Testing, Testing ... New On-Battery Testers

Grabbing your radio on your way out the door, you head for the sand and surf only to discover there that the batteries are no good.

Almost everyone has known the frustration of not knowing whether a battery still has pep - or finding out a little late that it doesn't. Duracell International and Eveready, maker of the Energizer brand, say they've solved this consumer concern with testers built into their batteries.

As the two major players in a $2 billion US alkaline battery market, the Copper Top and the Energizer Bunny are going head to head in a competitive marketing race to promote their own versions of a user-friendly way for consumers to learn how much battery power remains in flashlights, toys, and TV remote-control pads.

Both companies offer a visual reading when people press two dots on the battery. Duracell batteries indicate the remaining percentage of battery power on a graduated strip, while Energizer's simply show the word "good," except when less than 25 percent the power remains. Then the window is blank. (A tip for novices: The tester works best when you don't use your fingernails to press the dots.) Both firms use technology that measures heat generated in the tester.

No one knows exactly how much the new feature will mean to consumers, but apparently neither of the leaders wanted to let the other try the testers alone.

"Duracell wants to be a leader in consumer value-added innovations," says company spokeswoman Jill Fallon. "Duracell thinks that consistently doing that can mean an increase in market share."

Duracell, based in Bethel, Conn., leads the US alkaline market with 48 percent of dollar sales and 44 percent of units sold. The company recently began shipping AA batteries with the new on-battery testers to retailers. Duracell expects to have the batteries with on-battery testers in sizes AAA, C, and D by early 1997.

Energizer already has testers available nationwide on sizes AA, C, and D. The St. Louis company, with about 36 percent market share in both dollars and units, began shipping the new batteries in May.

The on-battery testers come at a time of 7 to 8 percent annual growth in US battery sales, says analyst Tony Vento at Edward D. Jones & Co. in St. Louis. He reckons the new product may slightly increase Duracell's already strong sales, now growing at a "double digit rate."

Neither company would reveal its cost to develop the new product, but Ms. Fallon says having a tester on each battery is more expensive than the on-package tester Duracell introduced in 1990.

Advertising costs for are not minor either. Energizer is spending $25 million (the equivalent of its winter holiday season advertising costs) to promote its tester, says Energizer spokeswoman Harriet Blickenstaff. Energizer recently launched its advertising campaign in New York with a 10-story-tall "Hot Hare Balloon." The mammoth rabbit balloon will tour the US this summer. Duracell would not spell out its promotion costs for the tester, but Fallon says the firm spends $50 million annually on promotion.

Despite the companies' costs, the new feature will not increase the price of batteries to consumers, the companies say.

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