What’s in Store: Cigars International’s Sarah Santos, Part 1

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    “I’ve come to love cigars, enjoying several a week myself,” she says. “Cigars are an affordable social luxury. They are great for moments of relaxation and reflection. I also like to think of handmade cigars as a great unifier across social strata. Many [people], including myself, associate the enjoyment of a cigar with good times, friends and major life milestones, such as weddings and the birth of babies!”

    She continues, “Up until about a year ago, I used to try a lot of cigars—not unexpected with a warehouse containing what is likely the widest selection of handmade cigars in one place in the world. Based on a recommendation from a colleague, I’ve more recently made my frequent go-to cigar Toraño Reserva Decadéncia. The tobaccos in that cigar were aged in French oak barrels that were used to age port wine, so the cigar is amazing on the palate and has a pleasant room note. As a red wine drinker, this cigar is pleasing both with a glass of wine or without.”

    Just as her relationship with cigars has evolved with time, so has the premium cigar category that she’s worked within for the past few years. Since joining Cigars International in the early 2000s, there have been many changes on the regulatory and tax fronts impacting the cigar business. There also has been a noted change in consumer preferences. With the wide variety of cigars now available on the market and the rise of new brands each year, the cigar industry is going through a change similar to what was experienced in the craft beer industry several years ago. Today, with so many cigars and brands to choose from, consumers are what Santos describes as promiscuous, meaning they are much more willing to expand their smoking repertoires with a wide range of blends and vitolas to match different smoking occasions.

    “Gone are the days of a cigar smoker having one or two go-to brands,” she says. “Today’s cigar smoker is more likely to have a set of core brands that they complement with new offerings from a mix of different cigarmakers. With so many cigars available and the category expanding because of this, it’s a very exciting time for premium cigars, and I personally hope the exploratory energy continues.”

    In addition to cigar consumers changing over the years, tobacco retail has also evolved. Tobacconists and their employees continue to play an important role in the overall consumer experience within the cigar lifestyle and drive the camaraderie that occurs within stores. Regulations, however, have made it harder for consumers to enjoy a cigar and smoke, making cigar lounges and those places that do permit smoking even more important to the cigar category.

    Due to this change, there’s been a demand from consumers for a 360-degree experience that encompasses key elements of the premium cigar lifestyle within one location. Scandinavian Tobacco Group has seen this change and adapted its business accordingly, creating the “super-store” concept with the growth and focus on Cigars International. This cigar super-store delivers an elevated shopping experience complete with a huge assortment of cigars for purchase, an in-house cigar lounge that serves the needs of consumers that prefer handmade cigar products, and spirits and food available in most of its locations, making Cigars International a go-to destination for many cigar enthusiasts.

    Sarah Santos, President of Cigars International | Photo by Merideth Eldow
    Keeping up with the latest trends and changes in consumer behavior is key to how Santos is able to form effective sales, marketing and operational strategies for Cigars International.

    Taking the Lead
    In 2019, Santos was named as president of the North American Online and Retail Division for Scandinavian Tobacco Group, a position that put her in charge of Cigars International. Typically, her day begins online with a series of virtual meetings with her counterparts who work at the company’s headquarters in Denmark. This also means her day begins early as there’s much to discuss and collaborate on with those working in Scandinavian Tobacco Group’s European offices. Each day has its own agenda and demands. On any given day, Santos may be found shaping new consumer propositions, working on pricing strategies, assessing potential mergers and acquisitions, or developing operational strategies and solutions.

    “The pace is fast and exciting, and I relish every minute of it until my head hits the pillow each evening,” she says.

    As a direct-to-consumer company, Cigars International has robust and impactful insights on consumer behavior and industry trends, and Santos continuously encourages her team to mine and watch the data available to them to improve operations and strengthen the Cigars International brand. Since she’s taken the reins of Scandinavian Tobacco Group’s online and retail division, Santos has focused her time on increasing the agility and adaptability of the leadership team, which has become even more necessary given the events of the past year.

    To build the Cigars International team, Santos has focused on adding knowledge and skill sets in the areas that the company views as offering opportunities for growth. She’s actively recruited and brought people on board who have impressive skill sets and experiences from other industries but who may not have had any experience with premium cigars in order to complement the extensive cigar knowledge that’s already present within the organization.

    “I prioritize a thorough onboarding for new members of my team to ensure they thoroughly grasp the complexities and intricacies of this dynamic category, along with the pace of moving from concept to production necessary to remain competitive on the e-commerce channel,” Santos explains. “Additionally, I harness STG’s willingness to promote from within to retain talent and provide individuals with exciting opportunities for growth. I also harness STG’s investment in technology to continually grow my existing team, leveraging a variety of tech-based platforms to evolve and enhance their skills. Now that I have the right people in place, I’m focused on leading the company with a longer strategic focus, while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the moment.”

    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.

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