April 20, 2020
Safe to say that this will not now be the run-up to the menthol ban that either the industry or retailers were expecting. The coronavirus has blown off course planned in-store support and social distancing measures stymie any thoughts of intimate one-on-one customer service.
And all that is without mentioning that the government has mandated all specialist vape shops to close their doors as part of the wider lockdown on non-food retail.
Yet, the menthol ban gets ever nearer anyway and stores need to prepare, perhaps now more than ever, if they want to protect their profits.
Over recent weeks some major activity has highlighted the moves that major suppliers are making. One was the eye-catching launch of a menthol ban-friendly IQOS starter kit with an RRP of £39, featuring its 2.4 plus device and two packs of menthol HEETS.
All IQOS stores have closed due to the current lockdown until further notice but an online store search function on the brand’s site still directs customers to stores which sell HEETS. This means businesses which engage with brand owner PMI through the menthol-ban.co.uk website can gain a loyal customer base during difficult times.
Meanwhile, Imperial is focusing on its myblu system (read our Capsules, Cartridges and Pods feature in Vape Business to learn more) but has also revealed a new system called zoneX. These mint-flavoured nicotine pouches are currently on-trial in UK stores and emphasise the choice being offered to menthol smokers as the ban nears.
Coronavirus or not, there may well be more such news in the days and weeks ahead.
Of course, tobacco sales will not end because of the menthol ban and many in the industry expect traditional combustible to be the main beneficiary of the ban.
In recent weeks, some of the biggest brands have been announcing how menthol products are being collapsed into new or existing sub-brands – often aided by new blends or filter technology to provide a less harsh taste for menthol smokers.
“The new Pall Mall portfolio has been developed to replace menthol cigarettes for adult menthol smokers,” a BAT spokesperson told Vape Business as news of its changes began to appear last month. “The portfolio closely mirrors the experience of smoking a menthol cigarette – making it a natural choice for smokers who prefer menthol.”
JTI has also announced changes to Benson & Hedges, Sterling and other key brands. And while Philip Morris staff have intimated that there will be no similar changes, as it focuses fully on IQOS, other companies are likely to follow BAT and JTI’s lead.
In fact, manufacturers are clear that availability and range needs to be maintained right up to 20 May. “The popularity for menthol and capsule segments continues to grow, with capsule now responsible for 17.2% of total cigarette sales in the UK, representing a key profit opportunity,” says Mark Yexley, communications director at JTI. “You should maintain full availability and range, stocking key brands, to ensure they meet the needs of their existing adult smokers pre-May 2020.”
JTI has also created a website (jtiadvance.co.uk/mentholban2020) to support retailers through the coming weeks. Through this resource, stores can also get support on the company’s next gen brands including Logic Compact and Nordic Spirit.
Yexley says: “As with previous legislation, such as the Retail Display Ban, Plain Packaging, and Track & Trace, those who prepare well will experience the least disruption to their business.”
Yet, stores planning their post-menthol ban should undoubtedly also look beyond the traditional tobacco sector – wherever there store is and whatever customer base they have.
For those involved in the vape market the chance to pull away thousands, possibly millions, of smokers at a crucial time for public health is one they accept with zeal.
John Patterson, sales director at Juul Labs says: “Pod and cartridge systems may provide alternatives to menthol cigarettes and to cigarettes in general. Clearly smokers should first and foremost try and give up – tobacco-related diseases are responsible for almost 96,000 deaths in the UK every year – but if they can’t or won’t, they should completely transition to potentially less harmful nicotine products. For those menthol smokers who choose to move into alternatives in the e-cigarette and vaping category, it is imperative that retailers offer alternatives.”
Patterson isn’t alone in having confidence of a potential bonanza for those businesses operating in tobacco alternative markets.
“The encroaching menthol ban will inevitably drive menthol cigarette consumers towards smoking alternatives – with vaping products as a primary contender,” a spokesperson for NextGEN360, manufacturer of EDGE, LiQuid and Prima e-liquids. “Retailers should ensure they are stocking a full portfolio of devices as well as a corresponding selection of leading menthol e-liquids, to give ex-menthol smokers ample opportunity to experiment with products to establish what best meets their needs.”
It’s pointless trying to plan out how exactly the next few weeks will go on a national level. It may be that the lockdown continues and shoppers have just a few seconds to choose what non-menthol cigarette option they will choose, or in a more relaxed retail atmosphere there may be more time for you to discuss the full range of choices. It is, however, clear that the there are many options that retailers will be able to offer their menthol smoking customers come 20 May.
Yet, as Duncan Cunningham says: “In order to succeed post-ban, it’s crucial that retailers and their staff understand what changes are coming and know what products and brands they have on offer in order to advise customers effectively. Training is key to success in this regard so taking time to talk staff through the ranges on offer will go a long way to help protect and maximise their sales post-ban.”
You have a month to do just that.