How does this platform handle the different tax rates in different states? How does it handle and calculate shipping costs?
Our TUECOM sites come with a robust content management system (CMS). In the backend, retailers can input their own pricing, shipping charges and the sales taxes they want to charge depending on what state they are shipping to. You can also program free shipping on purchases over “X” amount, no sales tax outside of your home state and so on. The TUECOM CMS/backend will be the administrative console where retailers tweak their sites and processes to suit their needs.
In what different ways might a retailer use this platform to promote their business and its products?
This is such a great question because like with so many of our projects, the best ideas come from our end users. Initially we thought this website could be a substitute for your existing website, and that is very simple to execute—just swap them out and all of the people who go to your old site will now see the new one. The premium cigar industry is so complex that there will be many options. For example, you could open a TUECOM site just for out-of-state customers or vice versa. You could open up a TUECOM site for vintage and aged or super-premium cigars, or you could open one up for discount products. Different sites can be geared toward different consumers, so retailers can decide for themselves how they would like to operate the businesses.
In my case, I am currently considering opening up one site for my store’s aged and super-premium cigars. It will be sophisticated and high end. I am also thinking about a more moderate site geared toward value products where the marketing and communication involves a lot of first-person storytelling and personality-driven copy. Different approaches speak to different market segments, so it may be worth the effort to differentiate. I am also considering making a site specifically for my New Jersey customers where the prices will have to include the state OTP tax because we have to pay this tax for the products that we ship within New Jersey. This site might include lower shipping and other perks so customers still get a great value while we continue to pay the state’s onerous tax bills. Lastly, I have met so many great tobacconists over the years, [and] I wonder if it would be beneficial to give control of a TUECOM site to them and see what they can produce with their own passion and vision. You see, the sky is the limit!
Age verification is an important part of tobacco e-commerce. Does this new e-commerce platform come with that built in or is that something retailers will have to seek elsewhere?
The TUECOM sites will require all visitors to confirm that they are over 21. Beyond this, retailers can implement their own systems for age verification, and we are working on plug-in options that will also help.
How much will it cost for retailers to take part in Tobacconist University’s platform?
Our scheduled release price for TUECOM sites is $3,000. There are no ongoing costs associated with TU. You will have hosting, security and backup costs associated with your site host, and there will be a credit card processing fee, but none of these are related to TU. We don’t want to eat into your profits, we just want you to succeed! Of course, TU will be developing add-ons; plug-ins and improvements, so we expect to grow with our retailers.
With that said, I know that the TUECOM sites will give our retailers an extraordinary advantage and save them an enormous amount of time and money, but we must stay focused and realistic about the nature of internet mail-order and what it will take to succeed. Existing mail-order companies have massive economies of scale, and they spend lots of money on SEO and marketing to make money. Their competitive advantage is based on price, but I don’t think that will be the focus for our certified tobacconists using TUECOM sites. Our certified tobacconists will need to compete with the same strengths that have made them successful to date: personalized service, relationships, access to special products and product education. I expect that we will usher in a new era of substantive service over cheap products. I want our retailers to know that there are no magic bullets or fairy dust that will make their mail-order sites successful. They will need to put time into curating their inventory and shaping their online presence. It may take a year or two to become profitable because, like any other business, you must crawl before you walk and walk before you run. But, in order to succeed you must try; you must start now with the end goal in mind and apply yourself diligently to the endeavor.
As we look forward to a world where hundreds of Certified Retail Tobacconists are running successful e-commerce sites, there will be many opportunities and advantages that we have not fully fleshed out yet. I recently told a friend who is a famous cigarmaker about the project, and he was blown away; he asked, “How can we get more involved?” And the conversation led to the idea of special and exclusive promotions and discounts just for our unique certified tobacconists. There will come a day when manufacturers will want to participate and support us, and we will create new competitive advantages and opportunities for our brick-and-mortar certified retailers. The future is very bright, and we will not stop until retail tobacconists are preserved for generations to come!
When will this e-commerce service be available and how can people follow up for more information on it?
The TU website will start to display the TUECOM logo this fall, and the doors will open by the year’s end. Then, Certified Retail Tobacconists will be able to purchase their e-commerce sites online, and our teams will contact them immediately to get the site live within our one-week goal.
If you want to get started even sooner, retailers can call me at 609-651-2311, but keep in mind we are only providing this service for stores with at least one Certified Retail Tobacconist.
This story first appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.