June 1, 2020
Vape Business speaks to store owners in the days following the menthol ban to get their thoughts on the latest tobacco restriction
Many customers unaware on eve of ban
Despite many businesses reminding their customers about the menthol ban, it appears the arrival still caught many smokers off guard.
“Our customers weren’t prepared for the ban even though we had been telling people in the months before,” says Serge Khunkhun, who owns and runs a One Stop store in Bilston, near Wolverhampton. “Even customers which I remember expressly telling seemed surprised.”
Despite this, some stores saw a dramatic rise in vape sales in the weeks leading up to the ban, potentially a sign that menthol smokers were already on the hunt for an alternative option.
“We’ve seen an increase in the past month in sales across the menthol alternatives with Myblu, JUUL and Vype all benefiting. But a lot of customers also didn’t know about it and were surprised,” says Kay Patel of Best-one Stratford in London.
Customers search for their favoured option
“If customers really want the menthol taste then I think this is a good opportunity to switch them to vaping products,” says Linda Sood of Premier Falcon News in Portsmouth. “We stock all of the main vaping brands including IQOS and we have sold eight or nine IQOS devices so far which I am very happy with.”
Across the country retailers are realising that the huge choice open to menthol smokers means it may take them weeks or months of trial and error to find the right product for them.
Harj Gill, who runs a Select & Save in Birmingham says: “We’ve had some customers moving over to vape, some have said they will quit and we have had a big increase in sales of the Rizla mentholated cards, which insert into cigarette packs. Some customers have simply switched to the new Dual versions of their menthol cigarette brand and said they just can’t get on with them – others seem to like it. Right now, I think people are just looking for the option which will work for them so we’re making sure we are well stocked on everything.”
Some retailers have questioned tobacco firms’ strategies in launching last minute varieties of cigarette brands saying it has created confusion for stores and customers at a crucial time.
Khunkhun says: “I think the tobacco companies have fudged it because there is a lot of confusion – customers are telling us that some of the new blends are exactly the same as the menthol products and they have the name ‘Green’, which a lot of companies have been switching to for their menthol products in recent years anyway, so customers don’t really understand it.”
Retailers uncertain on competitors’ compliance
Having removed menthol stock ahead of the ban, Serge Khunkhun saw customers leave his store on the hunt for remaining menthol stock in other businesses.
Khunkhun says: “To begin with customers were leaving the store to look for other retailers selling menthol stock but they have stopped doing this now which gives me confidence that retailers in the area are also adhering to the law.”
Not all retailers are so confident, however. With trading standards teams privately telling Vape Business that enforcement of the menthol ban during lockdown would be limited, some retailers believe customers are finding non-compliant stores where menthol is still on sale.
“I haven’t seen any trading standards officers around and I think retailers around us are continuing to sell menthol products at the moment,” says Linda Sood. While other retailers have praised the continued support of sales reps throughout the lockdown, Sood adds that she has also received little support from manufacturers.
Linda Sood agrees: “We’re confused about all the new cigarettes on the market. We haven’t had any visits or communications from our reps and even when I went to the Booker depot there were spaces on the shelves for new products but no stock on them.”
Tobacco firms have said that the new products are about providing choice to those smokers wishing to remain in the combustible cigarette category.
Lockdown makes capitalising difficult
Retailers have found finding time to prepare for the ban particularly difficult in the background of the COVID-19 pandemic meaning business have relied on customers proactively seeking out menthol vape products.
Kay Patel says: “I had plans of bringing a lot of these products together on one menthol alternative unit but in the end I haven’t had time – it’s been like Groundhog day during the past few months. I think it’s been the same for a lot of stores. In the end it means that when customers are buying these products in store it’s not because they’ve seen them but because they have been searching them out.”
Harj Gill agrees: “I’ve put a counter top unit up with all the alternatives but that’s literally all I’ve done. We’ve been seeing sales increases of 40 or 50 percent [in the whole store] and its good for business but it’s just been relentless.”