As many as 777,000 bottled water coolers had been installed across East Europe by the end of 2003, 26% more than in 2002, according to research released today.

A report on East Europe Water Coolers from drinks consultancy Zenith International said that 70% of these were electric and 30% were with ceramic dispensers or hand pumps.  At over 700m litres, 2003 sales through coolers have risen to 8% of total bottled water consumption, compared with just 4% in 1999.

Poland is still the leading country with a 47% volume share, followed by Russia on 28%.  Then there is a substantial gap before reaching the Czech Republic and Ukraine at 5% and 4% respectively, the report shows.  Romania showed the fastest growth in 2003, jumping to fifth place.

Major players Danone and Nestlé Waters have progressively increased their commitment to the region.  Eden Springs, which bought Rent a Cooler operations in the Baltic States alongside Ukrainian Springs in 2001, has since formed a joint venture with Groupe Danone.  In February 2003 Nestlé consolidated its position as the top East European operator through the acquisition of ClearWater Moscow, adding to its earlier Saint Springs purchase and its lead in Poland.

"Although the Polish market is approaching maturity and has experienced a slowdown in growth, younger markets such as Romania and Croatia are advancing more rapidly," Zenith research director Gary Roethenbaugh said.  "European Union enlargement opens a new window of opportunity for distributors in both the West and East, encouraging them to establish subsidiaries in neighbouring countries.  Thus the potential for the East European bottled water cooler industry remains huge."

Zenith expects total cooler numbers to exceed 1,750,000 by 2008, with the majority of new placements coming from electric machines.  On this basis, sales through coolers should pass the 1 bn litre mark in 2007.