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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Weathering The Storm: By Patrick Potter, CMT

Certified Master Tobacconist
Academic Contribution
Patrick Potter, CMT




Bob Dillon couldn’t be more apropos “The Times They Are A Changing.” As the landscape of personal space and social distancing becomes a new normal Tobacconists will be challenged. However, by incorporating public health guidance into daily practices and responding to customers’ need for peace of mind during these  trying  times,  Tobacconists  can  meet  these  challenges  head-on  and  with confidence. 

Tobacconists the world over have always weathered the storm. We are an essential service and provide an essential dispensation unlike other retail businesses. Extravagant to some; the relationship between Tobacconist and the cigar and pipe smoker are a lifeline to freedom and self-care. One of the greatest aspects is the two or three hour break we all get to shed the stress of the day, turn a shoulder to the chaos of the world and either discover a new cigar or reach for ole’ faithful. From first cut, to first draw, the expectation and delight that comes is priceless. Tobacco has always been given a bad rap especially because of cigarettes but cigars and pipes  are  not  cigarettes  and  their  design  was  never  intended  to  be  a  nicotine delivery system. Cigars are air cured, fermented, hand rolled and blended to inspire, delight and satiate. James J Fox once commented that cigars and pipes are at the center of civility and decent behavior. They give both men and women an opportunity to decompress, reflect on life or their day and most importantly socialize.  

Change is something all Tobacconists face.  Brands  have  changed,  some  have remained  and  new  exciting  developments  with  boutique  cigar  makers  have emerged.  Tobacconists have always been challenged in knowing which brand or vitolas to carry over another. The modern “go-to” for this valued information was once isolated to Cigar Aficionado but in recent years new media has also emerged from online blogs like Halfwheel, to Stogie Press, and Cigar Advisor. Additionally, the European market has a dedicated magazine and online presence ‘Cigar Journal, who has helped to impact the European Tobacconist by highlighting free world cigars and showcasing boutique makers from around the world. 

Every Tobacconist is challenged with either implementation or threat of taxation. Most states in the country impose a tobacco tax, and in some, that tax is so great, selling cigars alone may result in closure.  As the tax climate changes, the Tobacconist is faced with opposing forces. One retailer who saw the climate of change grow around them was my grandfather’s company he co-founded, Tinder Box International. Founded in 1928, and later incorporated in 1946. This small- town brick and mortar grew to over eight hundred stores worldwide by the mid 1980’s, before their sale. They capitalized on a retail franchise concept that allowed for incredible expansion while maintaining the brand price structure per market. Which meant that the same cigar purchased in Los Angeles could be purchased in Chicago at the same price. They combated higher taxation by designing a buying system  and price  structure  that  is  now  called vertical (*1)  integration.


Tinder Box used this central buying design and amassed such inventory that they could take losses in high tax states and gain revenue in the lower tax states. Unfortunately, our economy today couldn’t support this type of “retail only” design. However, I took my grandfather’s Tinder Box Franchise design and restructured it to work in today’s economy. The Continental Cigar Club is my solution; it’s the integration between retail and a private members lounge. Lounges for some, are an essential to a brick and mortars success. Especially with higher taxation and legislative restrictions, the combination of private/public membership lounge and retail operation is the perfect business model in today’s economy, for me.


The interaction between consumer and Tobacconist can also be very challenging. We must fight to maintain our relationships and our customer loyalties. With social distancing becoming a new normal we have to balance self-care with business. Customer loyalty is all that we have. The preservation of those relationships will help us weather the new storms. In the dawn of COVID-19 or really any viral or bacterial  illness  cleanliness  is  essential  to  foster  peace  of  mind  between  the customer and the Tobacconist.  To address this issue, I developed (*2) an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan for all Continental Cigar Clubs.


In creating this plan there were a number of recommendations (*3) from OSHA that I could incorporate. I have implemented several that give my customers peace of mind. Here is a list of practices I have implemented that have been effective for both customer and my tobacconists:


1.  I created a reservation system for our private member lounge.  I found a restaurant seating application that has the configurations I wanted.  It makes it easy for staff and convenient for the member.  The design allows the member to call us and reserve a particular seat.  Our seating chart allows for thirty-six total seats.  For the time being we are still in a hold status on members in the club or retail use.  However, once reopened, members will find that we are able to move our furniture in such a way to allow a six foot gap between seats, except our four-tops, which we have reduced to two seats, and our community table, which accomodates ten, we have reduced to four.  Members can choose a three hour reservation beginning at 11:00am and the last reservation is at 8:00pm, so that we can promptly close at 11:00pm.  Those that wish to extend, can if the next three hour slot is available.  No one has been belligerent over this; as a matter of fact, it's increased our accolades for being concerned about members' health.  This may be our new normal, and if it is, we are prepared to adapt. 


2.   In our plan we asks customers to use a hand sanitizer before entering the main part of the retail operation.  Currently hand sanitizer is in short supply but our hand sanitizer kiosk is operational.  OSHA (*4) recommends alcohol- based hand-wipes containing at least 60% alcohol. Allowing the customer to enter the humidor is discretionary; we have a posted sign explaining that at this time humidor access is limited to tobacconist staff only. One creative option I implemented is a menu book detailing the brands I carry. It took some time to develop but has proven to be a fantastic method for selling. This is especially helpful because now the engagement is based on my product knowledge of my tobacconist and enthusiasm of customer.


3.   We started using latex and vinyl gloves but they seemed to create more issues than they were designed to prevent between the handling of things like money, touching our face from time to time, and they would make our hands sweat which wasn’t good either. Our hand sanitizing policy is frequent use: every time between transactions. However, the practice of washing our hands for 20 seconds between transactions is impossible when the bathroom is across the store. Seeing no real solution, we opted for the lesser of two evils. I gave the tobacconist the option of either using a disposable cotton glove or use a tong. When handling cigars their care is the utmost importance and who doesn’t like white glove service? We use hand sanitizer between transactions as a normal behavior anyway. We only use the glove to handle the cigar itself. The glove is on when we enter the humidor and removed when the cigar is placed into the cigar pouch or handed to customer.


4.   Another option my other tobacconists favor is the use of the tong. After doing a little homework on tongs, standard BBQ tongs would be to harmful to the cigar itself, the tong we use has rounded ends, and is all metal. We wanted something easy to sterilize. We use Barbicide disinfectant easy to get online and it use meets the OSHA requirement of 60% alcohol for sterilization.


5.   We,  as a  normal practice, offer cutting  service upon  purchase of a  cigar.  Luckily we, as a normal course of business, only use sterilized cutters, punches or V cuts. We have a members cutting station in the lounge. We do have to constantly remind lounge members not to lick their cigar before cutting or ask them to use their own cutter.


6.   Our lounge cleaning procedure is strict. We ask members to disinfect upon entering the lounge and we disinfect the seating area after a member has left. A  simple  wipe  down  of  the  chair,  TV  remotes  and  ashtrays  can  have enormous impact on safety and peace of mind. Some already may be wearing a protective mask or have gloves on, we don’t humiliate anyone who chooses these precautions. It’s about peace of mind. Most members chip in and help with monitoring their own space after use.


7.   Not all cigars are in cellophane. Cellophane has not been tested clinically if they pose less/more of a risk to contraception. However, they do seem to give customers peace of mind. This was proven in my store when Padron and Oliva V sales dropped off. Then when I decided to put them in cello, the sales improved immediately. Preventing random customers from entering the humidor has also improved customer peace of mind.  Cellophane is an unexpected benefit of today’s cigar manufacturing. I was able to buy a case of cellophanes from the manufacturer I use in Nicaragua and had them shipped with my regular order of house cigars.  I was also able to find them through various vendors like LeafOnly.com. The benefit with cellophane is that the cigar itself isn’t touched, merely the plastic-like exterior.  Cellophane (*5) is a polymeric cellulose film made from the cellulose from wood, cotton, hemp, or other sources. The viscose solution is then extruded through a slit into a bath of dilute sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate to reconvert the viscose into cellulose. This is then put through an extruder and sealed for various sizes of cigars. We ask the customer if they prefer to leave the cello on before putting them into a to-go pouch or removing them entirely from the cello before placing in the to-go pouch.


8.   We have posted brass laser etched signs all over the club and bathroom with various reminders. In the bathroom we ask the user to please wash their hands or use disinfectant gel or foam. Upon entering there are signs posted to respect the 6ft rule. These not only are aesthetically pleasing but reduce the clubs liability exposure if a claim were ever levied against us.


9.   One option that we attempted to use, but were later advised (by state law) we couldn’t, was curbside delivery. We don’t meet the essential business criteria although our members disagree. In the locations that can legally and logistically service this option, might take advantage of a curbside pick-up. Customers can order by phone, pull up out front and obtain their cigars. Companies like Postmates have very strict rules regarding tobacco but could be an option if you qualify. Otherwise you could consider using a courier service.


As the times continue to change, the Tobacconist must change as well. Our greatest strength is our ability to be creative, to think outside the box, to help instill peace of mind  to  our  customer  and  be  the  one  constant  shoulder  to  lean  on.  Winston Churchill was quoted once saying “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” As Tobacconists we must adapt, improvise and overcome the challenges we face as Tobacconists and as an industry as a whole. Our unification is paramount. We should constantly share experiences and information with one another. I for one am grateful for Tobacconist University for creating and implementing its curriculum. I think it’s a fantastic way to grow enthusiasm in our industry and I am honored to be part of it.

                                                        

*1 https://www.investopedia.com/terms/v/verticalintegration.asp
Vertical integration is a strategy whereby a company owns or controls its suppliers, distributors, or retail locations to control its value or supply chain.

*2  Page 8, https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf

*3  Page 8 & 9, https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf

*4  Page 8  https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf

*5  https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/cellophane

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