Swedes test US waters to pop Perrier

If the bottlers of France's prestigious Perrier water are wondering what a Swedish company is doing competing in their American marketplace, they might blame one of their own. It was a Frenchwoman, Queen Desir'ee, who visited a little-known spa at the southern tip of Sweden and helped make the waters of Ramlosa popular among European royalty. A one-time fianc'ee of Napoleon -- sort of -- Desir'ee liked the place so much that she married the man destined to be appointed to the Swedish throne, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's most famous generals.

Bernadotte became Karl XIV Johan, the first ancestor of today's Swedish royal family. And Desir'ee contributed to what may be the final chapter of the Napoleonic wars. The prize: the collective palates of upscale America.

Perrier ``owns'' the US market for imported sparkling water. Ramlosa Halsobrunn, part of the Volvo conglomerate, wants a piece of it. James B. Beam Distilling Company has agreed to help deliver it to Ramlosa if it can, along with its own subsidiary, Taylor Food Products.

``When Perrier came into the American marketplace about 1975, they were unknown,'' explains G. Lane Barnettt, Beam's marketing vice-president. ``They built a tremendous mystique with elegant packaging and a tasteful green bottle, and now they're almost a household word in the United States.

``But to continue sales momentum, they responded to the siren song of carbonated soft drinks -- orange, lemon, and lime. We believe that because of that move and the tremendous base of their business, they have abdicated the ultra-premium niche.''

``We can step in with Ramlosa, at a premium price, as a relative unknown and fill that market niche that Perrier is abandoning. And the product itself, tastewise, is a superior product, so we have two things going for us,'' Mr. Barnett claims.

He declines to say how much a premium price was, but concedes that for a 200 milliliter (6-ounce) blue bottle, it might be a dime more than Perrier. A bottle of Perrier approaches $2 in some restaurants and sells for 69 cents to $1.29 at most retail outlets.

The US success of imported mineral waters provides a significant, but relatively small, example of what many Americans think about the water they drink.

Imported waters make up only about 10 percent of a $5 billion industry, according to the US Bottled Water Association in Arlington, Va., which claims to represent companies that produce more than 80 percent of the total sales of bottled water in the United States.

``We're seeing about a 15-percent annual growth in both categories [mineral water and bottled ``drinking water''],'' says William Deal, executive director of the association.

``What that says is that drinking water sales are going up because customers are concerned about the taste and quality of their tap water.''

By law and tradition, mineral water contains not less than 500 parts per million of dissolved solids -- fluoride, calcium, sodium, even arsenic in nontoxic amounts. That figure compares with distilled or purified water, which has less than 10 parts per million. A cultural difference becomes apparent.

``In Europe, people buy bottled water for what's in it,'' Mr. Deal says. ``Here they buy it for what's not in it.''

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