By Sam Karge

In the water treatment industry, the concept of the water store has evolved in recent years. A full-service retail water store provides solutions to both consumers and business buyers for their water purity problems. While they’re not new to the industry, the number of water stores has increased steadily over the years as consumers have shown growing interest in the need for a continuous supply of high quality drinking water.

The need for water stores
Regardless of municipal water quality, many consumers choose to treat water in their homes to improve taste and provide extra protection against contaminants. While consumers want a better alternative to their existing tap water, they’re often unsure of the ways to improve household water.

“For years, consumers relied on the delivery of bottled water to their homes, since a retail setting did not exist or existed in limited capacity,” said Tom Commers, president, Commers Water of Blaine, Minn. “The water store offers consumers and contractors an easy way to purchase water treatment products firsthand, allowing them to see—and understand—the product before making a purchase.”

For consumers, the water store provides an outlet for education about water quality, and the available treatment technologies that will deliver the constant supply of pure water they desire. For contractors, they look to water stores to provide high quality components and equipment from a supplier they can trust.

These water stores have evolved beyond simple, storefront, fill-it-yourself stations that emerged in Sunbelt states in the early-’90s as an alternative to bottled water delivery and water vending machines. A few water store proprietors may have expanded their expertise to include in-home water treatment options from pour-through carafes to undersink filtration to whole house softening systems. Traditional water treatment equipment dealers, meanwhile, have expanded their own shops in the opposite direction to offer more simple water treatment solutions.

Like any other retail outlet, the water store allows consumers to browse through a variety of water treatment products at their leisure. They can ask questions, evaluate different technology options and even purchase bottled water directly from the store. For commercial or household customers looking for purification system components, they’ll find products such as carbon filters and home reverse osmosis (RO) systems and membrane elements that can be installed to treat tap water at the point-of-use or point-of-entry (POU/POE).

“Whether it’s bottled water or in-home purification systems, water stores combine the convenience of retail shopping with the advanced knowledge and high-end technology they require,” added Commers.

Consumer demand
A driving force behind the success of the water store is the consumers’ increased demand for information; more and more they insist on having all of their questions answered before they make a buying decision. They also want information from more than one source, rather than believing everything a salesperson tells them. For example, many consumers research items extensively online before taking a trip to the store to look at a product.

Along with this enhanced awareness comes an increased comfort level with traditional buying. Over the past few years, there has been a boom in the number of specialty stores targeted to specific consumer needs. This is making the water store an attractive option. Contractors, on the other hand, rely on the speed and convenience of water stores to stock products for resale and installation in homes and commercial buildings.

Either way, the goal of the water store is to match the correct product with the customer’s needs, while educating and explaining product benefits. Most water stores employ certified water specialists whose job is to educate customers about water quality concerns and how technology can be applied to remedy these problems. Better education of the end-user leads to continual growth of the industry. Consumers benefit from better water quality, and water stores benefit by staying on top of consumer preferences to help plan future product and service offerings.

Another trend inherent to today’s savvy consumers is a greater emphasis on healthy living, resulting in more careful and deliberate health-related choices. For example, the bottled water industry has seen a continued increase in sales as customers become more aware and concerned about health risks and the potential threats to their drinking water supply. With this increased interest, water stores have stepped in as a place for consumers to meet all of their water purification needs.

A win-win water solution
Cost savings is another benefit consumers gain by purchasing from a water store. While bottled water sold through grocery stores or large water retailers is convenient, many consumers want a continuous supply of pure water in their homes at an affordable price.

“Today, many homeowners have purchased—or specified from their building contractors—filtration and RO equipment instead of relying solely on bottled water,” commented Commers. “With a water store, consumers are able to get the products, service and convenience they need without the high cost associated with buying single-serving bottled water from a large general purpose retailer.”

Consider this—filling bottles with water at a water store costs about 30 cents per gallon, and in-home systems average around 10 cents per gallon. This compares to the $2-per-gallon cost of having bottled water delivered to a home or business. Whether consumers come in to refill bottles with pure water or purchase an in-home purification system, they save money.

In addition to cost savings, a visit to the water store is often more convenient than coordinating schedules to have water delivered. Even though bottles can be left outside if the consumer isn’t home, this isn’t always a viable option. In colder climates, for example, leaving bottled water outside can easily mean frozen water by the time a consumer gets home.

“In an effort to accommodate consumers, many water stores are opening outlets in high traffic areas to make themselves more accessible,” said Commers. “Now consumers can decide when they need to refill their bottles or replace a filter, and do so on their own time.”

This ultimately puts consumers in control. Visiting the store gives them the opportunity to understand the technology behind the product so they can more accurately determine what is best for their families.

Another edge the water store brings is the benefit of advanced technology in a retail setting. Many water store products now incorporate technology once used only in industrial applications. By working directly with water treatment system manufacturers, water stores are able to design systems that use innovative technology, receive detailed training on new products and ultimately gain industry expertise. In turn, the store gives manufacturers insight into consumer trends and important market data. In the end, the consumer gets high quality products and service designed to meet their specific pure water needs.

What’s next?
As consumer interest continues to drive water treatment industry growth, water stores are uniquely positioned to capitalize on this trend. Water stores are responding by offering a wider selection of water treatment products, as well as non-water related products. For example, with in-home purification systems in place, consumers are looking for special household cleaners—such as laundry detergents—that are designed to work specifically with conditioned water. In an attempt to better understand customer needs, many stores have placed more emphasis on education and marketing to draw consumers to the store. This allows them to grow their customer base while gaining insight about the consumer. By reacting to consumer needs and providing them with the necessary solutions, water stores can expand their potential product or market base.

Conclusion
Despite all of the sweeping changes in the industry, one thing is for sure—water stores have a place in the future direction of household water treatment. By catering to consumers’ water needs and looking ahead for potential changes in demand, a store can grow and succeed in times of economic uncertainty. As the market continues to evolve, the water treatment industry must be willing to change as well.

About the author
Sam Karge is a project manager for Osmonics’ Household Water Group in Milwaukee. He can be reached by email: skarge@osmonics.com

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