Still, waters run deep as status source

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Although the 1980s are mostly dead and buried, at least two trends from that decade have survived or been resurrected, for better or worse:

The first is a populist call for laissez-faire government -- less government regulation, more privatization, more trickle-down economics.

And the second survivor seems to be water, or, more specifically, bottled water that comes from sluicing mountain streams or glacial snows on European peaks. The water is then captured in fancy glass or plastic containers and marketed as a chic, healthy alternative to regular tap water.

It's trickle-down of another sort.

The latest entries in the bottled water market are from designers. Donna Karan and the Gap both experimented with their own haute H2O. At boutique openings in New York and London earlier this year, Donna Karan passed out her DKNY water. (Though she has no plans to actually market the product, according to Patti Cohen, a Karan executive.)

Although Gap water was used in store promotions earlier this year, the trendy twentysomething outfitter has no plans to mass-market its alongside tony T-shirts and khakis.

Chanel is offering water accessories to the well-heeled who can sashay and drink water at the same time -- a water pouch, cut specifically to hold a single bottle and fashioned from Chanel's signature interwoven gold-and-leather-mesh purse chain. Price tag: $1,125.

Even if designers do no more than dip their well-pedicured toes into the bottled water biz, the elite pioneers of the effervescent '80s -- Perrier and Evian -- are being challenged by intruders. Waters from France to Canada to Amelia County, Va., are crowding the shelves at supermarkets, spas and gourmet shops. Naya, from Canada, is "The Goddess of Spring Water." San Pellegrino, from the Italian Alps, is an "excellent complement to foods, wines or spirits." And Qui-bell, a sweetened mineral water, claims its "eau de source" as "Sweet Springs Mountain in the Appalachians."

"There are about 700 or 800 brands of water on the market today," says Stan Seidenberg, president of the Water Warehouse in Keyport, N.J., and a bottled-water expert. "With water, tastes can change. What people were drinking yesterday may not necessarily be what they will be drinking tomorrow."

Americans first started experimenting with bottled waters for reasons of health and status, and unlike many decadent fads of the 1980s (power lunches, BMWs), bottled water's still around. And it's keeping many domestic and international water bottlers, well, afloat.

Annual retail sales of bottled water in the United States fall around the $3.5 billion mark, according to Hellen Berry, vice president of the Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York, consultants to the beverage industry. That's about 2 billion gallons of water a year, up from 1.4 billion gallons in 1986 and just 317 million gallons in 1976, when Perrier first trickled into the bottled water market.

Although Perrier and other bottled waters have been available in the United States since the beginning of the century, it wasn't until the late 1970s and early 1980s that anyone thought to attach a marketing strategy to them. Since then, according to Ms. Berry, sales have continued climbing.

Mr. Seidenberg says the sustained popularity of bottled waters is due to taste, whether mineral, glacier, sparkling, still or sweetened.

"Sales are increasing not because of anything other than that people don't like the stuff they get for free," he says.

It's still just two hydrogen molecules coupled with an oxygen one, but, boy oh boy, when you start sticking fancy names and claims to those molecules, that's what separates Water from just plain old water.

While bottled water often comes with premium price tags -- 25 ounces of San Pellegrino encased in a sexy chartreuse bottle and wrapped with beautiful blue labels will run you about $2 -- tap water is still a bargain.

According to Sal Milio, chief of the utility billing division for Baltimore city's water supply, 1 gallon of municipal water will run you one-tenth of one cent. A gallon of San Pellegrino, on the other hand, would cost more than $10.

But that's when water stops being merely water. It starts taking on properties of some magic elixir, instantly conferring unto its imbiber large doses of health and, more importantly, status.

"You don't necessarily have to have the best [water] to sell the most," says Mr. Seidenberg. "You just have to convince consumers that it's the best product. When a lot of people drink a bottled water they don't like, they ask 'What's wrong with me?' instead of 'What's wrong with this water?' "

Brian Sullivan, president of Recovery Engineering Inc., a Minnesota firm that designs and manufactures water faucet filters under the PUR name, scoffs at designer H2O and says the trouble with these waters is they're a "trendy preoccupation."

"There's a long-term trend toward more healthy beverages, and water is part of that," says Mr. Sullivan. "But you can get water in Maryland that is as good for you as water from a Belgian spring."

But, according to industry analysts and sales figures, bottled water is a trend that won't wash away just yet. Americans, it seems, are ready to plop down a lot of dollars for premium waters and are continuing to polish and cultivate their water palates.

"Some people look for special flavors or minerals," says Paul Wollschlager, an assistant manager and water buyer at Eddie's Supermarket in Roland Park, which sells more than 200 gallons of bottled water each week. "Customers will come in and ask for waters by name that they've tried somewhere else. We started carrying Deer Park and San Pellegrino by request. And when Bill Cosby came to town, he asked for Volvic."

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