many HID lamps lighting up that same Wal Mart store?
    I would bet the illuminated sign out front uses more energy than ALL the lights in my home.

    Do as I say, not as I do?

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    I’ve actually replaced most of the light bulbs in my house with the compact flourescents. Maybe I’m just not a light connoisseur, but I don’t notice much difference in light quality, and a half-second delay in the light coming on seems like more of an excuse than a reason not to get them.

    Oh, and the electric savings for light replacement in a 1200sf condo in America’s heartland? Between $10-$12 monthly, using last years electric bills to compare. Considering I spent less than $30 replacing the bulbs, that’s a bargain.

  6. Triumph says:

    My guess, though, is that it will prove a very unsound business strategy in the long haul.

    This is typical of the “new” Wal-Mart.

    Even more egregious is the fact that Lee Scott has actually embraced Communist Party activities in Wal Mart stores. He has even allowed Communists to meet openly in stores.

  7. Gollum says:

    James –

    Obviously you *want* to buy CFs, you just don’t realize it yet.

  8. DL says:

    Hell I bought mine in Home Depot and they seem to do what they say. Not every place in a home needs one, but even then it might help with the bills. No, I am a rabid anti eco- nut, but don’t mind saving where I can and if it helps the energy problem -less Mid-East dependency – that’s good too.

    I am more concerned that retailers who seem eager to be political lately.

    Ford courting the gay lobby hasn’t helped them much.

  9. With the exception of a couple places where I normally read, I have these bulbs throughout my house:

    15 in the bathrooms (I have 4)
    2 in my bedroom
    2 in each guestroom
    4 in the kitchen
    2 in the dining room
    6 for the hallways
    2 on the front balcony
    1 on the back
    1 in the garage
    1 at the front entrance
    1 at the back

    …and probably a few more places. The only place I don’t have them are the lamps beside my sofa, and the ones in my bedroom because I can’t stand flourescent lights while reading.

    It’s all in how you present them. If you put the right casing or shade over them, I find them fine, and I’m guessing that with at least 38 of these things in my house, I’m saving one hell of a lot of money each year. I’ve had these things since September 2005, and have only had to replace 3. Two of those were at my entrances, where they’re on much longer and in far more excessive temperature extremes.

    I probably spent an average of about $10 for a four pack. $100 for most of the lights in my house. I’ve probably got that back already in savings. I bet the price gets cut in half as Wal-Mart pushes suppliers.

    Seriously. If you’re creative, you can make these things look great!

  10. BTW, I have never tried them on a dimmer switch, and I bet they’d suck.

  11. James Joyner says:

    We’ve got a ton of recessed can lighting on dimmers, so we’re not even using all that many standard light bulbs anymore.

    It might be worth giving these a shot for the porch light and similar applications.

  12. lunacy says:

    Your standard dimmer switch will not accept these bulbs well. They will emit a very irritating buzz unless the dimmer is on full throttle.

    There are expensive dimmer made specifically for fluorescent bulbs, but I can’t testify to them yet. I will try one when I’m finished remodeling my kitchen.

    Meanwhile, I am one of those people who is appalled by the light cast by these bulbs. I do have several but they do hideous things to my wall color. One is so ghastly that I think my husband is going to find some photographic filter to mitigate the blue hue on my table lamp in the living room. It makes my yellow wall look ghostbuster green.

    And I have wondered if you can’t get them in both spectrum like grow bulbs to cast both blue and red spectrum, thereby neutralizing the blue. Does anyone know?


  13. McGehee says:

    BTW, I have never tried them on a dimmer switch, and I bet they’d suck.

    They do. The bulb flickers on anything less than full current.

  14. Hoodlumman says:

    McGehee is right on. Dimmer switches need regulars.

    I have a house full of these and don’t mind the half-second delay in turning on and the 60-120 second delay in getting to full brightness.

    I also imagine that as these become more popular (and smaller) they’ll start coming in filtered colors for you light-color snobs *wink*.

    I’m satisfied with these bulbs. Texas summers do dirty things to electric bills so any savings is welcomed.

  15. just me says:

    We use them in some places-utility rooms or for basic room lighting.

    I can’t stand flourescent in the bathroom (the lighting isn’t right for applying make-up-something guys may not notice) and I don’t like reading with them. My son is also sensitive to them, and actually does better with the lightbulbs that are supposed to have a more natural lighting (they are bluish and I can’t remember what they are called) so we use those in his room.

    I also don’t use them in lamps/light fixtures where you see the bulb, because they are ugly.

    But I can’t complain either way-they are fine for some things, not so much for others.

  16. first- energy efficiency is my job.

    second – CFL’s are made just for dimmers, but they cost more

    third – there are now three way [75-100-150 replacement value]

    fourth – the cheaper the bulb the worse the color, and the shorter the lifespan. – case in point – Lights of America, typically the cheapest on the market, an sold at WalMart, El Crappo

    fifth- there are also dedicated fixtures which use a 30 watt CFL and come in a range of styles

    sixth- the MaxLite brand Torchiere style has a 55 watt fully dimmable (40-250 watt replacement value) bulb, shining straight up, and is an excellent reading lamp – no glare

    last – the use of CFL’s in the low-income population is MUCH greater than the Pop.. at large, thanks to the federally, and utility funded programs which place them free of charge -and not the cheapys either, PG&E is partnering with WalMart in Ca. to sell the bulbs at as low as $0.99 ea. Sylvania I do believe.

  17. floyd says:

    “”swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation’s energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer,””

    Hey!, forget the “vegetables”, What’s wrong America’s with the even more traditional and “energy saving” “MUSHROOM” approach? Keep’em in the DARK and feed’em BS!!

  18. Timmer says:

    I can’t understand why you wouldn’t buy them. The same amount of light for less energy. And you wouldn’t choose this because? Inferior quality light? I don’t know what kind you’re buying, but they work just fine in our house.

  19. I can’t speak for the other long lasting bulbs you have tried in the past (I suspect they were just bulbs rated for a higher voltage than they would receive), but these compat flourescents do last a LOT longer.

  20. MSS says:

    Yeah, this is the first good thing I have read about Walmart in a long time. More power to their zealots! (in this case, at least)