VILNIUS - Buying mineral water in Lithuania a few years ago most likely meant purchasing a drink replete with salty minerals.
A sip of this beverage reminded one of an attempt to take a half handful of salt and wash it down with water. But most Lithuanians admired this odd combination, especially for its often-touted healthful qualities.
Nevertheless, as Lithuanian taste preferences have considerably changed over the past five years, salty water retains its popularity mainly among older consumers.
Until the late 1990s, the Lithuanian mineral water market was dominated by Vytautas, natural mineral water, and Birute, drinking water, obtained from the popular sanatorium town of Birstonas. Both drinks are relatively highly saturated in minerals, giving the water a saltier taste.
Consumers willingly chose these two products of the Birstono Mineral Waters company (Birstono mineraliniai vandenys) since there was simply no alternative. In recent years, however, consumer preference has shifted toward newly introduced plain drinking water.
"A new tendency to consume plain water comes from the West. It shows a transition of taste toward modern, lighter and salt-balanced water. This is what Lithuanians adopted from Western recommendations," said Dainius Smailys, a representative from Svyturys-Utenos Alus company, which produces the leading Vichy Classique water brand in the Baltic states.
The change in consumer preference wasn't a sudden event. It commenced with an increasing amount of plain bottled water on the market. Tiche, Vichy, Montavit, Neptuno vandenys, Bonaqua and numerous others challenged the domination of the two market leaders, Vytautas and Birute.
"The new supply has changed the habits of Lithuanian consumers," Smailys added.
The mineral water business is reported to be the most rapidly increasing branch of the beverage industry in terms of sales. A study from the market research company AC Nielsen published in the business newspaper Verslo Zinios reported that in 2003 Lithuania witnessed a large increase in mineral water sales, growing by 17.6 percent. The demand for mineral water exceeded all other nonalcoholic beverages. What's more, the market for these beverages is expected to expand further this year.
As plain water producers define it, the target group for this drink is a modern person aged 20 to 40 and living in a city or a town with a higher income. Old fashioned salty mineral waters, meanwhile, are primarily targeted at older people.
The producer of the two traditional Lithuanian brands, Birstono Mineral Waters, was forced as a result to adjust its production to meet the demands of the former group. Over a year ago the company introduced a new drinking water brand, Aqville, which is less saturated with minerals.
"We had to obey to the demand of the market and to offer something milder. We decided to produce another option, the kind of a drink that is becoming so popular these days," said Robertas Snaras, commercial director at Birstono Mineral Waters.
After the production of Aqville was increased, the company's turnover increased by 28 percent.
Nevertheless, salty Vytautas and strongly mineralized Birute continue to exhibit stable sales on the mineral water market. Having a unique combination of natural minerals, the former takes its share of 4 percent in the business without a rival. Birstono Mineral Waters says that as the bottled water market grows, sales of Vytautas increase accordingly.