Smokingpipes.com primarily sells pipes and pipe tobacco. Pipe tobacco is considered to be a low-margin product, while pipes are generally more favorably marked up for retail. Revenue-wise, the company sees roughly an even split between pipes and pipe tobacco. Unlike many tobacco businesses, the company first launched as an e-commerce website before branching out and starting its brick-and-mortar store based in Little River, South Carolina.
Tobacco Business recently spoke with Ted Swearingen, chief operating officer at Smokingpipes.com, on the practices that made the business such a success, and what lessons other entrepreneurs can learn from the company.
Set Yourself Apart
One of the things Smokingpipes.com did from its launch that was unique to online pipe retail was its introduction of the practice of selling pipes individually, a single SKU at a time, even if by all appearances one pipe was identical to another. “We took the time to photograph every pipe individually and sell them as unique individual products,” Swearingen explains. “That was something we did before anyone else that set us apart in the online pipe market that had a very positive impact on our pipe retail business.”
Invest in Yourself
Smokingpipes.com also invests part of its profits back into itself, fueling the company’s growth each year. This goes beyond putting money back into inventory and infrastructure improvements to encompass investing in employees who can help improve your company and brand.
A major focus of Smokingpipes.com is generating new content to promote pipes and educate consumers about the pipe-smoking lifestyle. Smokingpipes.com has a popular blog and is active on social media, posting high-quality images as well as videos, all of which the company creates in-house. This, Swearingen concedes, is a huge investment of time, money and human capital, but the company has found it well worth the cost.
“I think our blog is the best pipes and pipe tobacco blog on the Internet,” Swearingen proclaims. “We publish more regularly than any other person or organization producing pipe web content for blogs.”
Blogs and creating shareable content for your customers can help bring more of them to your store, whether it’s a traditional brick-and-mortar store or a website. A blog, Twitter account, Facebook page or YouTube channel can be used to educate your customers on the products you sell, and get them excited and engaged with your brand. Those visitors to your blog or social media can then be converted into long-lasting customers. However, cautions Swearingen, you must show consistent effort by updating your blog and social media pages regularly to build enough traffic to move the profit needle.
Turn Challenges Into New Opportunities
Like many tobacco retailers, Smokingpipes.com has been impacted by the FDA deeming rules but it hasn’t let the new challenge slow the company down. Smokingpipes.com was compliant with the FDA rules within 90 days after they were first announced. Swearingen says that the company is in a good position to operate with the new regulations and now has turned its attention toward improving its business overall.
While the FDA will make it difficult and expensive to introduce new products to the industry, there are other ways to exercise creativity in a restrictive market. Smokingpipes.com has taken the FDA challenge as a chance to improve its website, from introducing an age-verification process to screen customers buying tobacco products to improving its website to offer a better customer experience.
“We are testing a whole new platform for our website,” reveals Swearingen. “It’s mostly going to look the same to everybody, but it’ll be a responsive website design. It will make it very easy to browse on tablets and phones.”
The bottom line? Taking challenging times as an opportunity to evaluate your business and find areas that need improvement can help you grow your business in difficult times. Whether it’s refining your marketing plan or improving your website, there’s always something in need of your attention. Improvements to your business can also be used as a way to show your customers that you’re aware of their needs, listening to their feedback and are interested in providing excellent customer service.
– Story by Antoine Reid
This story first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.