PRICES, NOT CLAIMS, CHARGE BATTERIES: RETAILERS

The two leading battery manufacturers are duking it out over long-lasting superiority claims this fourth quarter. Yet supermarkets say it's not product longevity that counts for shoppers but price.The latest heated battle over the longest-lasting alkaline battery began this spring when Duracell, Bethel, Conn., began running national television spots pitting its battery's performance against Eveready's

The two leading battery manufacturers are duking it out over long-lasting superiority claims this fourth quarter. Yet supermarkets say it's not product longevity that counts for shoppers but price.

The latest heated battle over the longest-lasting alkaline battery began this spring when Duracell, Bethel, Conn., began running national television spots pitting its battery's performance against Eveready's Energizer brand.

So far Energizer has been unsuccessful in challenging the TV spots and Duracell will continue with what it considers to be an effective brand awareness campaign, according to Jill Fallon, communication director for Duracell North Atlantic Group.

"Duracell's market share and brand awareness have really increased. Our market share is over 50%, the highest in the brand's history. We believe in our overall superiority message and we will continue to communicate that to consumers," she commented.

This month, however, Energizer is expected to launch a media counterattack backed by national TV ads centered on re-engineered AA and AAA batteries that it claims last "55% longer in high-drain devices." Point-of-purchase material on shippers going into supermarkets this month specifically states "Lasts Longer Than Duracell."

"This is our new position," Lou Martire, vice president for trade development at Energizer Battery Co., St. Louis, told SN during the General Merchandise Distributors Council's GM Marketing Conference.

The emphasis in Energizer's campaign is on high-drain devices such as mini disc players, digital cameras, cellular phones and remote-control toys. "This is driving today's battery market and consumption," Martire said. "OEM manufacturers are designing devices with new features that require power that is longer lasting." Martire noted that 30% of all batteries are used in high-drain devices.

While both Energizer and Duracell are investing heavily to tout their performance over other brands, retailers surveyed by SN are not impressed.

Some said that while such campaigns may result in some trading of market share among the two big players, this type of advertising doesn't increase overall sales at retail.

"These claims will probably not improve battery sales. What will do it is price and promotion," said Rick Channel, director of general merchandise and health and beauty care at Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio.

"With Energizer's ad budget they'd absolutely sell a ton of their brand if they came in with shelf signs that said $2 off a pack," said Dan Van Zant, supervisor and buyer for general merchandise and HBC at Ray's Food Place, Brookings, Ore.

"People who need batteries and want alkalines pick up whatever's cheapest at the time. The brand actually becomes secondary to price," said Gary Schloss, vice president of general merchandise at Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska.

For the 52 weeks ended Aug. 17, 1997, batteries generated $1.9 billion in sales, up 4.5%, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Supermarkets captured a 25% share of the market with $498 million in sales, an increase of 2.1% for the period.

Of all batteries sold, AA and AAA make up almost 75% of the total market. For the 52 weeks ended March 8, 1997, of the $504 million in battery sales at supermarkets, $450 million, or 89%, were in alkaline batteries and 52% of the alkaline sales were in AA and AAA, according to ACNielsen, Stamford, Conn.

While retailers don't expect comparative brand advertising to significantly affect sales, they believe consumers could get confused. They also questioned the testing criteria being used to support superiority claims. Both battery manufacturers said their testing is done according to American National Standards Institute guidelines. But Energizer will use independent lab tests to support its claim since ANSI doesn't have formal protocols for high-drain testing, said Martire.

Keith Holden, general merchandise buyer for Somody Supply, Willmar, Minn., a service merchandiser supplying nonfood to Upper Midwest supermarkets, wondered how Energizer will support its claim. "Are they going to be able to prove this? The problem is when Duracell comes back at them and asks where's their proof. It may be a little confusing to the consumer," he said.

"Advertising claims like these add to the information overload, and cause confusion among consumers," said Ron Turner, vice president of nonfood at Richfood Holdings, Richmond, Va. "This is what happened with Pepcid and Tagamet. Look at what they did to each other with claims that each was quicker, better and faster. They probably spent more on lawsuits than on marketing," he added.

Energizer's new message is focused on high-drain devices. However, its new advanced batteries are used for general-purpose applications as well. There is no distinction or reference to high-drain made on the battery packaging. Retailers say their shoppers don't distinguish between high-drain and general-purpose batteries.

"As far as the high-drain device reference, I don't know if the consumer understands it, or if they will get the message across. They are trying to validate somehow that their battery lasts longer, but what we need is an independent test," commented Turner.