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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Humidor Shopping Trays

If you are a retail tobacconist, do yourself and your customers a favor and provide shopping trays in your humidor.  Here are a few good reasons why:

1. Shopping trays encourage UPSELLING!  Because an empty tray yearns to be filled!

2.  Customers are limited by the amount of cigars they can carry in their hands: shopping trays increase the potential sale!

3.  Make it your custom to grab a tray when you go in the humidor to help a customer.  This practice shows panache, professionalism, and increases sales (see reasons 1 & 2).

While there are not many astute manufacturers providing branded shopping trays, you can create your own from large cigar box lids (see picture).  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Drive Your Business

Drive your business, don't ride it.  It's too easy to let your business coast.  It's too easy to react, play defense, and follow trends.  But great business people know they must be proactive, play offense, stay ahead of the curve, lead rather than follow, and drive your business forward rather than ride it out...  Being a great tobacconist means you need to think ahead, forecast trends, and educate your customers.

If you are selling what's hot on the interwebs or social media, then you are just reacting and following.  This strategy means you will be selling the same stuff all of your competitors are selling and you will fade into the sunset of mediocrity.  Constant improvement, bucking the trends, and innovation are the only way to stay ahead of your competition.  If the brands you carry are showing up on discount mail order sites, then you are behind the curve.  If you are buying what seems hot in social media, then you are reacting defensively.  If you are chasing ratings to fill your humidor, then you are becoming a generic retailer and the discount mail order industry will bury you.

Edit your inventory, vet your products, educate and enlighten your customers and you may succeed.  But don't play defense today.  It's 2015 and consumers are more educated than ever, so any great tobacconist must stay ahead of the curve... But a proactive business creates their own curve.  Don't react to the market.  Make your market.  Be about something (#beaboutsomething): educate!  Let your customers know you edit your products and don't carry the flavor of the month just to be trendy.

But all of this is not enough.  A business is only as good as their employees.  Employees who maintain standards are fine and sometimes we are lucky to have a few of those.  But great employees innovate, improve, and bring vitality to the business.  Ask your tobacconists to elevate merchandising, improve cleanliness/organization, find new products, and teach you something.  Retail tobacconists need to be innovative, proactive, and forward thinking.  If you are spending time trying to maintain standards then you are riding your business and reacting.  Challenge your tobacconists to DRIVE THE BUSINESS: take ownership and pride by improving your professionalism, service, and products!  Again, a business is only as good as its employees, so teach them to drive!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Tobacconist Magazine Article

After months of research, travel, and writing, Greg Girard has written the most comprehensive article ever written about Tobacconist University (TU).  Mr. Girard, the editor of Tobacconist Magazine, interviewed TU Founder Jorge Armenteros and has managed to capture and convey the personality, character, and passion behind Tobacconist University.  While TU has over 1300 certified tobacconists and apprentices today, its humble beginnings started in a small retail location in Princeton, New Jersey in 1995.  Mr. Girard traveled to Princeton to interview Mr. Armenteros at the place where TU started and the story begins.

"Jorge Armenteros is the implacable force behind the only accreditation program for tobacconists. We take a look at how Tobacconist University got its start some 12 years ago and where it will be going in the next decade."

Mr. Armenteros states "... its a great privilege for the president of Tobacconist University to be interviewed by the editor of Tobacconist Magazine.  While I am thrilled to have our story told and be on the front cover, I only wish that we could have had a group photo of our 1300 plus certified tobacconists and apprentices on the cover instead.  TU is not about me and never will be.... its much bigger than that.  And if I do my job right it will outlive us all and continue to help preserve and support the luxury tobacco industry for generations to come".

This rare interview is published in the Sept/Oct issue of Tobacconist Magazine and is also being made available to the public on the Tobacconist Magazine website:  if you are interested in the past, present, and future of Tobacconist University, this is a must read!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

WHAT'S NEW? R&D PA/CT Broadleaf!

What's new? What's new? What's new?  It seems like the most common question we get as retail tobacconists.  This week we are excited to tell you, R&D PA/CT Broadleaf is what's new!!!  These experimental cigars are now shipping to certified tobacconists throughout the US and they are amazing!

You can read all about the PA/CT Broadleaf in the R&D Lab, but we must caution you, these cigars are not for everyone!  They are robust, rich, and profoundly sweet with an intense spice.  If you love flavor, strength, and spice, then you are going to love these cigars!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An Important Message From The IPCPR CEO

The 83rd Annual IPCPR Convention & International Trade Show in New Orleans, July 17-21, 2015 will mark my first year as the CEO of the IPCPR.  And what a year it has been!  The threat of FDA regulation, never ending state tax and smoking ban threats, moving the trade show to New Orleans and the relocation of our headquarters to Washington, DC have kept the member volunteer leadership and dedicated staff super busy.  Change is happening.

Immediately after last year's trade show in Vegas, your IPCPR leadership got to work and drafted comments to the FDA regarding proposed language to extend its tobacco authority to additional tobacco products, including cigars.  That language included an "Option II" that would exempt premium cigars along with a definition of premium cigars.  That exemption, with some modifications to the definition, represents a common sense approach to government oversight given the primary goal of preventing youth access.  Minors are not even permitted in nearly 90% of IPCPR member shops.  Minors use of premium cigars is not a problem.  Regulating our small sliver of the tobacco universe make no sense and would divert limited resources needlessly.  "Option I" throws us into the same regulatory world as currently regulated tobacco products and would have a devastating impact on retailers and manufacturers alike.  Jobs will be lost.  Your IPCPR, along with industry partner associations has spent countless hours in front of Members of Congress and Administration officials making the case that regulation is in the case of premium cigars, a solution in search of a problem.  House Bill 662 and Senate Bill 441 represent our legislative efforts at exemption.  IPCPR has organized four Capitol Hill "fly-ins" where retailers can educate Congress face-to-face.  We also joined with Cigar Rights of America to meet with the Administration to make sure they understand how premium cigars are indeed, different from other products.  I wish I could tell you which way the FDA is headed and what language we can expect.  We believe we will see the final rule sometime this summer or early fall.  You need to join the fight!  Please go to where you can learn about the issue and easily send a message to Congress.

Also at you can take advantage of information critical to your business operation at the state level.  Every state has detailed licensing, regulatory, tax and other requirements.  You can find all this information on our website.  The ground war really is in the state capitols.  With our network of twenty-two state lobbyists and in partnership with the Cigar Association of America, IPCPR works hard to fight OTP tax increases and new smoking bans that hurt your business.

If you really want to help protect your industry and your business, you should join your peers in New Orleans in July.  The IPCPR show is the focus for new releases and access to products not found anywhere else.  You will also have the opportunity to learn from retail leaders from inside and outside the industry with our seminar line-up designed to make you more profitable.  We do want you to have a great time so we're bringing in the band, America, for our first ever IPCPR Cigar Bash.  New products, learning, networking with peers and great entertainment.  Sign up today at IPCPR.ORG.

The IPCPR will be relocating its headquarters to Washington, DC later this year.  (Why DC?  Read above!)  We purchased a three level commercial townhouse on the Senate side of Capitol Hill with easy access to Congress and a five minute walk to Union Station which serves both Amtrak and the Metro.  Having our currently dispersed staff under one roof will also help us serve you better.  We are including a meeting and event space so that we can host members of IPCPR when in town and also host Members of Congress for various functions throughout the year.  Currently we are finishing up the design work and will then go to the permitting process before the build out begins.  I am hoping for an August completion.  We really look forward to you making IPCPR your home when you visit DC!

Mark Pursell, CEO
International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association

Friday, May 1, 2015

Georgetown Homecoming

Dear Friends,

It may be a little known fact that if it wasn't for Georgetown Tobacco, Tobacconist University (TU) would not exist!  Long before I opened my first retail store, I was an international business major at American University in the early 1990s.  It was almost 25 years ago that I stumbled into Georgetown Tobacco and it changed my life, and the lives of hundreds of tobacconists, forever.  I vividly remember the moment I opened the door and smelled that well marinated tobacconist.  I remember taking my first step inside and feeling the wooden floor boards creak beneath my feet.  As soon as I looked up I was taken back by the beauty of that magnificent store.  There are so few moments in life where you know that your future has been irrevocably altered, but that was definitely one of them.  I knew the instant I stepped into Georgetown Tobacco that I wanted to be a part of something that special.

I spent the next few years picking the brains of the tobacconists that worked there and getting an old school tobacco education.  They had already been in business 25 years so the tobacconists were as well marinated in knowledge as the store was in aroma.  While I had grown up around cigars in Miami, and I was familiar with Padron and La Aurora, I had never experienced a full-service retail tobacconist like Georgetown.  It was inspirational and overwhelming.

By the time I opened my first retail store in 1995, I realized how little I knew in comparison to the great tobacconists I had known... so I set about creating the Tobacconist University curriculum to educate myself and my tobacconists.  A decade later, after opening three stores in three states, fighting countless smoking bans and taxation battles, I realized that the industry needed more credibility and professionalism.  My passion for the industry and the people in it kept me from selling out and moving on, so I decided to double down.

By 2005 I began the process of turning the TU curriculum and certification standards into something the entire industry could use and benefit from, instead of just my little stores.  I spent years trying to convince other retailers and manufacturers to support us and most of them listened politely, patted me on the back, but did nothing to help.  Ultimately, I don't blame them... I must have seemed like a lunatic running around telling people we were going to certify tobacconists, promote them, and build credibility and heighten standards for our profession.  I have personally heard and seen so many crazy and cockamamie  ideas in this industry, but I refused to become one of them.   For better or worse, I have a profound mental problem that keeps me from quitting on the people and values I hold dear.  So, I continued to work on TU, every night and every day, never knowing how we would roll it out, fund it, or promote it... I just refused to quit.

Fortunately for all of us, David Berkebile, the founder and owner of Georgetown Tobacco, had taken over as president of the IPCPR (then the RTDA) and he embraced TU and brought us in as the official curriculum for our industry's oldest and most prestigious trade organization.   David has helped countless individuals start their careers in this industry, and in this case he has been instrumental twice!  I don't know where we would be today without his help, but I don't think we would have over 1,200 Certified Tobacconists and Apprentices, nor would we be going to Georgetown Tobacco on Friday, May 15, between 4 and 8pm for an  R&D Cigars Event.  The following morning we will do what TU does best, and administer the certification exam to five Georgetown Tobacco apprentices.

I hope you will join us for this special event.  As I write this I feel a little sentimental, grateful and emotional as I realize what a unique journey this has been.  In some ways, this will be the most exciting and fulfilling event of my career: it is a homecoming of sorts.  More importantly, we will honor and celebrate our history... where it all started.  In some ways, I feel like this event will close the first chapter of the history of TU, but there are many more to be written!  I promise you our best days are ahead of us and I will personally do my best to ensure that, or die trying.  #beaboutsomething

Jorge L. Armenteros, CMT
President & Founder
Tobacconist University

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What Sells Cigars?

With the threat of FDA regulation looming over the premium cigar industry, smoking bans, and excessive taxation, it might seem a little surprising to see the current proliferation of cigar brands in the marketplace.  If you use social media you might be shocked to see what seems like a handful of new brands popping up every day. There are "boutique" brands, "craft" brands, "artisanal" brands, line extensions, limited editions, micro-batches, line extensions of line extensions, and even major companies partnering with smaller cigar makers to make co-branded brands!  Most interesting is the drama and hyperbole surrounding many of these new brands: many use sensational names, ridiculous back stories, flamboyant characters, and pop culture tie-ins to get the consumers attention.  As always, strong, romantic adjectives are employed to create the perception of quality, history, and authenticity.  Words like vintage, aged, hand-crafted, curated, blessed, rare, special, artistry, brotherhood, legend, and maestro all evoke pleasant thoughts in consumers minds, compelling you to want to try that new (or old) brand.  And lets not forget that "sex" sells too, as does lifestyle marketing.  So many boobs, high end cars and watches that it's hard to make sense of it all.  None of this is new of course, it's just MORE: more in your face, more extreme, more magazines, more info, more internet, more, more, more... 

Of course, our focus at TU is retail tobacconists and educated consumers, so we must try to make sense of it all.  Ultimately, retailers must filter through all of the products and messages to build inventories that are compelling to their customers.   Retailers must build inventories that are well-rounded, both in price and flavor spectrum.  We must avoid the overly hyped products which sit on the shelves after their five minutes of fame because they will ultimately end up deeply discounted on the internet and make us look bad to our customers.   

Every retailer has made the mistake of buying the 'flavor of the month' cigar only to have customers come in and tell them it is discounted 90% on some website: ouch, that hurts!  

Great retail tobacconists must vet their products and be able to educate their customers about them.  We also need to edit our inventories and make sure products turn (sell).  To that end, we have polled many of our Certified Retail Tobacconists (CRT) to try to understand what drives cigar sales in the retail humidor.  It turns out the answers are not that surprising and probably timeless.

Tobacconist's Preference
Probably the most powerful factor driving sales in the retail environment is what tobacconists like:  when a retail tobacconist gets behind a brand, it sells in that store!  Tobacconists naturally push what they smoke and that can be influenced by personal relationships and taste.  Ultimately, a good tobacconist knows good recommendations bring customers back, so we must honor that trust the customer puts in us.  

Marketing & Hype  
Advertising, advertising, advertising!  Sure, that helps, but it's expensive and must be persistent.  The biggest brands are constantly advertising in print media and on the internet to make sure you remember their names.  There is nothing new about this strategy, except that there are many more players fighting for your attention.  Hype, exclusivity, rarity, and perceived 'specialness' are the newest tactics helping to create consumer demand.  In addition, branded lounges, signature events (cruises, wrestling matches, pairing with other luxury goods), over-the-top personalities, and social media are all being used to create awareness and drive demand.  Great tobacconists know to be wary of these techniques, but we must also give our customers what they want... most of the time. 

Romance & A Story
Romance and a story, the holy grail of salesmanship!  If you want to sell cigars, a story helps!  Every brand has a story, some better than others.  The truth is most cigar brand stories today are empty, shallow, and/or contrived.   Sure, you can name a cigar after a famous song and sell a few to fans of that music, but how long can you survive on that trick?  Romance and a story may get the consumer's attention for a minute, but the substance of the product had better be there for long term success.     

Ultimately, great tobacconists have to balance all of these factors, remember that taste is subjective, and build trust with their customers in order to thrive in this market.  You can always sell what you like, but be careful what you read and repeat, and if your going to tell a story and romance the product, make sure you're being honest and not just another fan boy or dilettante regurgitating marketing hype!  Be about something, or you will fail!  



Thursday, March 26, 2015

The 2015 Media Challenge

Starting in April of 2015, all Certified Retail Tobacconists (CRT) will be able to certify consumers as CCT.  This means, any consumer can be certified by a CRT, thereby proving their knowledge and strengthening the bond between retail tobacconists and their customers.  This historic program has the potential to elevate the credibility and prestige of the entire industry!

At TU, we often say that becoming certified will not make you a great tobacconist, but at least we are establishing fundamentals that we can agree on as professionals and consumers.  But, no matter how educated consumers and tobacconists are, it would be counter productive to continue to have under educated writers on the internet, magazines, and other media.  Bad information and uninformed opinions snowball and hurts the entire industry.  

While facts, truth, and knowledge may not matter to many marketers, it does matter to retailers and consumers.  Through certification we can establish a strong foundation of knowledge which bonds consumers, media, and retailers, thereby helping to build credibility and culture for the luxury tobacco industry.  

A lack of truth and transparency undermines our industry.  

So, to that end, we are inviting any and all media members in the premium tobacco industry to become certified, for free, as CCT with their local Certified Retail Tobacconists.  That's right, we said "FOR FREE"!  During the month of April we are extending an open invitation to any and all industry media to sign up and become certified.  As long as you sign up in April, you can take the test at your convenience during 2015 with your CRT Sponsor.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Certifying Consumers - CCT!

1/1/2016 UPDATE:  The CCT Process has been changed since the publishing of this article.  Visit our Get Certified webpage for more info.

There's a difference between opinions and facts.  There's a difference between information and education.  And there's a difference between those who know and those who don't.  If you read about cigars and pipes on the internet, or advertising laden magazines, you will be misled, you will believe things that aren't true and/or biased, and you will fail to appreciate the true natural artistry and wonder of the luxury tobacco industry.  

TU Certification is about teaching fundamentals and facts.  We do not tell you what is good or bad, but simply try to make sure you have all of the tools and knowledge to make educated decisions and enhance your appreciation: that is why we certify tobacconists and consumers.

There are two main professional TU Certifications: Certified Retail Tobacconist (CRT) and Certified Salesforce Tobacconist (CST).  These professional degrees require passing a 100 question test.  The Certified Consumer Tobacconist (CCT) degree requires passing a 50 question final exam, with a 90% or better score.  All certifications are based on the TU Academic Curriculum found in our Campus.

The CCT Process

1.  Ask any CRT to be your CRT Sponsor
2.  Sign up as a CCT Apprentice on the TU website.  This means you accept the TU Code of Ethics & Standards, submit your personal information for your CCT listing, and tell us who your CRT Sponsor is.
3.  Schedule your final exam with your CRT Sponsor anytime after you become an apprentice.  The final exam will be accessed by your CRT Sponsor through a password protected secure website and the consumer will take the test on the web, with the CRT 
Sponsor present.
4.  Once you pass the exam you will receive your CCT credentials and be entitled to special products, certified accoutrements, and privileges with TU and at your Certified Retail Tobacconist's store*.   
*Benefits will vary by retailers.

Currently, any consumer can become certified through any Certified Retail Tobacconist (CRT).  TU started certifying consumers in 1996, culminating in 2014, for a fee of $500.  Starting in 2015, we turned that business over to our CRT, which empowers them to certify at will and charge significantly less for the service.  Now consumer certification prices are determined by CRT.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Thanks To R&D, We Certify For Free

Tobacconist University (TU) is the official educational curriculum of the IPCPR.  As their exclusive educational partner, TU certifies all IPCPR retail members as Certified Retail Tobacconists (CRT) for free: a $1,000 per person value for non IPCPR members.  This means, if you have a store with 3 tobacconists, TU will certify (and promote) them all for free!  At TU we consider this a strategic partnership with the industry's oldest and most prestigious trade organization.  In the process, TU does not receive any money from the IPCPR, but we are allowed access to the tradeshow.  In addition, our ability to work with the IPCPR creates promotional and political synergies which we can use to support and defend retail tobacconists. 

So, all of this begs the question, where does the money come from?  After all, we do not sell advertising and most of our certifications are free.  Fortunately, we have R&D!  R&D Cigars are Certified Cigars: the only cigar in the history of the world that you have to pass a test to sell!  R&D Cigars, standing for Research and Development, are exceptional premium products designed with an educational purpose:  educating your mind and palateR&D Cigars are also a competitive advantage since they are truly limited and Certified Retail Tobacconists must earn the right to sell them.  Introduced in 2014, R&D Cigars are already available at some of the world's greatest tobacconists, with many more to come!  You can learn more about R&D Cigars in the R&D Lab and from your local Certified Retail Tobacconist. 

Finally, we would like to say thank you to the thousands of consumers and Certified Retail Tobacconists who have supported R&D Cigars.  Without that support there would be no future for TU.   Specifically, we would like to thank our R&D CRT for having the passion and vision to support TU, educating themselves and their customers.  The future of TU holds more promise than ever and that is because of our R&D CRT!