Let us start Part II of our
experiences into the world of the retail tobacco shop by restating (or re-showing - just
in case you missed it in Part I in the last issue) the statement of our
store's philosophy (and this publication's as well) on smoking that we display in several
prominent locations throughout the store.
After nearly ten months of this experiment, we have gained a much greater understanding of the challenges facing the tobacco retailer of today. But before we begin a rather detailed analysis of what we have found, let us first look at our observations of how the playing field has changed in this industry since the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Dealing with the public is an art form that, while I spent many years playing music to audiences for a living, I find I do not enjoy for extended periods. On stage there is a barrier (if only imaginary) between yourself and the audience that gives one comfort and, as a performer with a reasonable amount of talent, you have quite a bit of control over audience reaction. As a shopkeeper, however, you are potentially vulnerable to the barbs and pokes of anyone having a bad day and still must service them satisfactorily or you will not stay in business long. On stage, hecklers were handled a number of ways but NEARLY always with a professional distance. Nonetheless RYO Magazine, last December, decided it was time to find out what retailers really face each day.
It has been an interesting 10 months to say the least. More to the point, I found that providing knowledgeable service to the public is much more like performing than simply being a clerk in a shop. In fact, there have been only a couple of occasions that customers began to grate and even those, once confronted with the force of knowledge and a little tact soon became some of our best clients. The operating factor here is that the retail tobacco shop is and should be considered as part of the service industry. It is not a product oriented business. It will do poorly if staffed by those with little or no knowledge of the products and more importantly, little or no enthusiasm for the relative quality of said products. Even more important is that folks working in such an environment need a sense of humor and a sense of empathy for their customers. Of course, there are exceptions especially given the factors of location and advertising budget, but all things being equal, an operation that adheres to the above recommendations will do well in all but the worst of locations and with little or no advertising beyond word of mouth. It may take a little while for customers to find you so keep overhead to a reasonable minimum initially. When they do come, you will find yourself with not only great customers but many new friends as well. Your customers will grow to trust your opinions and recommendations. And they in turn will become connoisseurs of these most wonderful products as well, and subsequently spread the word far more effectively than any advertising campaign ever will.
Now it has been the oft-stated aim of this magazine since its inception to provide comprehensive information to several groups of people in various ways associated with the tobacco business, including consumers, retailers, distributors, and manufacturers. It is no secret that tobacco retailers, in the current tobacco environment, have an even tougher job than that which faces all other retail establishments with the additional burdens of punitive taxation and regulation not to mention escalating prices and scrutiny, both public and private.
We did not start this venture to make a big business out of it but rather to glean sufficient information about the real street level circumstances that tobacco retailers across the US face and will continue to face daily. We wanted to see how well each of the wide range of RYO products move (sell) of course, but more importantly, primarily how packaged cigarette smokers who have never seen the cigarette injection process (probably 90% of them) react when they first experience the ease with which it is accomplished and the differences in taste they immediately enjoy. After all, there are 50 million packaged cigarette smokers out there as compared to less than 2 million who currently roll or make their own. But caution here is necessary. Giving a Camel smoker a sample cigarette injected with too mild or a too exotic tasting tobacco probably won't work too well. At least at first. Packaged smokers rarely smoke for "taste" as there is little taste to be gleaned from packaged brands - even the best ones. These smokers are usually more aware of the sensation of smoke in their throat and lungs than the actual flavor of what they are smoking. Consequently it is important to provide them with tobacco whose characteristics they understand and can at least to some degree identify with. American Spirit Original burns very hot for instance. If you mix this popular tobacco with more delicate, sophisticated blends like McClintock Gold or one of the Turkish blends we talk about so much, you will be surprised at how many are instantly "at home" and are impressed. They will detect the better flavor and yet still get much of the same sensations they are used to. Important to note here that many cigarette smokers are as "hooked" on the added chemicals that packaged cigarettes contain as they are on the tobacco itself. So they may "feel" different in reaction to this higher grade smoke but as long as the smoking sensation is similar, you have a very good chance at conversion. Now the above is not based solely on my personal experiences but on the literally thousands of emails and letters we have received over the years from people who have switched to the MYO method and then have tried to smoke a packaged cigarette. It is rare to find anyone who can stand to go back. They get headaches and the pleasure of smoking is virtually non-existent. Furthermore for those that do go back, we seen a lot of evidence that they once again resume their obsessive behavior which includes increased consumption. That is the opposite of what we want to see and what those who stick with MYO usually experience.
In a recent article in Tobacco Outlet Business Magazine - a widely read trade publication (which by the way kindly and accurately, we might add, describes our little store as the first of its kind devoted to MYO/RYO) a quoted source estimated that only about 30% of those trying MYO will convert from packaged brands. We find that figure totally without merit. Our experience is more in the range of 90% - or more. However, having said that, we do provide a vital ingredient that perhaps most of this person's experience does not take into consideration. That is, knowledge and hands-on demonstration. The person quoted does give lip service to the need for demonstration but seems to think the biggest problem facing MYO is that Americans are basically too lazy to make the effort to inject their own. We are a little offended by that opinion though we do admit that on the surface it may appear to be the case. We feel (based on a lot of experience with smokers, both customers and readers - not on production and sales numbers) that the real issue is that at least 90% of packaged cigarette smokers are not even aware of the existence of injectors let alone their ease of use and the quality products they produce as their end product. Tobacco Outlet Business Magazine is as much a source of information for convenience stores and other general merchandise outlets as it is for dedicated tobacco shops. They provide very useful information to most retailers of tobacco products, mostly cigarette vendors by the way, but they fall short in their knowledge of MYO and, we think, its possibilities. There are several shortcomings in the RYO/MYO field, one of which being that many people who have or work in these stores or outlets do not smoke and thus have no real basis other than hearsay as to the relative differences of the products they sell. Now we are not suggesting that all those people start smoking but would suggest that they at least hire someone with a palette who appreciates tobacco from a usage standpoint or at the very least non-users of these products do a lot of anecdotal research on the differences between and among MYO/RYO tobaccos and the packaged brands.
In a conversation with Peter Stokkebye the other day, he recalled an incident at a local convenience store that sold some rolling tobaccos. A group of men were outside as he left the store and rolled a cigarette. They expressed interest so he rolled each of them one. After tasting the difference, to a man they all went inside and bought rolling tobacco, papers, and several of them bought injectors and tubes. These kinds of experiences are not the exception once a knowledgeable person demonstrates these products. The chain Cigarettes Cheaper as well as many other discount cigarette outlets are beginning to experience the advantages of stocking and promoting MYO/RYO. Not only does it make for better customers who are more loyal but the profit potential is higher than on cigarettes. It is a fact that stores that sell cigarettes cheap usually purchase them for about what they sell them for, relying on rebates and incentives from cigarettes manufacturers to ultimately glean any profit at all. An MYO/RYO store can reasonably expect 30 - 50% profit, especially in low tax states on most tobacco products not to mention the keystone, (100%) mark-up that is often possible on related accessories. It all comes down to our original premise - that a good tobacco store is a service rather than product oriented business and knowledge of one's products is absolutely critical in providing such a service.
The Rolling Table
We at RYO Magazine envisioned a retail tobacco environment that emphasizes, in the largest possible way, the Roll Your Own or Make Your Own experience. This included an area set aside with a Rolling Table of sufficient size to hold sample jars of every good quality rolling tobacco we have found in the US as well as every rolling paper, roller, injector and tube we have found worthy of writing about. We called it simply, The RYO Store, secured the domain name and applied for a trademark. The Tobacco Outlet Business article attributed a statement, roughly that we charge a nominal fee for a sample smoke to avoid "freeloaders", to a clerk. There is and never has been a clerk. I personally run this store with limited days and hours of operation while the rest of the time I perform other business ventures, including the writing of this magazine in my office in the back of the store. As stated above, this store was opened as an experiment to get first hand reaction to this new way of using tobacco products. We make a small profit on the store with little effort and time but we do have a knowledge base that is significant both from my own investigations and from the large number of people I communicate with. Central to this operation is the Rolling Table. As you can see (I hope) it contains a great variety of tobaccos and the tools necessary to make cigarettes. We avoid most of the really "cheap" bulk tobaccos as we feel they are not conducive to attracting customers for any reason other than their low cost. This is important to us because we feel that the cost saving experienced using even the most costly of rolling tobaccos is so dramatic that to sacrifice quality is not only illogical but may spell problems for the long term success of the industry.
Now of course some people are practically forced into the world of MYO for reasons of economy. Increasing taxes and other negative economic factors no doubt play a roll in the current success of this industry but we are adamant in our feeling that not only is this temporary but in the long run, counter-productive. We reject the idea that making one's own cigarettes need be the pastime of the poor. Many very successful people have custom cigarettes made for them and we have yet to find anyone in our experience who would go back to packaged brands even if their prices came down. Custom rolling or the injection of one's own cigarettes is treated for all intents and purposes as hobby, rather than obsession. This approach leads to moderation and true appreciation of the nature of tobacco that cigarette smokers have forgotten or never experienced due mainly to the frenetic marketing techniques of cigarette makers over the years. Let's face it, many people smoke not for the enjoyment or appreciation of tobacco but for far more neurotic or pseudo-psychological reasons. It is those who should and often do quit. Tobacco need not be abused. Our customers report drastic reductions in consumption and in very short order begin to request a wide range of various blends so that they can make their own combinations as the mood fits. It is very much like the pipe smoker whose love for certain tobaccos is every bit as aesthetically driven as the wine connoisseur.
As promised, I would like to share with our readers some interesting possibilities and findings that I have observed in these last 10 months. Much has to do with product selection and preferences as well as techniques for both the retailer and consumer. As mention earlier, making combinations of tobacco to suit the tastes of those who are leaving the world of packaged brands is without a doubt the single most challenging issue the RYO Store faces. There are a few simple rules:
As we discussed above, blending a fairly hot burning tobacco like American Sprit Original with more flavorful, exotic blends can be very rewarding. Spirit also has the added advantage of being highly visible as to its additive-free nature. Most good rolling tobaccos have few additives but Spirit has the press and really does make a wonderful component. It just needs more flavor, so blend it for the experiment. That is unless the customer or friend already smokes Spirit pre-mades. In that case simply inject some fresh Spirit into a light tube like the Escort. Rarely have we found a customer who does not prefer the injected one to the pre-made. Also remember that American Spirit has a US Grown Version that is really good and milder and deeper than their Original blend.
We have found that certain tobaccos go well together and others do not. For example Stokkebye's Amsterdam Shag is so distinctively good that it suffers from almost any combination. However, it is a potent, albeit delicious, European halfzware and may not immediately impress the Brand Name Cigarette smoker. This tobacco is more often enjoyed by the hand-rolling public as are most of the other really good halfzwares like Bali, Samson, Drum, Chills Americana and Zig-Zag Gold. Jester halfzware has an unusual character that many really like but the Javanese (yes Java) tobacco component is a little too weird for me. However, both Bali and Samson have a Golden Version that is an outstanding example of American/Canadian style tobaccos that Americans cigarette smokers DO love and Zig-Zag, US Drum, and Chills have a much lighter Euro flavor that might just attract the would be injector.
I have found that a very good tobacco for initial introduction to packaged cigarette users is Republic's new Gambler. It is also low in cost. While not extremely sophisticated in flavor, it has none of the cheap tobacco flavors that are often a turn off and that are prevalent in many of the really cheap bulk tobaccos that at first blush seem to be most popular. These tobaccos are for folks who can barely afford to smoke, not for the connoisseur. Gambler is really quite good, so if economy is an issue, don't sink below this very good blend. Both McClintock Gold and Red are only a little more expensive than Gambler, the Gold being perhaps a little too subtle for the typical cigarette smoker but the Red has found great success as a catalyst to MYO practice. I do not care for the Red but love the Gold. So what? A lot of people do love the Red and, as stated before, my tastes and yours, are really important only to ourselves.
Try if at all possible to show a modicum of finesse (perhaps even a little flair) when demonstrating injectors. This is obviously far easier if you use a quality crank style like the Excel or the state of the art Supermatic. However, with a little practice you can make a Zig-Zag, TOP, or Gizeh hand-held really cook. The flair you show should extend to how you mix tobaccos as well. Much like a good bartender or a Sushi Chef, a great part of the anticipation and subsequent enjoyment comes from the "show". Make it look easy. It is, after all.
We would be dishonest if we led you to believe that we have no favorites. This is not a puff piece to impress manufacturers with how much we like their blends. What this magazine is about is opinion and, in our opinion, the absolute best tobacco combination to attract a packaged cigarette smoker to MYO is Turkish and something hotter burning like American Spirit or even Bali Shag Red. Now, the Bali is very high quality tobacco and is one of our all-time stand alone favorites. However, in order for it to burn hotter for the preceding mix, it needs to dry out a bit - say an hour or so or be kept in a less than airtight/moisture rich container. Either D&R Tobacco's Ramback or Lane Limited's Oriental #1 mixed evenly with the hotter blends has impressed nearly every human who has walked into our shop looking for a pack of brand name cigarettes. We don't sell pre-mades (except for Shermans, Export A's, Dunhills, etc, ) so we humbly point the buyer in the direction of the gas station across the street which sells packs at reasonable prices (if you consider nearly four bucks a pack reasonable - it is - here in Oregon). Of course, as they are heading out the door we quickly inject for them something we feel is similar to what they asked for although it really is difficult to duplicate the hideous taste (or lack thereof) of most packaged smokes. "Smoke this on the way to the station", we tell them "and let us know what you think." More often than not, we see them again - pretty quickly as a matter of fact.
Some customers are indeed interested in the higher priced boutique cigarettes like Shermans, Dunhill, and Export A. By the way, the Export A remains our favorite pre-made but if you dry some Bali Red as mentioned above and inject it into a filter tube, the similarity to the Export A Medium is uncanny - except for the fact, of course, that it is of even better flavor. Many injector users make the common mistake when using high quality tobacco (which often have a higher moisture content) of not letting the tobacco dry a bit. Some drying accomplishes more than easing the injection process. One really can get a better flavor from a "slightly" dry tobacco in a filtered tube. Now don't let the leaf turn to powder or be so dry as it crumbles when handled but be aware that tobacco that is too moist often leaves an after taste that those new to MYO may not embrace. This occurs especially when using injected filtered tubes. Samson Gold (their mild if you will) has many of the same fine characteristics that Bali exhibits but is likewise very high in moisture right out of the pouch. When dried a bit, however, the flavor will knock you lights out as an injected cigarette tobacco.
If we have learned anything in the last 10 months, it is that packaged cigarette smokers rarely if ever like the flavor of traditional hand rolled cigarettes. It is not necessarily the tobacco, they simply don't get the same satisfaction they are used to in a filtered stick. Point blank, after smoking a hand-rolled, they often comment that they still feel the need for a cigarette. The hand-rolling crowd likewise very often frowns upon filtered smokes even when made from the same tobacco they love rolled in a paper. Of that group, about the only ones that are going to switch to injectors and tubes are those that frequently buy manufactured brands when they are in a hurry or can't find their favorite rolling tobacco. The GOOD news is, that group represents a significant number and therefore offers a substantial potential clientele. However, don't make the mistake of injecting Stokkebye Amsterdam, Bali Blue, Drum, Samson Blue, or Gauloises for them. Instead mix these fine tobaccos with a major portion of an American flavored drier tobacco. They will notice the flavor of their favorite rolling tobacco but enjoy the smoke much more as they still experience characteristics that continue to occasionally attract them to pre-made American cigarettes.
A good example of this can be found within the line of Gauloises tobacco products. Many handrollers enjoy the richness (and power) of Gauloises fine halfzware rolling tobacco but cigarette smokers always ask for Gauloises Blondes. These popular imports have a large component of bright spicy Virginia and are not the manufacturer's pure Halfzware or Caporal. Want to make a Gauloises Blonde. Mix 80% McClintock Gold (again dried a good bit) with 20% Gauloises Halfzware. You will be amazed! Likewise you can use Original Blend American Spirit and you don't even have to wait for that to dry. Dry is its natural state and that is partly because it has no casing applied to it to retain moisture. At any rate you wind up with the Gauloises Blonde at about one fourth the price.
While we are on the subject of American Spirit, it is no longer a secret that American Spirit was purchased for a whole lot of wampum by RJ Reynolds. It is unlikely that this will prove to be destructive to the quality and philosophy behind the Spirit brand as it would seem sans logic to tamper with such a successful product. We are hoping that Spirit will develop a Turkish blended cigarette using real Oriental tobacco. Their Perique blend is pretty good for a packaged brand (though if you ever smelled Perique tobacco in its raw form, as I have, it might be a bit hard to get over - unless you raise dogs) and a Turkish entry in our opinion would further intrude on the packaged market. Spirit already garners attention and a Turkish blend cigarette, mainly because of the smoothness a good (authentic oriental) Turkish component lends to any tobacco blend would ratchet their reputation up another notch.
One final and yet perhaps painful dose of reality is that in high tax states, a local tobacco store is going to have serious competition from outstanding online tobacco retailers like RYO Tobacco, D&R Tobacco, ABS Tobacco, Ziggymart and Cascade Cigar & Tobacco. These online companies, some of which have brick and mortar retail locations as well are able to sell to out-of -state customers sans local taxes as can all online tobacco retailers. What makes these companies exceptional is their great service and better than necessary pricing. You can still win your local customer but you are going to have to provide something no online business can offer. That is face to face service, samples of products that in most cases the buyer online must purchase larger amounts of, and lastly, real- time comparisons between products with your personal knowledge thrown in. People will pay more for that kind of full service. Most shoppers like to see and compare products before they buy and will spend the extra money only if the person behind the counter knows his/her product intimately.
The other components of our store are much more easily defined as to their performance potential.
We hope our experience will provide assistance to current and future tobacco retailers (and manufacturers, distributors, and consumers as well) and, as time goes by, we will share other new ideas as they surface from our ongoing micro-cosmic retail experiment. Please remember that if you are a retailer, you almost certainly already know more about running a retail business than we will ever know, but we do know how people react to tobacco, new ideas, as well as what is available out there. That is our real business and why we write this magazine. Repeated below are some interesting links so that you can keep abreast of vital issues that affect 50 million voting age citizens in the US.
- The National Smokers Alliance
Email us with any comments on this and/or any other issues that relate to your free choice.
|EDITOR'S NOTE: These reviews are solely for the convenience of people of legal age who already smoke, are trying to cut down on smoking, wish to spend less money on their smoking, want to roll their own cigarettes from high quality tobacco, and, in general, wish to have a far more satisfying, and economical smoking experience when compared with smoking pre-manufactured cigarettes. We, in no way, encourage people to smoke. Further, we prescribe to a sane, more logical approach to smoking that involves common sense as to quantity coupled with a strong desire to manage the habit until it becomes an occasional, freely chosen, diversion, that can be fully enjoyed with minimal health risks. Finally, we strongly encourage those who do smoke to take it outdoors, or to appropriate environments where tobacco can be enjoyed away from those who do not smoke, most especially children. We do not sell tobacco or related products from this site; We distribute information about our perceptions of the quality of what is available and where it can be obtained. If you are under 18, it is illegal to buy tobacco and you should immediately exit this site. If you do not smoke, it would seem illogical to start.|
A Publication of
The Andromedan Design Company