By Tom Lauria

The National Automated Merchandising Association published an online research study of employees, Competing for Share of Thirst, conducted by Harris Interactive over the summer of 2009. The study found:

“Among all [surveyed] employees, the most important beverage to have available at work is bottled water (34 percent) – with coffee in second place (25 percent), followed by soda/ice tea and juice.”

As the home and office delivery (HOD) bottled water delivery segment and the rest of our industry slowly yet steadily comes out of this prolonged recession, it is gratifying to know that more than a third of thirsty employees cite bottled water as their top workplace beverage. The impressive demographic support for bottled water products comes during a time when industry sales show signs of not increasing as fast as they did years ago. A month before the Share of Thirst survey commenced, Toronto Star reporter Diana Zlomislic made the following recessionary observation:

“Just when you thought morale couldn’t get any lower, some companies are pulling the plug on a workplace icon – the water cooler. The city’s top water delivery distributors are reporting a drop in business as corporations cancel the service, citing budgetary concerns. Some industry experts worry the cost-cutting measure could backfire on companies, big-time. ‘People forget that the water cooler is more than a cold drink …when you take away the water cooler, where do people come together?’” says Tina Dacin, Director of the Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at Queen’s University School of Business.

More recently, the Associated Press (AP) reported on a situation in the state of Vermont, where anti-bottled water activists prompted a pending ban on the purchase of bottled water by state government. The outcry by Vermont public employees was loud and spontaneous. Workplace sanitation rules, unpleasant tap water said to have aroma and appearance issues, as well as stiff opposition from state employees forced the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin to postpone the July 1 adoption of the new policy. As AP reported:

“At the state maintenance garage where Lori Girard-Pion works, the water cooler isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity, especially for the mechanics who maintain the Vermont State Police vehicle fleet. So when the state of Vermont said it was doing away with bottled water deliveries for state government offices and buildings in favor of drinking water from the tap, she wasn’t happy. Without it, workers at the Colchester garage will have to get their drinking water from a bathroom washtub where mechanics wash their greasy hands, she says. ’Is that a lot to ask for?’ Girard-Pion, an administrative assistant, wrote in a complaint to the state last month. ’I think we have good reasons to keep our water cooler.’”

SOURCE: Vertex Water Products

Taking a closer look at Vermont’s reversal of their bottled water purchase ban, AP found other reasons for Governor Shumlin to table the idea:

“State-adopted plumbing codes say that in buildings with 15 to 100 workers, a water fountain or bubbler is mandatory. And another is mandatory for each 100 employees over that. Eliminating the bubblers would mean the state would have to re-install fountains, a potentially costly proposition because of the plumbing work involved. Also, under Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, no food or beverages can be consumed by employees in a ’toilet room,’ which rules out implementation of the bottled water ban in locations with no fountains or taps outside bathrooms.” Vermont joins the Commonwealth of Virginia in reversing an administrative prohibition on state agency purchases of bottled water products.

Although some HOD sales were down slightly in the past few years, a sales rebound began in 2010 and its popularity remains high. This is a good time to take a closer look at one of America’s favorite workplace fixtures: the trusted water cooler. Business folklore has positioned the water cooler as one of our country’s original social network tools. Conversations around the office or factory water cooler are often less formal in nature than the usual business meeting discussions. How many cartoons have we all seen with employees commonly leaning on the water cooler, frequently refilling their cup, while they chatter away, be it about sports or offspring or other forms of news and information?

But in conversations with many people both within and outside the bottled water industry, it is clear that the traditional view of the water cooler has come face to face with modern times. Today, water coolers are popular because they provide an immediate source of refreshing hydration on the spot, much like their commercial ’sibling’, single-serve PET bottled water. While they may also symbolize the office conversation pit, people like water coolers primarily because they like the fresh, crisp taste of the water inside. Sometimes that good taste extends to other beverages, such as coffee and tea. Heavy coffee drinkers often note how much better their morning brew tastes when it’s made with fresh water from an HOD cooler. The same for brewed tea, which can have aromas and flavors as complex as coffee that only fully bloom in the cup when the fresh water poured over it is not complicated by the taste and smell of chlorine, which is needed to make municipal water safe for large-scale consumption.

Convenience has always been near the top of the list of the reasons why people drink bottled water. Busy office and factory workers appreciate instant hydration, with no time to grab a glass and head for the nearest sink, only to be faced with a glass of semi-cold tap water. Instead, the water cooler stands ready to go. When one adds up the times in a long day when a person needs hydration, coupled with the number of people in the workplace, you can see how the office cooler became uniquely popular in the first place. No wonder they all stopped and chatted; they wanted another drink of water!

While safety as a water issue in the workplace isn’t as pronounced an issue with consumers as aroma, taste or hydration, people are confident in the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) extensive regulation of bottled water, where FDA’s good manufacturing practices for bottled water exceed the regulations for other beverages and food products. Many people know, by law, the FDA’s regulation of bottled water must meet or exceed the US EPA’s regulation of municipal systems. When drinking from an HOD water cooler, consumers are assured of either fresh spring water from a deep underground aquifer or purified water, which undergoes up to six levels or types of disinfection before it reaches the clean, sanitary cooler

Then there’s the home in HOD water delivery systems. In addition to all the benefits already mentioned here, there’s the gratification of knowing that family members – and even pets – are drinking water of exceptionally high quality. Good cooks like the way soups and sauces taste more vivid using bottled water. Because the water tastes so good, children and adults are likely to drink more of it, more often. Rather than reach for a caloric or sweetened beverage, the home office cooler reminds the whole family that cold, fresh water is only seconds away.

For the environmentally minded at the office or at home, coolers bear the distinction of being the original recyclers. Long before it became fashionable, the recycled container was a way of life for the HOD business, with refillable cooler bottles being sanitized and refilled dozens of times before they are taken out of service and recycled. Even today, for those who believe toting a personal beverage container is the way to go, the water cooler offers them a chance to fill their cup with the best in chilled spring or purified water.

Finally, it’s the delivery in HOD that reiterates the convenience factor for both the company manager and the homemaker. The water comes to you in a timely fashion and empty coolers are picked-up in the same manner. Although drinking plenty of high quality water is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle, the convenience of delivery makes it easier to always have chilled, fresh water at hand. It is often said by industry spokespeople that bottled water is there when you need it, there when you want it. The people in the HOD business take that literally as they bring it to the door.

So the next time the subject of the office water cooler comes up, remember it is the chilled water inside that makes it so popular. People can chat all they want, wherever they want, but at the end of the day, it is that refreshing gulp of cold water that makes the cooler an unbeatable friend, at work and at home.

About the author

Tom Lauria is Vice President of Communications for The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA.) His duties include media relations, editorial content for IBWA’s website, and production of the organization’s “Bottled Water Reporter” bi-monthly magazine and the weekly email news alert “Splash.” Lauria is also responsible for the development of IBWA’s public affairs outreach programs, such as the IBWA/Bottled Water Matters’ series of You Tube videos.

About the organization

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is the authoritative source of information about all types of bottled waters. Its membership includes US and international bottlers, distributors and suppliers. IBWA works closely with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates bottled water as a packaged food product, and state governments to set stringent standards for safe, high quality bottled water products. Additionally, the organization requires member bottlers to submit to annual third-party inspections and adhere its Bottled Water Code of Practice, which mandates additional standards and practices that, in some cases, are more stringent than federal and state regulations.


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