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Along with the jobs, housing and retirement funds, sales of bottled water became a victim of the struggling economy, with actual sales dropping 10.2 percent in 2009. But just as some business are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, bottled water sales rebounded in 2010 -- and insiders forecast much of the same for 2011.
According to the recently published Convenience Store News Industry Forecast Study, bottled water sales inched up 4.2 percent in 2010 and are expected to grow another 3 percent in 2011. While those numbers may not scream "wow," it is pretty significant when compared to the decline posted the previous year.
CSNews research also forecasts unit volume per store and sales per store to hover near 3.3 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively, after hitting 4.2 percent and 4 percent in 2010. These numbers are noteworthy because 2009 figures saw actual unit volume per store decrease 11.4 percent, and actual sales per store decrease 9.4 percent.
And the research seems to be right on target. Some convenience store operators have even seen their bottled water sales post dramatic numbers. "Pretty much every region is up," said John West, director of marketing for Southwest Convenience Stores based in Odessa, Texas. "It is more than double digits over last year."
Echoing the large increase is Little General Stores, based in Beckley, W.Va. According to Don Bolen, director of marketing, the regionally based convenience store operator with stores in West Virginia and Virginia saw overall retail sales in the water category jump 11 percent in 2010.
Proving the supply-demand equation, the increase in bottled water sales is also reflected on the supply side. Chris Silk, manager of channel development, c-stores for Nestle Waters North America Inc., noted the company’s bottled water category was up 5.6 percent year-to-date according to research from Nielsen U.S. C-Store Scantrack through Nov. 27, 2010.
Coca-Cola North America also registered an uptick in bottled water sales. "We have seen continued strong performance of smartwater in the convenience retail channel during 2010," said Russell Baker, convenience retail channel planning and development for Coca Cola Refreshments. "It has been a key driver of growth for us across our portfolio, and we expect the momentum to continue into 2011."
But where is the growth coming from? Anyone who has ever scanned the refrigerated cases at a convenience store knows that water is no longer just water. Flavored, enhanced or "plain vanilla" options are just a few available on the shelves, and the growth areas differ just as much as the choices. Southwest Convenience Stores, with more than 300 stores under the 7-Eleven flag in New Mexico and Texas, has seen the increase in regular water, according to West.
"The increases have all been in regular water," he explained. "Our one liter sales were very strong this year, and our case bottle water sales were also very strong."
Little General Stores also saw the register ring more for regular water in 2010. "Growth was driven by regular plain water, which was up 15 percent in units and 11 percent in retail sales," Bolen said. "In addition to strong results from the cold vault, take home packages contributed significantly to this growth."
Also, the growth is generally spread evenly across its stores, he noted. "We are in an area with a good mix of both interstate and rural traffic, but overall the category mix is quite close, with the exception of stronger 12-pack and 20-pack take home sales in the non-interstate locations."
However, this not to say individual bottles of water aren’t moving, as witnessed by Coca-Cola. "The growth in convenience retail is primarily driven by immediate consumption as opposed to case packs," Baker said.
As regular bottled water saw an increase, Bolen noted that Little General Stores locations have seen a decline in flavored water. "The flavored segment has declined due to customers trading to flavored water enhanced with vitamins," he explained. But even that segment has seen its ups and downs.
"This vitamin-enhanced segment has leveled off compared to steady growth numbers from the last two years. Some of these customers have switched to either energy-based or juice-based drinks, both of which have seen consistent increases," Bolen said.
Baker echoed this growth, noting that Coca-Cola North has had similar experiences. "The biggest drivers of growth for our water portfolio in 2010 have been glaceau smartwater and the introduction of glaceau vitaminwater zero."
However it seems this experience is not across the board. According to Nestle Waters North America research it received from Nielsen U.S. C-Store Scantrack, the Sweetened and Enhanced Water category finished its second year in decline in the U.S. c-store channel, Silk said, with the category down 2.8 percent in gallon volume year-to-date through Nov. 27. In contrast, Silk noted, categories with health and wellness attributes such as ready-to-drink tea, sports drinks and bottled water showed growth in 2010.
Now with 2010 behind us, what is in store for the bottled water category in 2011? CSNews research forecasts a 3.3 percent growth in unit volume per store, 2.8 percent growth in sales dollars per store and 3 percent in overall sales dollars. C-store operators also expect this slightly-less-than-2010 uptick.
"I expect it to grow consistent with our total beverage category projection of 8 percent," Bolen said of Little General’s 2011 projection for bottled water.
And West at Southwest Convenience Stores also expects sales to rise again this year. "It will probably not do as well because we had some huge numbers [in 2010}, but we do expect the trend to continue," he said.
While it still remains to be seen what numbers the bottled water category pulls down in 2011, the industry -- both retailers and suppliers -- seem optimistic that 2009 is far behind.