By Nate F. Searing

“The idea for The Bottled Water came to me as early as 1996,” says Jeff Dunn, the owner of the world’s largest and most diverse online bottled water establishment. “It grew out of my desire to be part of the developing e-commerce community on the Internet, both relatively new then. The PC craze had begun and I realized in a short time nearly every household would have a computer.”

Internet shopping had already developed into a profitable niche market and Dunn realized that it would not be long before that practive would be accepted by millions of computer owners. “I thought that it probably would be easy to set up a website and start selling; and that I’d better not waste time getting set up,” he recalls.

What to sell?
Dunn was working then as a sales engineer for Water Equipment Technologies, Inc. in West Palm Beach, Fla., selling RO and other equipment to commercial, industrial and municipal clients throughout the state. Many of those clients were beverage-bottling companies. “But I didn’t see my future then,” he notes, “instead, the inspiration came to me after reading a newspaper comic strip. A man is crawling through the desert near death from thirst and moaning, ‘water, water’. He crawls ahead and comes upon a pool of water. In disgust he cries, ‘Not this water, I want bottled water’ and he keeps on crawling.”

At first his website, www.bottled, was more of a hobby than a business, Dunn says. He worked at it in his spare time and found it a fun learning experience and a primer for successful e-commerce down the road.

A self-taught webmaster, he evolved the site and soon people all around the country began to order his products. “The Bottled Water grew steadily,” he recalls.

When the site first hit a modest 10,000 visits a month, Dunn’s excitement was overwhelming. Today, the site has nearly 500,000 visits per month and continues to grow. It is now a full time business run by Dunn and two associates. “I also design and manufacture RO water treatment systems for The Water Management Group, Inc., where I am Vice President,” he adds.

Selling water on the web
With more than 150 individual products available online, The Bottled Water is “the largest online source for unique, high-quality bottled water products from around the world,” Dunn says. There are many companies selling bottled water online, though the majority of these are either regional or are selling only their own brand of products. BWS offers products from about 60 vendors. Many are imports and range from the luxury labels (such as Volvic and Llyanllr Source) to the consumer-focused (such as Hydrosport, which comes in bottles that wrap around the wrist for exercisers) to the one-of-a-kind (Dog Water, which comes in bowls with Frisbee tops). “We have had super-oxygenated water from Sweden and sparkling water from Ecuador. We have Ein Gedi spring water from Israel, a Bottled Water exclusive. We offer water packaged in the worlds first biodegradable plastic bottle made from corn (BIOTA). We even have two different choices of water tailored specifically for bikers.”

Rather than maintaining a huge warehouse with pallets of bottled water from all over the world, BWS stores very few of its products; instead it works with companies that are willing to drop ship directly to the customer. Roughly 90 percent of the waters on the website are shipped directly from the source or from importers’ warehouses, while BWS ships about 10 percent of their own line from a small warehouse in Florida. “We do this because of the availability of many terrific products right here in South Florida and we can maintain those inventories inexpensively,” Dunn says. “We also have a warehouse in California that inventories about 10 of our product brands.” The ability to ship from either coast has made a huge impact on the company’s ability to reduce the cost of shipping bottled water, though it is still a significant expense because of the product weight.

Why buy online?
“We are frequently asked why anyone would purchase water over the Internet? The answer is our reason for existing. Every region of the U.S. has its local, inexpensive brand of water, but our niche market is the bottled water connoisseur, those who want uniqueness from around the world,” he says. Many of their customers see products on the site that are simply not available where they live. Others like the convenience of UPS delivery to their apartment building, rural home site, vacation home, boat, camper or hotel. “We get requests for a particular bottled water that a customer drank while traveling abroad that they would like to have at home. Conversely, we get orders from foreign customers for U.S. waters,” Dunn says, adding the company exports to nearly every part of the globe.

Who’s buying water online?
There are a variety of people seeking out and buying bottled water online, each with a unique reason or need for the selection BWS provides. The company has a steady stream of hotel, resort and restaurant customers nationwide. They also service private retail customers, many of whom steadily purchase either their favorite brand (or type) of water, or purchase different products every month. The Water of the Month club is a group of subscribers who receive a unique selection the first week of every month.

In addition to smaller bottled waters, the company also sells display coolers like those you’d find at a convenience store, five-gallon bottles and enhanced waters.

“Our sales really began to soar when we entered the private label bottled water business. In 2003, we began to offer private and custom-labeled bottled water,” Dunn says. Because their scope is national, they can ship anywhere in the U.S. at a reasonable rate. “By arrangement with existing bottled water plants, we can offer our products and services at wholesale pricing to the public, making us an excellent choice for our customers.”

Growth in the online market
Like the bottled water industry, BWS has experienced approximately seven to 10 percent growth each year until 2003, Dunn says. “That was the year we took over the Bottled Water Boutique, a competing website with distribution based in California, that served as the online bottled water store at www.bottledwater,” he says. The Bottled Water Web is an informative portal into the world of bottled water and enjoys a tremendous number of visitors, Dunn says.

“Another source for referrals is our Affiliate Program,” he says. Like many other e-commerce sites (Amazon is usually at the top of everyone’s list), BWS offers other websites’ owners the opportunity to place their banner or other hyperlink on his website. When a referred customer orders from the Bottled Water Store, the affiliate receives a commission.

Jeff Dunn is delighted that his hobby became a booming Internet business. The site has opened the door for people all over the globe to experience waters they’d never have sampled otherwise and helped the online entrepreneur become something of a pioneer in the industry. Many bottlers and distributors of all sizes now have websites that look oddly similar to The Bottled Water and more pop up every day. It’s a sign, Dunn says, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the online bottled water market is a force to be reckoned with.



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