Overall retail milk sales continued to drop in the third quarter of 2004 with unit sales totaling about 4% less than last year. Meanwhile, natural cheese and bottled water sales continue to grow, and ice cream's top brands are still all over the place.

Figures in the tables are courtesy of Information Resources Inc., and reflect supermarket, drugstore and mass merchandiser channels, but do not include Wal-Mart.

As we saw in the September installment, milk sales went into a significant decline in the last quarter of 2003, with unit sales dropping nearly 4% in that quarter. Similar declines were registered in the first two periods of this year, and the year to date figures show a 4.4% decrease from the same period last year.

Natural cheese has stayed in the black for at least two years now, with the most recent quarterly figures showing significant growth. While the most recent period ended June 27 produced just 2.4% growth by unit, sales are up 3.9% for the year. Dollar sales for the first eight months are up a whopping 12.2%.

Higher prices might have slowed growth a bit, but consumers are still crazy about cheese.

This month Dairy Market Trends takes a look at bottled water, the beverage that is expected to surpass milk in the share-of-stomach race sometime this year. Consumers are drinking more bottled water, and spending more for it, with unit sales up 6.6% and dollar sales jumping 14.1% in the most recent quarter.

Through the first eight months of this year, consumers have purchased $2.4 billon worth of water in stores where sales are tracked by IRI. That's nearly a 10% jump from the same period last year.

Finally we look at the top 10 brands of ice cream and sherbet. These numbers are for the 52 weeks through Sept. 5, and while we said a couple months ago, that ice cream looked ready to emerge from its slump, that still has not happened. Unit sales are down by 2.3% which is a little worse than where they were last time we checked. Among the individual brands there is quite a disparity of results. Private label lost some ground again, as did the market leader, Breyer's, but other brands like Dreyer's, Blue Bell and Haagen Dazs showed significant to outstanding growth.

Dreyer's Grand Light continues to grow by leaps and bounds thanks to its repositioning as a better-tasting, better-for-you brand.