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Concord bottled water ban may increase sales in neighboring towns, some critics say

Posted by Your Town  January 2, 2013 06:30 PM

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Despite the frigid weather, sales of bottled water at Acton’s Tedeschi are on the rise.

Mike Abboud, manager at the convenience store located just over a mile from the Concord line, estimated bottled water sales are up between 10 to 20 percent. While he is not entirely certain, Abboud's hunch is that the bulk of new sales are coming from Concord, where a ban on single-serve bottled water took effect Tuesday.

“We know there’s been an increase in people buying more water,” he said. “They’re going to get it anyway. You ban it in Concord, they’ll come to Acton.”

Losing local dollars to shops in neighboring communities was among the concerns expressed by opponents of the ban, which was approved by voters last spring. The issue will likely continue, after a citizens’ group managed to collect enough signatures to ask voters to repeal the bylaw at Town Meeting in April.

For some convenience store and market owners in neighboring communities, it is much too soon to tell whether the ban in Concord has translated into increased sales. Abboud expects bottled water sales will skyrocket come spring, as it ushers in warmer weather and tourism season. But he doesn’t like it.

“We’ve become not an open community, putting bans on so many products available to customers,” Abboud said. “I was talking to a customer about it and he said, ‘I’ll just start to drink beer.’ … I mean c’mon, give me a break, it’s water.”

Larry Bearfield, co-owner of Ferns Country Store in Carlisle, said he does not expect an increase in sales of bottled water, or in general, due to the ban.

“I don’t think people will go out of their way to buy the smaller bottles,” Bearfield said. “I don’t think it’ll have that huge of effect on us but maybe I’ll be surprised and I’ll be wrong.”

Stephanie Stillman, executive director of the Concord Chamber of Commerce, said the organization has heard plenty of anxiety from owners as tourism season approaches. Come spring, the chamber plans to distribute free bottled water to tourists from its visitor center – a practice that would be allowed under the bylaw, which only bans the sale of water in plastic bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less.

The Minute Man National Historical Park, which encompasses Concord, Lexington and Lincoln, estimates it receives between 250,000 to 500,000 visitors per year, Stillman said.

“People coming from all over the world may not know about this ban -- that on a 90-degree day they can’t buy bottled water,” Stillman said. “We need to address visitors in a different way.”

Sarah Fletcher, executive director at the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce, which includes Acton, said she has not heard about increased sales from businesses in communities close to Concord, but thinks that will change come summer.

“It’s possible that could have some impact,” she said. “When someone comes in to buy a bottle of water, it’s not like they ask where they’re from.”

Stephen Ryan, executive director of the New England Convenience Store Association, said the ban could prove beneficial for surrounding communities, to the detriment of small businesses in Concord.

“Any time a local government bans a product and alters consumer spending, there may be consequences for contiguous communities that see people who want to buy a product in their town having to go to other towns to purchase it,” Ryan said. “This is a product folks in town want to buy, and stores can no longer sell.”

The community group Concord Residents for Consumer Choice collected 16 signatures from registered voters, just over the 10 required, to put a petition on April’s Town Meeting warrant asking the town to repeal the bylaw. Group co-founder Robin Garrison submitted the petition at Town Hall Wednesday.

“The funny thing is that I rarely buy bottled water, I like to refill my own water,” Garrison said. “It’s just about the right to purchase a legal and healthy product when I want. I feel like it’s a slippery slope: if they’re going to band this, what else are they going to ban?”

Resident Jean Hill, who first proposed the ban in 2010, said it is the group’s right to challenge the bylaw, but that she will continue to fight for the ban, as well as educate people on its environmental benefits.

“It’s my hope that other towns will do the same as we did,” Hill said.

“If they really insist on buying it, they can go to another town,” she added. “[Local markets] are not going to lose that much.”

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