Originally created 08/05/99

Commercial clients slow in gas switch



ATLANTA -- Commercial natural-gas customers are slower picking a new provider than residential users, according to recent Atlanta Gas Light Co. numbers.

Just 53 percent of the more than 98,000 original Atlanta Gas commercial customers have switched to another company as part of deregulation that began last October. Like residential customers, they face an Aug. 11 deadline to pick a marketer.

The latest figures, as of July 30, show that 68 percent of residential customers have chosen a marketer. By law, customers who don't make their own choice will be assigned one after the deadline.

"Most of the promotions that you see are aimed at convincing residential customers to choose a specific marketer," said Catherine Land-Waters, Atlanta Gas vice president of marketing and customer service. "Marketers have not been as aggressive pursuing commercial customers."

An informal survey by Atlanta Gas reveals that heavy gas users already have switched, and the remaining commercial customers are small offices or companies that only use gas for heating. Many of those who haven't switched say the decision is not a high priority for them now.

Shell Energy's surveys showed another reason for hesitancy.

"They were afraid of making a mistake in terms of choosing their natural-gas supplier," said Tim Sheehan, Shell Energy marketing manager in Atlanta. "People who are bidding natural gas now have never done it before. ... So they don't really know what to ask us. We are seeing all kinds of requirements across the board."

Shell, though, has won its share of those bids without being what Mr. Sheehan calls particularly aggressive.

Another major marketer, SCANA Energy, also admits to a stronger focus on residential sales.

"We have stayed out of the commercial market in any large degree because that is where so much of the price competition is," said Warren Darby, SCANA senior vice president.

As Mr. Darby notes, customers will be assigned to each marketer based on its percentage of the total number of 1.4 million users, regardless of size. A marketer with lots of residential accounts could be assigned a large user as easily as it is assigned a small one, he said.

After assignment, companies will be able to trade customers. Marketers already have begun discussions between those who prefer residential customers and those catering to the commercial sector.

Walter Jones is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.