As solar companies seek to drop their customer acquisition costs, some may find that retail store kiosks are the most effective way to bring in new sales.

Sunrun is testing out that theory. This week, the company unveiled the BrightPath Station, an interactive kiosk that enables homeowners to pinpoint their house on a map, assess within minutes if they’re suited to go solar, and walk away with a quote. The kiosk, which will be installed in select retail stores, is an extension of Sunrun’s BrightPath software released in August.

The BrightPath automated software guides a homeowner from the initial appraisal through installation. By streamlining the process, the system is expected to reduce solar costs by $0.70 per watt by 2015. The project benefited from a $1.6 million cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative.

By answering a few simple questions at the BrightPath Station, users will learn more about their energy needs and receive multiple home solar system design options. Sunrun has already tested the stations at Costco stores and other retail locations in California, Hawaii and New York. The company plans to introduce the station to additional locations next year.

"Sunrun views retail stores as a promising opportunity to increase solar adoption by consumers," said Gary Wayne, vice president of strategic projects at the company.

But Sunrun isn’t the only company in the solar market to release an internet-based quoting platform. Sungevity was the first company to use remote satellite imagery to produce price quotes via the web. In July, that company unveiled a program for generating solar installation quotes in seconds based solely on a street address.

Sungevity’s Instant iQuote is being piloted at select Lowe’s stores in California where customers access the program using an iPad, with guidance from a Sungevity employee. Each Sunrun BrightPath station will also be accompanied by a sales advisor.

Retail partnerships proliferate in the industry

Linking up with retail stores is becoming one of the most important emerging trends in the residential solar market, said Nicole Litvak, solar analyst at GTM Research.

“Partnerships are already starting to be, and are going to be even more so, an important strategy for lowering customer acquisition costs and generating leads,” she said. “That’s because depending on what type of partnership you have, you can target a specific type of customer who is going to be more likely to go solar.”

GTM Research shows that regular online advertising does not generate many leads. The conversation rate (that is, the percentage of website visitors who submit a quote request) is low, making the cost per closed customer high. The benefit of kiosks is that potential customers leave the store with the quote already in hand.

Door-to-door solar marketing is another effective approach, but it's expensive, and not everyone appreciates a salesperson coming to their home to talk solar. By comparison, kiosks offer a low-pressure sales environment that could ultimately win over more homeowners.

So far, the results have been promising. Last year, Sunrun introduced the BrightPath Station to four retail locations in Hawaii. After their introduction, sales at the same store were ten times higher than in the previous year.

“We believe that existing retail solar concepts are relatively unsophisticated and that performance can be greatly amplified,” said Wayne. “Shoppers seek a non-threatening experience to feel comfortable playing, learning and asking questions, and they can do that in the highly engaging environment we've created.”

What’s interesting about Sunrun’s software announcement from a broader industry perspective is that it indicates the company plans to hang on to its partner model, said Litvak.

When Sunrun purchased REC's residential solar business earlier this year, it appeared as though the company was angling to become vertically integrated. By continuing to offer financing and new software tools to its network, “it shows they’re committed to the partner model," she said.