Life was once simple behind the counter at the Battery Warehouse. There were batteries for cars, boats, motorcycles and flashlights. That was about it.
But that was before the advent of the laptop and the cellular telephone and before consumers relied on batteries to power pagers and camcorders and cordless phones and way before they bought batteries for MP3 music players and PDAs.
Today, the stores stock 83 batteries for cell phones alone, 55 varieties for cordless phones, and an assortment of rechargeable and disposable types for alarm system backups, portable DVDS, digital cameras and countless other electronic toys.
"It's become a lot more complicated," said Michael Spear, controller of Battery Warehouse, a Baltimore-based retailer with eight Maryland stores.
Americans are spending more than ever on more types of batteries to power everything from watches to hybrid cars - and there's no end in sight. The average U.S. household uses 28 battery-powered devices, according to maker Duracell. And that number is growing.
"Everyone wants electricity without a cord," said Norm England, president and chief executive officer of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, a trade group representing the rechargeable battery industry and companies that make products powered by those batteries. "So many things have gone cordless in the last 10 years that weren't that way before."
Battery sales are growing at a rate of 5 percent to 6 percent a year, with worldwide sales in 2003 totaling $5.17 billion for the top three battery makers - Energizer Holdings Inc., Duracell, a division of the Gillette Co., and Rayovac Corp.
Market research firm Euromonitor International projects U.S. battery sales will be $2.9 billion this year.
Even though the battery market is dominated by a few manufacturers, competitive pressures are intense, experts said.
"We do see continued growth per unit because of more gadgets being developed every year; it's a consistent growth category," said Bill Steele, a household products analyst for Banc of America Securities in Ashland, Ore. "But because of the competitive nature, the dollar growth hasn't been nearly as strong as the unit volume. For the most part, margins have been under pressure for the better part of three or four years."
Within categories of batteries, rechargeables are growing fastest, driven by sales of cordless vacuums, power drills, walk phones and notebook computers. Since the early 1990s, sales of rechargeable batteries have averaged nearly double-digit annual growth, the battery association says.
Take the popular AA batteries. Consumers are still spending more on disposables - $604 million worth sold last year in grocery stores, drugstores and mass merchants - compared with rechargeables, which had sales of $11.6 million for the year, according to A.C. Neilson. But sales of the disposable AAs fell 8.21 percent, compared with a 20 percent rise in sales of AA rechargeables, made of nickel metal hydride.
"What's driving the market right now happens to be the proliferation of portable digital electronics for today's consumers," said Christine Denning, a marketing specialist at Panasonic. "This has made it very important for battery manufacturers to ensure they are delivering the highest capacity power in the products to meet the demands of these gas-guzzling products."
Rechargeable batteries keep getting more powerful and are being used more and more - in compact disc and MP3 players, remote control toys, voice recorders, PDAs and other devices that require consistent, heavy power. One of the biggest areas of growth has been in digital still cameras, as manufacturers make them more compact and increasingly design them for use with rechargeable batteries.
"As these cameras become more affordable, you see a greater number of people being able to purchase them, and they are learning that the cameras eat up batteries due to all of the features," Denning said.
Rechargables, she said, "are really here to stay."
They're also expected to play a big part in one of the hottest new automobile technologies - hybrid cars. Hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, combine a gas engine with an electric motor that is charged by a stack of nickel metal hydride batteries.
But overall, rechargeable batteries are getting smaller as cameras, cell phones and other products become more and more compact. And as the batteries get smaller and lighter, they've also become more powerful, England said. That's thanks in part to a movement toward lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries, two similar technologies that decrease battery size but increase power and run times.
"Batteries are becoming smaller because the product manufacturers are making the products smaller," he said. "In the late '80s, cell phones ... were as big as the cordless phones in your house. When they originally came out they had lead acid batteries so they were big. Now the phones are so small you lose them in your purse."
Like all technological advances designed to make life simpler - or at least more portable - batteries can produce their own complications.
Casey Neistat, a Manhattan multimedia artist, found this out last fall when the rechargeable battery died in his Apple iPod digital music player. He would listen to music during bike rides to work at the Tribeca film studio he runs with his brother under the name Neistat Brothers.
Neistat, who'd purchased his iPod on the Internet, went to the Apple store for a new battery and was told Apple doesn't replace the iPod battery. When he asked store managers and higher-ups at Apple about his options, he was told he'd just have to buy a new iPod.
"That was an unacceptable answer for me because the iPod cost $300 and mine was only a year and a half old and a perfectly good, functioning device," functioning, that is, with the help of an electrical cord and outlet, he said. "But it was no longer a portable musical device."
The experience so angered Neistat, who says he gets inspiration for his films in part from the music he listens to, that he and his brother, Van, made a film called Apple's Dirty Secret and distributed it on the Internet. More than 1 million people have downloaded his film, Neistat said. Apple has since begun offering a $100 battery replacement program.
For some consumers, though, a battery that no longer holds a charge has become an excuse to toss out an otherwise working product and get a new one. Cell phone batteries, which cost about $28, might last a year, or two at the most, and by then newer phones are available with newer features.
"A lot of people will upgrade their phone and get a free cell phone before they spend that $28," said Mike Stevens, owner of Stevens Battery Warehouse in Pasadena, which is not a part of the Battery Warehouse chain.
In the highly competitive battery market, battery makers are rushing to come up with new products and develop faster ways to charge batteries.
Rayovac recently introduced a rechargeable system that takes just 15 minutes to power the special AA or AAA batteries.
Duracell is coming out this year with new disposable batteries that are more powerful and longer lasting than alkalines.
Prismatics, a line of flat, rectangular batteries that resemble sticks of chewing gum, are compatible with 270 devices on the market, including major brands of portable CD players, CD/MP3 players and minidisc players.
These batteries can be used as an alternative in products that take rechargeable batteries. The battery designed for digital cameras will range in price from $8 to $12, while those for digital audio devices will sell for $5 to $7 for a two-pack.
"It definitely seems to be a void in the market that we can fill," said Kara Salzillo, a Duracell spokeswoman. "It's a convenience thing. Research has indicated that consumers want a choice between rechargeable and primary batteries."
What consumers want is a way to charge cell phones, laptops and other devices faster and to keep them holding charges longer, says one California researcher.
"People are always complaining about their battery running out when they're talking," said Subhash C. Narang, director of the product development center at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.
"Cell phones have become a primary means of communication, and people want to use it for browsing the Web, for e-mails. They keep adding more functions and that increases the power requirements."
The answer, he says, is a new battery that can be charged in five or 10 minutes. Such a battery is under development in the company's laboratories and could be licensed to manufacturers and on the market within the next two years.
"If you're waiting at an airport and there's time to plug a cell phone in the wall, you'll get a full recharge in five or 10 minutes," Narang says. "What we are trying to do is ... increase the energy and at the same time reduce consumers' burden of having to carry spare batteries everywhere or having to wait to plug a laptop in for a couple of hours. We're interested in providing a solution."
Batteries that keep going: Batteries such as Rayovac's 15-Minute Rechargeable batteries are an attractive alternative and are compatible with PDAs, toys and CD or MP3 players.
Away from alkaline: Companies like Energizer pitch longer-lasting lithium technology for products like digital cameras.
A new dimension: Duracell's soon-to-be-released - and flat - Primatic promises to be compatible with 270 devices on the market.
A new kind of car battery: This example comes stock with a 2001 Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid car.
Going small: Miniature batteries, such as these from Rayovac, power watches, games and calculators.