The Bottled Water Phenomenon. (How a Luxury Became Commonplace)

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Bottled Water Phenomenon. (How a Luxury Became Commonplace)


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


Beginning with health seekers on the West coast and Europhiles in the East, bottled water has become an American taste. The general interest began in the late 1970s, at a time when alcohol consumption was moderated, a fitness craze swept the country, and concerns about tap-water safety developed. By the 1980s, with a vigorous promotion campaign by processors of bottled water, Americans were attracted to this product. Retail sales increased nearly 400%. The bottled water market grew faster than any other major beverage category, and created a multibillion dollar industry. The majority of consumers were in California, Texas, New York, and Florida, but bottled water was drunk throughout the country. By the late 1990s, the bottled water market was growing three times faster than soft drinks, the major beverage seller.

Bottled Water's Appeal. Americans liked bottled water because of what the product lacked: caffeine, calories, pollutants, and chlorine taste. Health-conscious consumers viewed bottled water as a healthy alternative to diet soda.

Restaurateurs noted the rising interest in bottled water, and realized that such products could provide a growth area to make up for their slackening business of alcoholic beverages. Bottled water could boost dwindling bar sales. Bottled water had high profit margins, actually higher than wine. Bottled water did not replace alcoholic beverage sales. It only replaced less-profitable soft drink sales. By the 1990s, restaurants were offering patrons bottled water selections from more than 600 domestic and 75 imported brands. A typical bottled water cost a restaurant about $1.15, and could be served to the patron for $4 to $6. Bottled water sales were so profitable that some restaurateurs installed water bars. For a modest $7,000 outlay for a water bar, a restaurant could expect bottled water sales as high as $1,500 to $2,000 a day.

Bottled water replaced pitchered tap water. In a booming economy, people seemed to believe that something they had to purchase somehow must be superior to what was offered freely.

An owner of a prominent restaurant observed that for patrons ordering bottled water, the choice "became fashionable, chic, a status symbol, but not quite an extravagance." Many restaurants began to use side-table ice bucket stands to chill glass water bottles along with wine bottles. The water, served in elegant stemware, reinforced the notion that it was like fine wine.

The entire hospitality service embraced the bottled water phenomenon. One writer noted: "From seemingly out of nowhere, bottled water has emerged as one of the most important profit centers for any hotel, catering facility, or restaurant." He advised the hospitality service: "What was once a luxury or, at most, an amenity you kept on hand for European visitors, has become a cornerstone of your beverage program."

Clark Wolf, a New York City hotel and restaurant consultant, reported that bottled water became the top seller in hotel room minibars throughout the country.

Bottled water became a favored feature at black-tie receptions and catered formal occasions.

Available everywhere, bottled water became a mainstream beverage. Currently, it is a common sight to see people strolling, clutching a water bottle, or pulling one from a handbag or backpack. It is socially acceptable to sip from bottled water anywhere, anytime.

Electrolyte-Replacing Waters. Several decades ago, bottled sports drinks were created to replace vital nutrients lost to sweat by athletes engaged in strenuous activity. The main ingredients consisted of water, carbohydrates, and sodium. The drinks were intended to replace fluid and lost electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium, calcium, and chloride.

Use of electrolyte-replacing water products has always been controversial. Many health professiOnals and athletic advisors believe that the intake of adequate amounts of plain water and nutritious foods will replenish lost fluids and electrolytes. …

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