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Battery War Goes On And On Manufacturers Seek Edge Over Competition

With about 40 percent of all batteries sold at year’s end, battery companies keep going and going - at each other - as they hope to charge up sales during the holiday season.

Americans spend $1.9 billion annually on alkaline batteries for power-gobbling portable CD players, camcorders and remote-control toys, many of which were received as gifts last week.

The nation’s top battery companies are in the midst of yet another round of multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns to push “new and improved” products guaranteed to outlast the competition.

Duracell International, a unit of Gillette Co. that controls about 50 percent of the U.S. battery market, is airing commercials showing second-ranked competitor Energizer’s batteries losing power while toys using the “copper top” continue rolling.

Eveready’s Energizer, a unit of St. Louis-based Ralston Purina, uses its pink bunny to determine “the truth”: an Energizer scientist hooked up to a lie detector must honestly say the battery lasts “55 percent longer in high-drain devices” or the caged bunny takes a dive into a large shredder.

But which of the many batteries on the market actually do last longer?

A sampling by this reporter of several popular AA brands, including Duracell, Energizer and Panasonic’s new Plus Alkaline batteries, in a Sony Walkman used for an hour every day found their life was virtually the same. Consumer Reports magazine, in its December issue, said tests it conducted found very little difference in performance.

The battery companies, for their part, contend their tests give them a definite advantage.

All say they follow standard methodology conforming to American National Standards Institute guidelines that use a computer to simulate power usage of various devices. But such guidelines do not include newer, high-drain devices such as mini disc players and digital cameras.

Energizer says tests it has developed for those new devices prove its AA and AAA batteries, the two types that make up almost 75 percent of total battery sales, last 55 percent longer. Duracell contends its batteries beat Energizer in every size category.

Another industry leader, Rayovac Corp. of Madison, Wis., says its batteries last “as long or longer” than both Energizer and Duracell and cost a lot less. And Panasonic’s new Plus Alkaline batteries proclaim they last longer than the “industry leader.”

“Very few people are going to do a side-by-side test to see how long this toy runs vs. that toy,” acknowledges a Panasonic spokesman. “But they do follow packaging that says there is improved performance and they usually want a reliable, trusted name when they buy.”

But a spokesman for Walgreen Co., the nation’s largest drugstore chain with 2,390 stores, said the competing claims likely do little to improve a particular company’s sales.

“We can’t really recognize how the brand advertising affects that particular brand’s sales,” said spokesman Michael Polzin from the company’s Deerfield, Ill., headquarters. “It does heighten awareness, however, among consumers that they need batteries, and so it helps our battery sales overall.”