Tobacconists today must use all the available technology to connect with their customers—this is key to making sure your store has exactly what they’re looking for and will keep them coming back for more. Hayes tries to think ahead and anticipate what his customers will like. He also does all he can to educate them about their purchases, but ultimately the sales data speaks for itself.
“If we hear a lot of buzz around a cigar and we have consumers asking us for it, we’ll bring it in in a small way and see how it performs,” he says. “If it performs well, we typically scale it up. Occasionally, a cigar gets a really high rating, or you see that there’s a lot of press or hype around a cigar. We’ll give that cigar try. Ultimately, I think the consumers vote on what works here in the store. The way I bring cigars in is not super scientific. The way that I expand brands and offerings and how I stock and reorder cigars comes down to having a close relationship with the customers and talking to them about what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, and if they’d like to see more from a particular cigarmaker or more in a certain size or shape.”
Tobacconists must learn how to read their consumers, review data regularly, and not be afraid to expand or pull back on product offerings based on that customer feedback and data.
Any Way They Want It
If 2020 taught Hayes anything, it was to focus on the transaction and how to make it as easy as possible for customers to get what they want from Renegade Cigars when they want it. Because of his store’s exclusive releases and its collection of rare cigars, Renegade Cigars has customers across the U.S. Renegade’s online store was originally built around its exclusive, rare and hard-to-find inventory and giving customers an easy way to purchase these items. Hayes never had any big plans to focus on e-commerce. The brick-and-mortar side of the business was and has always been his main focus, but he sees the growing importance of having an online store. After dealing with the challenges brought on by COVID-19, Hayes has put more attention into Renegade Cigars’ online store, but he isn’t letting it take away from the overall in-store experience.
“I love our current customers, and I love talking to them every day. I love the social aspect of it. I don’t want to lose what’s magical about the in-store experience. A lot of people that have bought from us online tell us how much better the service is. They’re happy that if they have questions about cigars before they make the purchase online that they can call and get ahold of somebody. Ultimately, I want to be able to deliver cigars to people in a way that’s the most convenient to them with the highest level of service possible. COVID-19 has forced us to kind of rethink that a little bit. I don’t think this is a positive thing for any brick-and-mortar retailer, but I do think it’s forced us to roll up our sleeves and be a little more aggressive.”
The transaction is the most important part of Hayes’ business, and by focusing on how to make the transaction better for not only his business but also for the customer, he has been able to drive innovation within his store. In addition to the online store, Renegade Cigars has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the obstacles it presents to the business by making it easier than ever for customers to make a purchase and receive products. Renegade Cigars now offers regular curbside pickup and local delivery, giving its customers even more options to make a purchase and removing the barriers to do so.
“I want to get a cigar to a consumer any way that they want to get it,” he says. “I want to deliver it with better service than my competition when possible. That’s not always feasible, but in a perfect world, we want to give it to them in the most convenient way possible and at the highest level of service.”
Another side of this customer experience involves how the employees treat the customers. Hayes and his staff go out of their way to make every customer feel comfortable. As the business owner, Hayes tries to impart on his employees the importance of being polite, humble and knowledgeable about the cigars the store carries. Connecting with customers and finding different ways to give them access to a business and its products is crucial for a tobacconist looking to remain competitive in today’s market.
Anticipating Future Wants
When running a business-to-consumer business, Hayes explains how important it is to make as many people as possible feel comfortable in your store. He also understands that this involves managing a lot of personalities at one time, something he learned how to do when operating his business-to-business janitorial company prior to coming to Renegade Cigars. Over the years, Hayes has learned how to see business as a series of relationships and transactions that all have to be nurtured, maintained and managed over an extended period of time.
“In the cigar business, we’re really doing business one transaction at a time, one relationship at a time,” says Hayes. “It’s taught me how to value every single transaction—how to take a once-a-week cigar smoker and make them passionate about the industry and [make cigars] something that they want to spend their hard-earned money on on a regular basis.”
Part of running a business-to-consumer business involves managing customer expectations as well. This is not easy to learn, and it takes time to perfect. Since taking over Renegade Cigars, Hayes has seen how important it is for his business to connect people with one another and have them see how alike they are. This is the mindset he takes while planning any event for his store or even while considering what types of products to stock on his store’s shelves. Hayes also cautions that retailers shouldn’t get too caught up in focusing solely on giving customers exactly what they want. Tobacconists need to be forward-thinking and work at anticipating future opportunities and the needs of the customer.
“I think it was Henry Ford that said something about if he had listened to his customers, he would have developed a faster horse, not a car. I think about that a lot in the cigar business. If you just ask people what they want, they want service and selection. They want a comfortable chair and a TV. You have to think about what is going to motivate them, what’s going to keep them engaged, what’s going to keep them passionate about cigars. I’ve also been thinking about things that maybe they didn’t know they wanted. Nobody ever told me they wanted bigger events, or that they wanted more education around events, but once we started delivering that, they told me that they were an occasional cigar smoker, but now they’re all in. Sometimes, just thinking ahead and trying to figure out what customers want before they know they want it is really important.”
Hayes has discovered that being a tobacconist today requires a combination of passion, a fair amount of emotional intelligence, and a lot of patience and innovation. “The way cigars were sold 15 years ago is not the way they’re going to be sold 15 years from now,” he says.
Hayes is well-versed in how things have been done in the past, but he isn’t afraid of the future. While being a tobacconist is all about delivering old-school customer service and a good in-store experience for customers, it’s also about being innovative and creative. How can you make people feel welcome in your store while also educating them and making a lasting connection with them? This is why Hayes feels the tobacco business is as much about emotional intelligence as it is about retail—and it’s also as much about technology as it is old-school customer service. To drive innovation and growth in your tobacco retail store, take Hayes’ lead and focus on expanding the opportunity for your customers to make a transaction with as few obstacles as possible.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Additional information on Renegade Cigars can be found at renegadecigars.com. Story by Antoine Reid, senior editor and digital director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.