| Let us start this episodic editorial by saying that the last thing in
the world I had ever contemplated anytime during my professional life was opening up a
retail store. 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 it 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
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 always with a professional distance (except on the few occasions I,
having had more than a little Cuervo Gold, would leave the stage in pursuit of resolution
that a more sober person would not have attempted). Nonetheless RYO Magazine, last
December, decided it was time to find out what retailers really face each day. It has been
an interesting 6 months to say the least.
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. This article will focus mainly on our foray into the cardiac wild of the world of tobacco retail. 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. Now we have little sympathy for the discount packaged cigarette seller in general as we find their products less than user-unfriendly, uni-dimensional and focused more on creative advertising as well as creative chemistry rather than tobacco quality. There have been improvements and some laudably honest attempts to improve the quality of some manufactured cigarettes (Some Winston, Camel and American Spirit come to mind but we have yet to find ANY manufactured cigarette, even including Sherman, Dunhill and other boutique cigarettes - with one exception which we will discuss later in this article - that compares in taste to a freshly injected cigarette made with good quality tobacco and tube). But progress is apparently at hand as, happily, we are finding many of these "cheap" cigarette outlets now joining the growing ranks of those who recognize the logic of making one's own cigarettes and are providing significant shelf space and even private label product (see this issue's Tobacco section) to the prospect of RYO/MYO. We certainly look forward to the time when the marketing and chemical engineer driven cigarette industry in the US has a significantly smaller pie to play with.
Taking this proposition to the next logical level, we at RYO envisioned a retail tobacco environment that emphasized, in the largest possible way, the roll your own or make your own experience. This included an area set aside with a rolling table (at right) 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. Let's clarify right here that we have no intention of taking this store online or in anyway competing with our advertisers or any of the other hard working tobacco retailers nationwide who have been forced to begin selling to the wider online client base to make up for the shortfall caused by prohibitive and unrealistic state tax structures. We have created a local operation here in Ashland, Oregon, buying our tobacco products only from Oregon State licensed distributors and subsequently paying the full 65% state tax imposed here on tobacco goods. There are only two other tobacco stores in this rather culturally oriented home of the renowned Shakespearean Festival and Southern Oregon University, one that carries almost no RYO and the other which, while primarily a discount cigarette operation, carries a pretty good variety of RYO products. 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 which 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 react when they first experience the ease with which it is accomplished and the differences in taste the smoker immediately enjoys. After all, there are 50 million of them out there as compared to less than 2 million who currently roll or make their own.
We started construction in late December of 2000 having found a quaint little spot in the basement of a small mall-like complex in downtown Ashland that had been only infrequently occupied by a deli and a small used CD store. At one end of this underground "mall" was a wall entirely appointed with a beautiful rock faced waterfall so we contracted the space and built the store front around this natural humidifier. We spent only about $2000 including building supplies, labor, and furnishings, activated a merchant account for credit card sales, stocked the store as mentioned above with the finest in RYO/MYO supplies and started business in early March 2001. Naturally, construction took a little longer than planned as it always seems to, but we faced relatively few other problems. We kept our overhead including rent low, much lower than most tobacco shops as we did not want to invest the kind of resources to make a big businesses out of this. Remember it is an experiment, not a living, at least that is how it was initially intended. Curiosity began building about the coming presence of a true smoke shop from the very beginnings of construction, that would be staffed by folk who actually had some expertise with the tobacco and ancillary products being sold. Though the mall (The Main Street Market Place) was not a well traveled destination for many, the few who did stumble upon the location were fascinated with the concept. Traffic has dramatically escalated since opening, an occurrence which continues to amaze us and the store's bank account.
Being a college town and, as mentioned before, a rather artistic one at that, many of the residents are young enough NOT to have remembered the days when real smoke shops with tobacco aficionados behind each counter were prevalent throughout the US. Add the fact that the Pacific Northwest makes up a disproportionally large segment of the hand rolling public in this country, and therefore much of the population is somewhat already familiar with a wider range of tobaccos than simply Bugler and Top, our confidence grew daily that this would prove to be an ideal test market arena. Even though the town is mostly committed to non-smoking indoor public environments (which as you must know by now, we support), a fairly large percentage of the people here do smoke cigarettes of one kind or another. Additionally, a few minutes away via the Interstate 5 freeway is the town of Medford, much larger and more typical in its similarity to many suburban-area cities in most of the US. We figured that though Ashlanders who smoke might be, in large part, mostly handrollers, Medford on the other hand likely had a large population of packaged cigarette smokers which would be ideal as a possible MYO base to draw from. Quite simply the best of both possible markets with (RYO and MYO) in a relatively small area. It is interesting to note here that though we have found the suspected demographics to vary somewhat from our initial assumptions (mainly that a lot of Ashlanders smoke packaged cigarettes and many Medfordites roll their own) in general both groups exist in sufficient quantities to make for a very interesting and surprisingly profitable experiment. Also, since we began construction, several new businesses have come into the little mall. A nice little taco stand with really awesome, authentic Mexican cuisine called the Tamale Dog, a really cool Rock Shop - called The Rock Shop (mineral not music), a well stocked new and used CD store (music not investment certificates) that goes by the name of Musichead, a professionally run piercing shop/tattoo parlor - Lowdown Piercing - (ouch! but very popular with the college kids), as well as an artistically accentuated clothing and accessory boutique called Bizarre Bizarre. There are still a couple of vacant spaces which the landlord (who owns several successful restaurants in town) uses to store years of accumulated junk from stuffed fish and dinnerware to golf clubs and massage chairs. It has become quite an interesting place with something for nearly everyone, but it lives at the end of the main part of town and foot traffic is only recently beginning to develop to an extent that people accidentally might find us. Ashland is very much a tourist town during the summer theater season and many businesses barely survive in the off season. It looks however that the diversity available at this little underground haven may just prove to be seasonal-proof.
The first few weeks were fairly slow, but as word spread, a steady customer base began to evolve rather quickly. Because of our low overhead, we were able to provided reasonable pricing even with the high tobacco tax in this state thus making the experiment, for those who wish to try a new way of tobacco usage or experience a wider range of products, quite practical. The real key to the success of a store of this kind is an informed staff and a wide display of products that people can easily try out and compare side by side. We have sample jars of each tobacco that customers can make their own cigarettes from as well as all of the accessories necessary to accomplish this. We wanted to see which tubes they preferred, which papers, which tobaccos, which injectors, rollers and the rest. We tried to price everything as equally as possible so that the results were based on quality rather than economy, but obviously a Supermatic is going to cost more than a cheap hand injector. We sell plenty of both and, as we expected, most people who buy the smaller ones (unless they are on a very tight budget and smoke very little) subsequently returned to buy the better machines. Our tobacco prices are extremely uniform though the profit line on them varies somewhat and we sell all of our rolling papers for nearly the same price. Tubes vary only slightly because it was important for us to see if, given the choice, our customers would pay a little more for certain brands of tubes. We sell only top rated stuff - no cheap knockoffs. And nobody comes in and is ignored. We don't wait for them to come to the counter with their choices. We interact immediately with all customers. Like the good old days - huh! Many folks who come in simply to get out of the summer heat or just see our cool waterfall, leave having bought things they did not know existed. And amazingly, there are a whole lot of people who know NOTHING of the existence of the make your own world. We suspect many, in fact, are initially shocked by the term tobacco injection assigning some sinister, invasive method of getting nicotine into their bloodstream.
In overview, it is important to note that we do sell some items for promotional/impulse purposes to cater to a diverse crowd and bring folks into the store who may not be ready for, or even aware of, RYO products. Things like highly rated though value priced cigars (LaFinca Coronas, Montesino Diplomaticos Maduros, El Rey Del Mundo Robustos), Zippo Lighters, Cigarette Cases, Little Cigars in tins, high quality value priced Genuine English Briar Pipes (not glass or anything else that can be confused with head shop paraphernalia other than rolling papers, of course), and certain boutique/designer cigarettes like Nat Sherman's (Naturals, Black & Gold, Classics, and Fantasia's), Dunhills and Export A's, *(which, as alluded to above are, in our not so humble opinion, the best packaged cigarettes on the market today). These kinds of items widen our customer base and aid in generating discussions that ultimately lead to ones involving tobacco in general and, eventually and effortlessly, leading to the make your own cigarette process. If someone comes in to buy a pack of Shaman's, we always provide them with a sample smoke of a really fine tobacco injected into a filtered tube (often accomplished, at first at least, with our assistance) so they can compare MYO to packaged smokes. We charge a nominal price for samples (or the lines would be a mile long with people looking for free smokes) to cover the taxes we pay on every bit of tobacco we buy. The shop is small, less than 400 square feet, but we have a comprehensive variety and stock of products. We try to keep inventory to a minimum as our most often used distributor gets product to us in one day and has nearly all of our highest rated choices. We have copious signage to deter those under 18 and post in a very conspicuous location the following sign:
Now since this piece
is meant to be editorial in nature rather than a review of products (we have reviewed
every product we sell or stock in the store in these pages over that last couple of
years), we feel it unnecessary and perhaps even unfair to dwell too much on what sells
best and what lingers on the shelf. After all, this experimental store is dealing with an
extremely small demographic base and may not represent the tastes and propensities of the
larger smoking public or more importantly, specifically smoking trends in other areas of
the US. However, coupling our findings in the store with the large amount of e-mail we
receive at the magazine concerning our readers experiences with reviewed products, we
nonetheless have a pretty good idea what the public seems to like. Keep in mind that the
following breakdowns may not be our personal first-choices in smoking materials but we
have learned that as great as the smoking public's taste varies, we often temper our
personal feelings to prevent overselling any product based solely on our opinion. We
carried this philosophy to the store environment, we think wisely, showing as little bias
as possible. Rather, we emphasize the particular characteristics of each product and
let the customer try as many as they like, enabling the buyer to subsequently decide for
themselves which products they prefer. We also watch carefully for those products that can
successfully make up for the very small profit on heavily taxed tobacco items while daily
trying to incorporate new such items into our inventory. After all, most smoke shops,
especially in high tobacco tax states, make a lot more profit on accessories than on the
tobacco itself. Those retailers who also sell tobacco to residents of other than their own
states pay no such taxes on tobacco, leaving the consumer with the ultimate obligation to
pay the appropriate tariff. In reality, in most states, the means for the consumer to pay
these taxes is cumbersome or non-existent with little oversight or enforcement.
Consequently, online stores have a distinct pricing advantage so accessories really are
the key to profit for the local store. Nonetheless, tobacco is still
undoubtedly the draw for a tobacco shop.
In the area our store is located (the town of Ashland to be specific), there is a perception that smoking is looked down upon. Nonetheless, a lot of folks here smoke and the public ash cans and receptacles that line the sidewalks are always full. It is rare indeed to stand in line at any market without at least half of the customers buying at least one pack of cigarettes. Cartons are more often purchased at the larger discount places like Costco in Medford or at the cheap cigarette outlet in town. Cigarettes of one brand or another always seem to be on sale at various drug/general merchandise stores like Rite-Aid and Wal-Mart. And people who at least by appearance seem that they have barely enough money for food or rent always seem to manage to have a pack of smokes on them. This particular observation is common throughout the US in that even the most financially challenged in our society always seem to have the means for a pack of cigarettes. It would therefore seem that for no other reason, making ones own cigarettes would be far more popular than it is and that the majority of those who make their own would be lower on the socio-economic ladder. We have found that NOT to be the case both in the readership of RYO Magazine and in our little retail store. In fact, it is apparent that a majority of those we come in contact with through both mediums choose to make their own smokes far more often because of the control and quality of that which they smoke than simply as a money saving proposition. We think this is a very optimistic sign as to not only the intelligence of the smoking public but as to the eventual wider success of MYO. Even more important, it tells us that marketing MYO product simply as a way to save money may not be a wise course of action. The general cigarette smoking population by-and-large looks at MYO as a solution for people who can't afford "real" cigarettes. This perception is not only patently untrue but debilitating to the overall success of the MYO segment of the market.
So what have we seen so far when customers walk in and experience MYO for the first time? Let's look at some typical encounters which proceed something like the following scenarios. Also included are our observations as to how a retailer might increase their chances of success:
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.|
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