The New Normal: Tobacconists During COVID-19

    Tobacco retail is changing due to COVID-19, but is it all bad? Several retailers weigh in on the new retail landscape and how they’re coming out stronger than ever despite the challenges.


    Beyond a Deal
    Since the pandemic has begun, the tobacco industry has stepped up to support retailers of all sizes in various ways. Nat Sherman International sent each of its retail partners a care package to support their curbside efforts, Tabacalera El Artista created a “stimulus” package to help move product, and Crowned Heads and Ace Prime launched, a monthly subscription service designed to benefit local tobacco retailers. With so many different initiatives designed to help retailers, what exactly has worked for them and what sort of assistance are they looking for in particular? Angela Yue, owner of Lord Puffer Cigars in Escondido, California, has a simple message for consumers: Support the brick-and-mortar retailers.

    COVID-19 and the New Normal | Angela Yue, Lord Puffer Tobacconist
    Angela Yue, owner of Lord Puffer Tobacconist

    “I know there are big discount websites—I get it—but just give us brick-and-mortars a little bit of the love. That’s all we want,” she says. “You guys can do your part: Grab a few sticks here and there. It really does help. Most brick-and-mortars across the United States right now are offering to ship cigars and to deliver or do curbside delivery. Just check on your local brick-and-mortars because right now, more than ever, they need you.”

    As for manufacturers, Yue urges patience and understanding. As the full impact of COVID-19 continues to evolve and take shape, many retailers may adjust their purchase orders, but reaching out to retailers to ask what they need is key. Specifically for Yue’s business, it’s not a deal she’s looking for but swag that she can use to incentivize purchases.

    “I know a lot of people think it’s just deals like, ‘I want this much off of my order.’ It’s not just that!” she says. “If you throw in some swag, that’ll help me because I’ll use that swag to push your item. You know: Buy five cigars, get a free lighter; buy five cigars, get a free hat or whatnot.”

    Segal calls on more manufacturers to put together appealing product packages that are designated just for brick-and-mortar retailers, such as La Palina’s and Room 101’s Cigar Lockdown promotion that was rolled out in April. “Those guys really put their ass on the line to help us out and to get their brand out there through the brick-and-mortar [retailers] and not through a big company like Thompson’s or Cigars International,” he says. “They went through the small people, and I think that’s a trend. If people jumped on that, it’d be huge for us small guys.”

    COVID-19 and the New Normal | Casa de Montecristo by Prime Cigar & Whiskey Bar
    To comply with COVID-19 prevention measures, many tobacconists have limited access to their humidors, which are often viewed as the heart of their stores and lounges.

    Goldberg says he has been floored by the outpouring of support from his business’s spirit and its retail partners. A short-term deal or break isn’t necessarily what is going to help his business, he says, but he’s more concerned with and focused on the future. “How do we prepare ourselves for what is going to inevitably change in the future?” he asks. “One of my members said to me, ‘You know, before Sept. 11, 2001, if you told me that I was going to go into an airport and take my shoes off, I would have told you you’re crazy. But things change, and then we adjust.’ So that’s really been my perspective from this whole thing—figuring out what adjustments are going to need to be made and how to do that. That’s where we’re putting our effort and our energy internally as a company and from our supply side of things.”

    Retailers are rising to the occasion to survive the obstacles put in place by the pandemic. Many are embracing technology to engage with their customers by launching Zoom or Facebook Live virtual herfs with the help of their manufacturing partners. Others are using this time to improve their businesses in other ways, from undertaking design and construction projects that had been put off or by examining their stores’ products and deciding what is working and what isn’t. From offering curated pre-sorted cigar packs to using social media to promote a store’s offerings, now is the time to become both creative and competitive in order to give consumers a reason not to forget their local brick-and-mortar retailers and the experience they’re able to offer them that can’t be enjoyed with online stores. It’s also important not to forget the importance of maintaining a positive mindset during these difficult times.

    “Remain positive and have faith that we’re all going to make it,” Segal advises. “It’s just like anything you go through in life—you’re going to grow from it, or you’re going to lose it.”

    There are many resources available to help small businesses navigate the new normal. The best place to start is the U.S. Small Business Administration’s COVID-19 resource page (, which covers a wide array of topics, including coronavirus-related funding options, business owner and employee guidance, and additional recovery information. Tobacco retailers should also consult with the industry’s trade organizations, such as the Cigar Association of America (, the National Association of Tobacco Outlets ( and the Premium Cigar Association (, for additional COVID-19 resources for businesses.

    This story first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.

    Story by Antoine Reid, senior editor and digital director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.