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March 2015

Bladders, bottles or belts?

Different activities require different hydration solutions. When do you recommend a hydration bladder, a bottle or a belt? YAMKELA MKEBE asked some experts

Consumer awareness about the dangers of dehydration, the increased demand for energy drinks and the growing number of people participating in cycling, especially mountain biking, and running events, have made hydration products an important retail category.

This category has been growing as “more people learn more about the importance of hydration and the benefit to one’s skin by staying hydrated,” says Graham Hall of Cape Cycle Systems, local distributors of Camelbak.

In addition, water bottles have become effective corporate and brand marketing tools.

Before a consumer can make a buying decision about what type of hydration product he needs, there are a few of things to consider, like the type of activity and the duration of the activity he will participate in, weather conditions, water support on the race’s route, etc.

Solution per activity

Suppliers agree that bottles are currently much better sellers than bladders. The percentage of bottles sold compared to bladders would, however, vary from supplier to supplier and the products they supply.

For example, 80% of the products sold by Nathan are water bottles. This is credited to the fact that “it is simply a far more commercial price point item in relation to the hydration packs,” says Paul Copson from local distributor Brand ID. Cape System Systems, distributor of well-known hydration brand Camelbak sells about 60% water bottles and 40% hydration packs.

The use of a bottle or bladder will depend on an individual’s preference and the activity he engages in.

Both bottles and hydration packs are suitable for casual running, according to Hall. “They both work, depending on the style of the pack and requirement of the runner.”

In competitive mountain biking, for example, about 80% of the cyclists would use hydration packs, but 40% of road riders would use packs and 60% use water bottles, he says.

Water bottles are best for casual runs, casual cycling, competitive cycling, whereas hydration packs are more suitable for hiking and canoeing or kayaking, agrees Nick Barr from Omnico “It depends on the length and support offered during the race, but usually water bottles will suffice.” Athletes can also easily add energy powders to a water bottle, when required.

“The length of the event would determine whether an athlete’s own prepared hydration is necessary,” says Katharine Tromp from New Balance. “It is also very much a personal preference if on shorter events and activities you would like to carry your own hydration, or rely on what is provided. There are many guidelines one should follow, and particularly when hiking, hydration should always be carried, as well as an emergency kit.”

Factors like heat, distance, altitude, intensity, level and gender must be taken into account when choosing a hydration option, says Copson. “We go through a methodical process to access where he will run, how far, how long, and what his preference is before recommending to carry or wear?” he says.

Hydration packs are suitable for longer activities like multi-stage mountain bike races, longer trail runs, hiking and canoeing or kayaking, believes Kevin de Wet from De Wet Sports, distributor of Medalist. In road running races water tables on the route provide sufficient hydration. “A water bottle is best for road cycling and shorter mountain bike rides,” he says, adding that water bottles worn on a waist pack are ideal for a casual road run.

Suppliers believe that a waist belt is ideal for longer races and road races with no water tables on the route. A waist pack with small water bottles is best for hiking and watersports like canoeing or kayaking, Hall advises.

It comes down to an individual’s preference, adds Tromp. “It’s a personal preference factor that will always come into play when a decision is made to carry a hydration pack or belt. These are recommended when you are participating in longer, unassisted events,” she says.

“What I have found, however, is that for shorter distances — anything under 15km — waist belts are more effective and suitable,” says Copson. “However, on any longer runs one needs to seriously consider carrying more liquids and this is where 1.5L and 2L bladders come in to action. They require fewer refills — saving time and potential dehydration.”

A waist belt is also suitable for people who prefer lumbar support, instead of high back shoulder strap support pack, says Hall.

Sale influencers

Water bottle sales are influenced by various factors. “It’s not just one factor or feature that influences the sale, but a combination, which comprises of price, cosmetics, the quality of materials used (e.g. BPA free), the shape of the bottle and the type of nozzle,” says James Mullen, Head of Performance at PUMA SA.

Other suppliers highlighted the bottle’s insulation properties, bite valve and accessories as factors that could influence a sale.

“The main influencers are price and quality,” says Barr. “These days, people are also looking for bottles that are easy to add powdered drink scoops to, so a bigger “opening” is also better. A few people are fussy about the nozzle, but not many,” He doesn’t think that anti-microbial properties and the bottle’s shape plays much of a role in selling the product.

Where price is concerned, the sale of bottles depend on the level of the athlete and what performance they want out of their equipment, says Copson. The look, feel, insulation properties, the fact that they are easy to clean, the shape of the bottle, the accessories provided and the type of nozzle, are all qualities that sell bottles, he believes. The quality of materials used would, for example, be Bisphenol A (BPA) free.

Quality materials

“Being BPA free has become an important feature of water bottles, in recent years with consumers becoming more aware of the dangers of reusing bottles not made for that purpose,” says Keri Sabatta from New Balance.

BPA is a synthetic compound that has been used for the manufacturing of some plastics since the 1950’s, but concerns about the hormone-like properties have since 2008 led to several investigations into its safety and a ban on baby bottles containing BPA in Canada and the European Union. Although there is no scientific proof yet that BPA can be dangerous, many consumers are concerned about its use in plastic containers that come into contact with food or drink.

Bottles should also be easy to clean with a nozzle that is easy to use, adds Sabatta.

An easy flow nozzle and shut off valves are essential if you want your bottles to sell, says Hall. “Insulation properties is a sales factor about 60% of the time and anti-microbial properties (preventing the growth of fungus) are more important to ladies,” he found. The cosmetics of a bottle definitely play a role.

While water bottle sales are driven by price, hydration pack sales are driven by both price and function ratio, adds de Wet.

Brand, with price being a very close second, are the main features that consumers want when selecting a hydration pack, says Hall. “The size of the bladder is the third requirement. A leak-proof bite valve is also very definitely a requirement.” Second time purchasers also see the benefit of anti-microbial properties in a bladder.

Consumers are more interested in a brand they are aware of, which they might have used before, or might have been recommended by someone they know, say the suppliers.

Copson supports the view that a consumer’s buying decision is based on brand loyalty. If a consumer is aware of a certain brand from first-hand experience, good recommendations by peers etc. he is most likely to base his buying decision on that. But, “price is a factor, especially for the entry to intermediate athletes,” he adds.

The intended use of the pack, a consumer’s knowledge and understanding of the event or activity the pack would be used in, are some factors retailers need to take into account when recommending a hydration pack, says Tromp.

While consumers like a gender-specific pack, they do not necessarily ask for it and this feature needs to be highlighted more often, says Hall.

Suppliers do not believe that there is currently a big market for women-specific hydration packs. “There is most certainly a market, but I would be hesitant to say that it is big at this time, there is still a great deal of education around these essential products to be done,” says Copson.

More education is required for retail sales staff on women specific hydration packs, agrees Hall.

Best sellers

A high quality water bottle with advanced features, the Podium Chill 610mm, is Camelbak’s most popular bottle due to its insulation properties, colourways, convenient size, replacement bite valve, and the fact that it is easy to clean, spare parts are available and it carries a lifetime warranty. The Rogue is Camelback’s most popular hydration pack.

Nathan’s Fire & Ice 600ml water bottle is their best seller. “It is double walled and keeps fluids cooler 20% longer than other insulated bottles and the 3M reflective fabrics for visibility whilst running in low light conditions is 360° visible,” explains Copson. The 2litre Elevation specialist race vest for trail, road and mountain biking is the most popular hydration pack in the range.

The double wall insulation and reflectivity for safety during low light conditions are specific selling elements for the Nathan water bottles. In their hydration packs the main selling points are “the three-way Propulsion Harness that stabilises the side to side and up and down movement of the bladder, coupled with the our lightness, durability and quality of the bladder,” says Copson.

New Balance’s 700ml Tritan water bottle is the most popular in their range, due to its size and the fun, bright colours.

De Wet Sports’ Medalist Bopost, a 2 litre, lightweight hydration pack, is the most popular in their range.

Puma’s most popular bottle is their “great value for money and durable” 750ml higher quality bottle with advanced features, says Mullen.

The Pros and cons of bottles and bladders

Water bottle pros

  • A water bottle allows a user to see how much water is left at a glance, without disturbing his momentum during a race.
  • They are easier to fill up with water and energy drinks than bladders and are less likely to leak.
  • Water bottles can comfortably be stowed out of the way on a cycle, while a hydration pack can disturb the aerodynamics of the rider.
  • An athlete is able to have two or more types of drinks when using two or more water bottle, whereas he will just carry one bladder.
  • Bottles are easier to clean than bladders.
  • Bottles can be branded to promote a brand, company or event.
  • Bottles cost much less than bladders.

Water bottle cons

  • If you don’t have pockets on your gear or cloth- ing, it could be cumbersome to carry a bottle.
  • Bottles do not reduce in size when they are emptying of fluids like hydration packs.
  • A water bottle contains about half the amount of liquid that the popular 2l bladder will carry.

Bladder pros

  • A bladder can carry more water than a bottle, which can be beneficial in longer activities where fresh water is not readily available.
  • A bladder is easy to access while on the move and your hands are free to carry other equipment, like binoculars or cameras, while you are hydrating.
  • A bladder is manufactured to fit inside a back- pack in a small space.
  • It also reduces in size when it’s emptying.

Bladder cons

  • For an athlete who relies on speed a hydration pack can become hot and un-aerodynamic.
  • It is not easy for an athlete to check how much water or energy drink is left without stopping and removing the bladder.
  • A bladder can get hot during lengthy activity, while a bottle can be insulated to keep the contents cool.
  • It is more difficult to get the bladder completely dry and because of this it can grow mould.
  • An older bladder valve is more likely to leak.

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