What’s in Store: Cigars International’s Sarah Santos, Part 2

    Sarah Santos, president of Cigars International, shares how one of the largest cigar retailers in the U.S. navigated the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the key to becoming a tobacco super-store.

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    Regulations, taxes and pandemics are not enough to deter the efforts of Santos and others at Cigars International from identifying and chasing after opportunities. One opportunity Santos says could help Cigars International continue to grow is the way it monitors and captures consumer demand and turns that data into inventory forecasts for stock purposes and factory production. Making improvements and enhancements to a consumer’s experience with Cigars International both in-store and online through personalization is another way Santos hopes to continue to build her company’s business.

    Sarah Santos, President of Cigars International | Photo by Merideth EldowAdapting to the New Normal
    Just as her mentors taught her, consumers remain at the core of everything Santos and the team at Cigars International does. While building a loyal customer base for Cigars International over the years, Santos has learned that almost every cigar smoker is a connoisseur at heart. That means they all have a desire for knowledge, demand quality craftsmanship and appreciate variety while seeking customized smoking experiences. Many cigar smokers want to be viewed as authorities among their peers that smoke cigars, which is often achieved by being the first to try a newly released cigar or securing a rare or limited edition blend.

    “In order to create a loyal customer base, we must cater to the needs of the discerning cigar lover and offer them the ability to transact when and how it suits them, while deepening their appreciation of the category through education and unique smoking experiences and occasions,” says Santos. “It’s about delivering great products and great service and maintaining the right level of engagement with the customer between transactions.”

    Since she began working in the premium cigar category, Santos has observed that cigar smokers’ palates have become more sophisticated, giving rise to the demand for fuller-bodied smokes. She also has seen that consumers have increasingly sought cigars that align with the smoking occasion that they hope to have. Cigar smokers are also becoming more knowledgeable and educated about handmade cigars and the lifestyle surrounding them. All of these shifts in consumer preferences have shown that consumers are still very interested in cigar products, a sign that Santos says bodes well for the future of the entire category.

    Santos and her team have learned a lot about consumers over the years from being one of the largest cigar retailers in the country. After a year filled with COVID-19 restrictions, Santos has learned that consumers are more interested than ever in participating in the premium cigar category. Even with obstacles such as the pandemic disrupting typical consumer behaviors, cigar consumers are willing to adapt and pivot in order to continue to take part in the premium cigar lifestyle. During the pandemic, Cigars International saw a significant increase in online orders, but now the company is starting to see customers return to brick-and-mortar retailers, and consumers’ interest in cigars remains strong.

    Customer loyalty and retention rates are two criteria that Santos uses to define success in retail. Sales are an important metric, but building and maintaining long-term relationships with consumers is key to success. “When we have repeat business from a consumer, which signals consumer loyalty, it is undeniable that our engagement methodologies are effective,” she says.

    For other tobacco retailers, Santos’ advice is straightforward: Retailers operating within the tobacco category must adopt a mindset that they are stewards of the category. Tobacconists need to be focused on driving innovation to continue to keep the entire category invigorated. Delivering exciting new products, creating new ways of engaging consumers and creating unique smoking occasions are important areas each retailer should focus on if they want to achieve and experience long-term success in retail. These initiatives are why approachability serves as a guiding principle for Santos and every Cigars International employee.

    Santos’ vision for Cigars International is for it to be a business and brand that inspires cigar enthusiasts to pursue their passion for the premium cigar lifestyle. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged Santos and Cigars International to continue to serve its customers and the category despite the many obstacles in place. There was an unexpected high demand for handmade cigars that bolstered Cigars International and helped its business grow throughout 2020. Now, as the U.S. begins to emerge from COVID-19, the real work begins for Santos and those that she leads at Cigars International.

    “We are focused on aligning our execution plans with the ʻnew normal’ while maintaining high levels of consumer engagement when there will be more options on how people spend their time,” she says. “My team and I will therefore be focused on connecting with cigar smokers in ways that are impactful, meaningful and convenient for them, and we will concentrate on delivering customized cigar experiences, both online and offline, through engaging cigar smoking occasions.”

    As Scandinavian Tobacco Group continues to increase its focus on handmade cigars and strengthening its leadership in the U.S. through mergers and acquisitions, Cigars International will have an increasingly important role in serving as a connection point between the organization’s overall efforts and the consumers that will help make it happen. Cigars International and its parent company have the firepower and ambition to grow and strengthen its brand through acquisitions and its commitment to drive innovation and excitement within the premium cigar category. As the past year has taught many of us, life and business are unpredictable, and there will be countless twists and turns to deal with. Whatever lies ahead for the premium cigar industry and those retailers in it, Santos and Cigars International stand ready to adapt and pivot in order to secure their place in the future.

    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.