June 7, 2021
Great customer service can be all that stands between your store and a successful vape sale. Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski reports
At the heart of a good customer service strategy is an understanding that the needs of the customer must come first, says John Taylor, chief marketing officer at Vape Dinner Lady:
“Vape is such a personal journey for every customer – whether they’re a beginner just getting to grips with it as an alternative to cigarettes, or an established vaper keen to reduce their nicotine strengths or try new flavours.
“Especially in the convenience sector, where consumers are used to a ‘shop and go’ experience, offering exceptional customer service through expert knowledge of the vape category will make a store stand out from the crowd.”
And Duncan Cunningham, corporate affairs director at Imperial and blu says that store owners and their teams must work hard to help consumers navigate an ever-changing category:
“Many shoppers new to the vape category are often overwhelmed by the breadth of different products on offer and if they don’t know the category already, they probably also won’t know what products will be right for them. This is why it’s so important for retailers and their staff to understand the products on offer in store, and who they’re best suited for, so they can effectively advise them on which vaping products they should opt for.”
What is clear is that manufacturers see this as a great time to focus on focusing on customer service as next generation nicotine products move through what has been a transformational phase.
“The vaping market shows no signs of slowing down, in fact, there has been a growth of 21.6% in year-on-year sales over the past year,” Gemma Bateson, head of reduced risk products at JTI. “Broadening retailer and staff knowledge of the vaping category has become even more important since Covid restrictions were first enforced at the start of last year and vape stores were forced to close. With more vapers turning to their local stores to purchase their devices and e-liquids, it is essential that retailers and their staff can effectively communicate different types of devices and e-liquids to their customers to help find them the right fit.”
Taylor says that this makes listening to your customers the most important element of a successful customer service strategy whether you are a local shop, supermarket, pharmacy or specialist store:
“The key elements of great customer service in all these outlets is for staff to listen to customers, to understand their specific needs and to be able to recommend the correct products for their individual vaping journey.”
He adds: “Understanding which products are best suited to an individual’s experience along their vaping journey is crucial in guiding a customer. Staff need to be aware of every step in that journey, from the beginners’ product such as the Dinner Lady disposable Vape Pen as a no-mess, no-fuss introduction to vaping, through to a full and varied range of e-liquids at different strengths.”
Duncan Cunningham agrees that it is crucial to know where a vaper – or current smoker is at on the vape journey.
“Understanding whether a customer is brand new to the category, or are an experienced vaper, will also help staff gauge what level of advice they may need, for example, going back to basics or, perhaps, focusing more on the latest vape innovations that have recently launched. To help ascertain the best advice to offer, it’s important to ask about their previous experiences: Are they a heavy or a light smoker? Do they have any flavour preferences such as menthol, tobacco or fruity flavours? Have they tried certain devices before? If so, how did they find them?
“Based on their answers, staff can then tailor their advice on the devices, flavours and strengths that would be best suited them.”
Of course, being responsive to customers is only really half of the story – retailers and their staff need to also be armed with the awareness of the category that can help a smoker or vaper in the right direction.
“Having up-to-date knowledge on the latest products is key to offering an informed and good level of customer service,” says Gemma Bateson. “To confidently talk about new products, retailers and their staff should use all the platforms available to them such as JTI’s trade retailer website, JTI Advance. This will help them to understand key category insights and product developments.”
Bateson says “stocking a full, consolidated range and maintaining good availability of products” then means stores are able to meet their shoppers need and complete their purchase in store.
“It is also important to recognise which devices and liquids are proving particularly popular with vapers so that retailers can meet this demand and vapers can get their preferred product without having to shop around,” she adds.
The final element that can ensure an effective customer service experience is through display. “By having a clear and tidy display, customers will find it easier to find their preferred product, in turn experiencing a better level of customer service,” says Bateson. “For smaller stores, or those looking to introduce vaping products for the first time, a countertop display solution is a viable option to test consumer response to the introduction of the category. Once stores expand their range, it is best to move to a category solution where next-gen and tobacco products can be displayed in the same gantry to ensure quick service time and repeat custom.”
Duncan Cunningham at blu agrees: “It’s also a good idea to have a strong visual display of vaping products, positioned away from the main gantry where possible, with clear information on pricing to enable customers to browse at their leisure without the need to handle and inspect products. Where space is limited, even a small countertop unit can help achieve this, especially if it is well organised and fully stocked. Making sure it is positioned in a well-lit part of the counter will also help increase stand out even further.”
Added together, therefore, experts seem to agree that by ensuring that stores are well laid out, that staff are knowledgeable and that you’re listening to your shoppers, businesses stand the best chance to winning sales from this exciting new category.
How can customer service be delivered in a COVID-19-secure way?
John Taylor, chief marketing officer at Vape Dinner Lady
Providing printed information to customers, that they can take away to read in their own time, is a useful tool in supporting their vape purchase experience in a COVID secure way – it prevents the need to linger in store, and reduces the face-to-face contact with staff members.
Alongside this, why not make use of the re-emergence of QR codes? While they had all-but disappeared pre-COVID, thanks to their use in the track and trace system, we’re all much more familiar with them now; either in partnership with supply partners, or independently, retailers can promote QR codes directing customers to sites where they can find more information themselves.
Another option would be to partner with brands who are prepared to offer samples to retailers, which they can then share with customers. Before COVID-19, a key part of the vape shop experience was being able to try new flavours, brands and formulations in store – so finding a way to replicate that experience is key in moving forwards.