Buying cigars on the Internet affords us smokers many advantages. With the lure of unlimited selection and prices below MSRP, online cigar vendors are harvesting customers and prospering. But what does that mean for the future of our local cigar stores? Is it their end or can they survive in the age of Internet commerce? I have spoken to a number of cigar storeowners and online vendor reps, and would like to share some of my observations regarding the future of B&M (brick and mortar) cigar retailing.
Buying cigars online has huge advantages.
First of all, it should be said that everyone who sells fine cigars does so for the love of the product. The single commonality between Internet vendors and B&M owners is that they love the smell, feel, and flavor of fine cigars. So much for the niceties. Although the simple love of cigars might drive some to own a cigar store, online vendors are also driven by big profits. To this end, more and more online vendors are manufacturing their own brands and selling them “direct to consumer”. This increases their profit margins and lowers the retail price of the product (See The Future of the Cigar Business). A glance at an online vendor’s catalog will illustrate that the vast majority of cigars being offered are “house brands”. But this practice also benefits the consumer. It enables us to buy great cigars (manufactured by the best cigar makers) at prices well below comparable brand name products. Additionally, by selling an assortment of single cigars, called a bundle, online vendors circumvent price fixing mandated by cigar makers. When a vendor sells an assortment of cigars of differing value within a bundle, the price of a single stick becomes ambiguous and hard to determine.
Additionally, Internet vendors have the ability to mail cigars out of state. By doing so we consumers pay no state taxes, which in turn gives us an additional savings compared to a local store purchase. With so many advantages to shopping online, the question now becomes:
“Why go to a cigar store at all?”
In an effort to answer this question, I spent some time speaking with local B&M owners in the LA area and would like to offer some observations.
Buying cigars online is a solitary experience. You speak to no one, don’t get out of your chair, and never get to see, smell, or touch the cigars you are buying. Those of us who love cigars have a need to be close to them. There’s no better feeling than having a fine cigar in your shirt pocket on the way to a smoker-friendly event. Taking that cigar out of it’s holder, smelling it, feeling it, lighting it and smoking it is pure heaven to a cigar lover. And it is precisely that kind of feeling I get when I enter a cigar store. First the wonderful cigar aroma hits my nostrils, I then feast my eyes on racks and racks of beautifully decorated cigar boxes filled with hand made jewels of tobacco. It’s enough to make my mouth water just thinking about it. This is an experience we can only get first hand. The physical surroundings, the sights and smells of a cigar store/lounge cannot be replicated over the Internet. Plus, there are always new cigars to try, and a good B&M will have plenty of new sticks to choose from. Even if I’m familiar with all the brands being offered, there is always a new vitola to experience or a favorite cigar to revisit. It is this kind of spontaneous environment that makes cigar-shopping fun. It’s like being a kid in a candy store. Plus cigars always seem to taste better in a cigar lounge. There’s something about that environment that enhances the smoking experience and makes it special. Imagine removing a gourmet meal from the ambiance of a fine restaurant and taking it “to go”. I just don’t think the food would taste as good on the plates we use everyday.
“Can a local cigar store be successful in the age of Internet commerce?”
There are many factors that determine the success of a cigar store. Each owner will have his/her own idea of what success looks like to them, but the owners I’ve been speaking with have a unique and healthy view of success, and it’s not about the bottom line. For many of us, keeping life simple is the key to happiness and it is this kind of attitude that brings satisfaction to many cigar shop owners. Rather than getting rich, owning a cigar store is more about supporting themselves in a business they love. One owner gave me a bit of advice. He said if you want to get rich, don’t open a cigar store/lounge. He went on to say that in this endeavor, the best one can expect is to earn a modest salary, but that being his own boss, in a business he has a passion for, is reward enough. These are the feelings I have heard from many cigar shop owners. It’s not about the money; it’s about the love of cigars.
And it is in this spirit that I urge everyone to frequent cigar shops whenever possible. They sell cigars because they love to, and we should support them in any way we can. I rarely leave a store without purchasing a handful of cigars. Sure, I could have gotten them cheaper online, but by shopping locally I am supporting a diminishing community at a time when our liberties to enjoy cigars are being legislated into oblivion. I cannot stress enough, the need to promote and frequent our local cigar stores and to keep them around as safe havens for our cigar smoking pursuits.