While it may be late in the year, it is never too late to start planning for the holiday shopping season! And with increased supply-chain shortages and shipping delays, consumer demand for products has also increased. What does this mean? More customers will be frequenting your stores in person and online, giving you the perfect opportunity to go above and beyond, think outside the box, and master the art of customer service.
So whether you’re fully prepared, mostly prepared, somewhat prepared, or not at all prepared, this list of tips and strategies includes advice from your fellow PCA members and will help you get your store and staff ready for a successful holiday season!
#1 Prepare You Staff
The holiday season is a festive, exciting time for many, but it can also be a stressful time for employees, especially if they aren’t prepared. And since they are the face of your business when you aren’t nearby, it’s important to get them fully in-the-know before the rush begins.
Be sure all employees know what to expect throughout the season, especially on “big” shopping days, and ensure they have all the training and information they need to best help your customers. Some questions to ask yourself to ensure they’re ready may include:
- Does each employee know about all the holiday specials you’re offering?
- What happens if you sell out of an item?
- Are your sales/return policies clearly posted and communicated to customers?
- Does each employee understand and ‘know’ all the products?
- Are all staff trained on what to do in case of a shoplifting incident, including recognizing warning signs and tips for prevention?
One idea for preparing you staff, according to Mike Kimzey of Discount Smokes in Louisville, Kentucky, is to “Walk EACH employee through your humidor and give them 2 cigars for Mild, Medium and Bold that they can remember to help customers when you are not there. They can make the customer feel comfortable by saying ‘These are the 2 cigars in your flavor profile that the boss recommends’.”
When your staff is well-prepared and informed, they’ll be better prepared to do their best work for you and provide an exceptional experience for your customers.
#2 Exceed Customer Expectations
Once you and your staff are prepared, you’ll be able to meet and exceed customer expectations and provide the positive experience that will make them want to come back. And since it’s the holiday shopping season, this is the time of year when you have to amp up the customer experience even more than usual.
With the expected surge in sales volume and increased sense of urgency, customers want an experience that makes them feel happy they came to you. According to Chris Gwaltney, Owner of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in Florida, it’s all about “Service, Service, Service. There are customers who will enter your doors for the first time in search for a gift. They may not smoke or drink so they will more than likely be uncomfortable and seeking your help. If you knock the guest service out of the park, they will not only come back but will recommend you to others. On the other hand, drop the ball and they are done with you.”
A big part of customer service is actively engaging and listening to what they want. Daniel Greenwald of Cigars on Maybank in South Carolina says to, “Ask a lot of questions to assist customers in the decision-making process.” Charlie Davis of B & B Tobacconists in North Carolina, and John Sheerin of Original Seed Cigar & Lounge in Massachusetts also agree that ‘listening to your customers’ is key, as you’ll then be better able to offer them the items they’ll most enjoy.
And while it may sound simple, in customer service a smile goes a long way. Jessica Hutson, owner of Just For Him in Missouri, Eric Smaldino of Napa Cigars in California, and Roger Penrod of G&P Fine Tobaccos Limited in Alaska, all agree that it’s important to smile and remind staff to smile.
Some other tips for providing great customer service are:
- “Practice Active Sales: many buying gifts are intimidated and unsure what they are looking at. Help them!” —Andy Hyde, Nolan’s Cigar Bar, Michigan
- “Always stay neutral, passive, and unopinionated on everything but what you’re selling. Be accessible to your customers. Don’t just sit in the lounge waiting to be approached.” —Charlie Davis, B&B Tobacconists, North Carolina
- “Greet and Thank all customers.” —H. Granville Smith, Signature Cigars, Maryland
- “Slow down and talk to everyone.” —Michael Mentzer, Vallejo Cigar Guild, California
- “Festive spirit in the shop with great hospitality.” —Brian Waters, Open Door Cigars, Arkansas
Customer service doesn’t just mean in the store. If you have an online presence, treat this the same as your brick-and-mortar location and find ways to offer the same level of care and service virtually. Consider live chat support or implement a chatbot to provide that extra personal touch even when you’re not face to face. Do you find yourself answering a lot of the same questions from customers? Think about adding FAQs to your website or integrating the answers to more specific questions in product descriptions. Do you have a social media presence? If so, be sure you’re getting alerts when people reach out so you can respond quickly and efficiently, the same as you would in your store.
#3 Holiday Gift Packs and Sampler Bags
The holiday season is quite literally the season for gift sets, and why should premium tobacco be any different? Some manufacturers will provide pre-packaged holiday gift sets, which are perfect for shoppers with a particular brand in mind. But don’t stop there! If you have items you already know will sell, pre-wrap them to add a little something special and save time for the customer. Some ideas for gift packs and sampler bags include:
- “Create different gift packages for beginners and for aficionados” — Eddie Atalla, Godfather Cigars, North Carolina
- Tip: make it a complete package with dedicated cigars, cutter and lighter, and similar package for pipe smokers
- “Have pillow boxes so you can make your own gift packs for 1—6 cigars.” —Ken Neumann, Neumann’s Cigars & More, Illinois
- “Buy a lot of gift packs! When you are very busy, these are a quick, fast sale that save time for clients who are in a hurry.” — Tim Clifford, The Cigar Shopper, Georgia
- “Go to the Dollar Store and buy coffee mugs, glasses, tissue paper and ribbon. Build small assortments of 4—5 cigars and wrap with a bow. Make sure you can price them at $19.99. They will FLY! Also build assortment bags filled with slow-moving items and offer them at a 35% discount. It helps get people to try those sticks and get those brands moving.” — Mike Kimzey, Discount Smokes, Kentucky
- “Many people are looking for gifts this time of year. Know your product and what to suggest to those buying gifts.” — Mike Vold, Kwik Trip Inc, Wisconsin
- “Offer selection packs of interesting or boutique cigars, themed so that customers can decide easily.” — Oliver Nickels, German Engineered Cigars GmbH
- “Provide items that look “gifty”. It sounds simple, but often times the smallest piece of swag can make a big difference in someone’s decision to make a purchase. If you don’t have any gift sets from manufacturers, create your own!” — Chris Gwaltney, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, Florida
- “Take slow moving cigars & make a holiday 5 pack.” — Craig Cass, Tinder Box, North Carolina
- “Custom cigar samplers sell really well and increase average units sold.” — Michael Lohsl, Chesapeake Pipe & Cigar, Maryland
When it comes to gift sets, variety is key. Be sure to have different types of gift sets at different price points to fit every smoker and every budget. While some sets can include a complete package, others can be more simplified with a lighter and cutter.
#4 Stock Up!
The holidays are your sweet spot so it’s crucial to you have a well-stocked inventory. With new and returning customers increasing their spending during this season of giving, you want to make sure you have everything they need when they walk in your door or visit your online shop. Look at prior years and the past few months to get a good idea of what sold well and determine what and how much you’ll need to carry you through the season. Retailers across the country all agree that having a well-stocked inventory and stocking up early is critical to ensure a successful sales season. And don’t forget the Boveda packs!
- “Go thru your inventory, decide what you want to try and sell thru this holiday season and train your staff!” — Andrew Kerstein, Smoker’s Haven, New Jersey
- “Order product in advance to avoid shipping delays/product shortages.” — Mike Vold, Kwik Trip, Wisconsin
- “This is the time you will sell lots of accessories…order early! Humidors, lighters, cutters, gift packs, ashtrays, etc.” — Harvey Burkin, Maxwell’s Cigar Bar, Georgia
- “You can’t sell it if you don’t have it. Be ready with inventory.” — Scott Regina, Emerson’s Cigars, Virginia
- “Depending on your tax situation, push accessories. No owed tobacco tax!” — Joseph Scaffidi, Joe’s Cigars & Social Club, New Jersey
- “Ensure a healthy quantity of accessories for those gift buyers!” — Joshua Evarts, Vault 1905, Idaho
- “Stock up on accessories for bundling holiday sets.” — Craig Cass, Tinder Box, North Carolina
- “Order accessories and samplers in October to ensure they’ll arrive in enough time to sell.” — Michael Falls, The Maduro Room, South Carolina
- “Pre-season all humidors so they are ready to fill with cigars.” — Ken Neumann, Neumann’s Cigars & More, Illinois
- “Stock unique, hard-to-find items for gifts. Even if they’re out of your normal wheelhouse.” — Bryan Snyder, LIT Cigar Lounge St. Louis, Missouri
#5 Make it Too Good to Pass Up
The holidays are all about deals, and with nearly every retailer offering special savings to entice customers, you’ll want to plan your sales strategy well in advance so you can slay the season! Experts recommend implementing a variety of deals, focusing on impulse buys, upselling, suggestive selling and special deals.
Alternatively, your promotions can focus on offering freebies or games with prizes in place of discounts. Think about holding a drawing—in store or on social media, every hour or every day, to give away small freebies that customers will love. Or offer a gift with every purchase. These alternative strategies allow you to promote and compete while still retaining your margin.
Whatever you decide, remember your small business is unique and shoppers come in expecting a more personal touch. Your promotions should reflect this. If you want a few ideas for creating deals and discounts, check out these top tips from PCA retailers:
- “Use cigars that aren’t selling well or were free to boost gift card purchases. Use extra discounts to move what isn’t selling or lines you are not bringing back.” — Craig Cooper, Austin’s Cigar Lounge, Michigan
- “Have $10 gift cards to place in with gifts for the recipient who might not already shop at your store.” — Kenneth Neumann, Neumann’s Cigars & More, Illinois
- “Offer a free product on top of a purchase versus giving discounts. Get as much cash as you can.” — Scott Regina, Emerson’s Cigars, Virginia
- “12 Days of Christmas, 8 days of Chanukah, Advent Calendar with 24 different specials.” — Michael Lohsl, Chesapeake Pipe & Cigar, Maryland
- “Create specials that appeal to your customer.” — Dorothy McCaffrey, A Cuban Experience, Illinois
- “Increase sales with discounts on the purchase of multiple items.” — John Ost, Ft. Worth Lone Star Cigars, Texas
- “Pop Up Sales.” — Kimberly Conner, The Smoke Pit, Tennessee
- “Promote cigars with Buy x/Get $ off.” — Mike Vold, Kwik Trip, Wisconsin
- “We offer a discount on Humidors with a qualifying cigar purchase.” — Mike & Debbie Stubban, Milo’s Tobacco Road, Illinois
- “This is the time to push Humidors, they make great gifts. Especially since customers are likely to be stocking up on cigars via grab bags.” — Andrew Barner, Drew’s Tobacco World, Oklahoma
#6 Get the Word Out!
You can’t run a successful promotion without telling people about it. And to execute a successful promotion, it’s important to plan early so you have time to prepare your marketing in advance of the rush. Most businesses start to push their holiday deals in October to help build up anticipation and get customers thinking about you well in advance. Below are some top tips for optimizing your marketing strategy for the holidays:
- “Utilize an email service like Constant Contact to reach more customers. Highlight products you carry that are unique.” — John Ost, Ft. Worth Lone Star Cigars, Texas
- “Add the message of gift giving, not just self-purchase. That’s what the season is all about. Also advertise/promote via social media or other. Let people know what you have going on.” — James Miudo, Quality Importers Trading Co, Florida
- “Advertise BIG for the Holidays! This doesn’t just mean traditional advertising. Newsletters, social media, etc., are good, cheap ways to get the word about your products out there.” — Andrew Barner, Drew’s Tobacco World, Oklahoma
- “Advertise on all media outlets.” — Dorothy McCaffrey, A Cuban Experience, Illinois
- “Direct communication with you customer base. Email campaigns, push notification via apps, text messages. Keep them engaged with all the new and exciting merchandise.” — Daniel Martinez, Cigar Savvy, Washington
- “Make people aware that cigars/accessories make great holiday gifts.” — Harvey Burkin, Maxwell’s Cigar Bar, Georgia
- “Showcase holiday specific items via video, not just pictures, on all social channels.” — Bryan Snyder, LIT Cigar Lounge St. Louis, Missouri
- “Update your website and social media so that customers (and their spouses) find you and see your offering.” — Oliver Nickels, German Engineered Cigars GmbH
And to ensure you’re making the most of the season, here are a few key holiday sales dates to add to your calendar:
- Black November (November 1): Starts on November 1 and runs the entire month. So yes, the whole month is now one giant sale. And with shoppers being encouraged to start earlier this year than ever before, this creates a great opportunity to start promotions early!
- Black Friday (November 26): Initially coined by a police officer in the early ’60s due to holiday shopping traffic jams, business began taking advantage of it in the ‘80s and turned it into a huge shopping day. It remains the biggest holiday sales day of the season, though many companies have begun launching sales well in advance.
- Small Business Saturday (November 27): Launched in 2010 by American Express to battle big-box retailers’ holiday sales and celebrate small businesses, it now includes multiple Saturdays throughout the year.
- Cyber Monday (November 29): Initiated in 2005, this has become a huge driver of online holiday sales. The sale day hit a record $10.8 billion in total digital spending last year, a 15% increase from 2019.
- Free Shipping Day (December 14): Launched in 2008 to boost the online shopping slump in mid-December when customers get nervous about getting gifts in time, thousands of retailers offer free shipping on this day with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.
- Super Saturday (December 18): Sometimes referred to as Panic Saturday, this day targets last-minute holiday shoppers and is a great day to push inventory, as it’s the last full Saturday shopping day before Christmas.
- Boxing Day (December 26): A secular holiday in the UK and elsewhere, this is a huge day for returning gifts and shopping is the US. Many retailers drastically cut prices to reduce their inventory in advance of the new year.
#7 Create a Winter Wonderland
Now that you’ve promoted your business everywhere, it’s time for the customers to visit your store. Get your store (and website) into the spirit of the season and entice customers with festive displays and smart merchandising —everything to evoke the warm fuzzies and drive sales!
Schedule some extra time to clean and decorate your displays and store/lounge, and set up key merchandising areas, including front and center at the entrance and near the register for impulse buys.
- “Pick your sweet spot prices and build your displays around them. $35, $50, $100 are my sweet spots. Also, set up a separate display from your regular humidor for gift pack assortments. Many customers will come in and not know what cigars the person they are buying for really likes, but often will recognize a brand. A gift assortment is just what they are looking for” — Andrew Kerstein, Smoker’s Haven, New Jersey
- “Holiday gift table. Include samplers, ashtrays, humidors, etc.” — Michael Falls, The Maduro Room, South Carolina
- “Use all available space to sell.” — Matteo Fregosi, Fine Ash Cigars, Arizona
- “Re-merchandise to focus on price points that work for your market.” — Jessica Hutson, Just For Him, Missouri
- “Be willing to show lower priced items First.” — Roger Penrod, G&P Fine Tobaccos Limited, Alaska
- “Create a one stop shop assortment in part of the store.” — Daniel Greenwald, Cigars on Maybank, South Carolina
- “Having several prices ranging from $29.95 to $299.00 on a well-decorated table with signage is an eye catcher.” — Eddie Atalla, Godfather Cigars, North Carolina
Merchandising near the register is a tried-and-true method for getting that extra sale this season and throughout the year:
- “Identify some featured items and stack them up by the register.” — Scott Regina, Emerson’s Cigars, Virginia
- “Keep accessories at the register.” —Ronald Reed, Breakwaters Cigar & Whiskey Lounge, Rhode Island
- “Keep fast add-on sales behind the counter so you can increase sales without taking much time.” — Tim Clifford, The Cigar Shoppe, Georgia
#8 ‘Tis the Season for Celebration
The holidays are not only a time for shopping, but also a time for celebration, and as a retailer, you have the unique opportunity to offer both to your customers. Whether you’re hosting an event specifically to draw shoppers in or to celebrate and thank your VIP customers, events are a great opportunity to do it all. And since it’s in your store, you can include special discounts, giveaways, drawings, free gift wrapping, music, food and drinks —i.e., all the things! And don’t be afraid to ask key suppliers and reps for tips on maximizing sales of their brand or line —they may even provide free or discounted products for the promotion.
Whether you’re hosting a holiday party, open house, midnight madness event or anything else, PCA retailers suggest the following to help you make the most of the season and capture additional sales:
- “Hold a Holiday event featuring a cigar manufacturer and a charity organization.” — Jeffrey Stroup, Slippery Rock Cigars, Pennsylvania
- “Hold events to continue exposing products to consumers when they are already destined to buy.” — Lee Marsh, Stolen Throne Cigars, Virginia
- “Host a Saturday morning/afternoon vendor event during December.” — Michael Falls, The Maduro Room, South Carolina
#9 Staff Up
With more people shopping this time of year, this is time to ensure you’re staffed appropriately for the days and weeks ahead. While every retail store is different, it is important to plan ahead and adjust your staffing accordingly. I.e., if you were strapped last year, then get some extra help this year. And when you’re ready to hire, spread the word far and wide —through online job sites, your own website and social media, and even email.
It all comes back to customer service —having the appropriate number of staff can reduce wait times for busy customers who need to get in and get out and allow more people on hand to help with selecting that perfect gift, all of which can greatly increase your sales! And, as Randy Silverman, owner of Smoker Friendly in Pennsylvania points out, “The week between Christmas and New Year’s is still a strong selling week.” Don’t cut yourself short during that final push!
#10 Incentives Go a Long Way
Whether you’re incentivizing your employees to make a sale or incentivizing customers to spend their money with you, these types of motivators are guaranteed to produce results! Some of the top tips shared with us by PCA members include:
- “Offer a 10% bonus to all gift certificate purchases!” — Joshua Evarts, Vault 1905, Idaho
- “Gift card incentives to spend. I.e., spend $150 or more on humidors, lighters, or cutters to get a $25 gift card. Gets the recipient into the store.” — Daniel Aliseo, RD’s Smoker’s Delight, New Jersey
- “Put a spiff on the highest end cigar in your humidor.” —Craig Cass, Tinder Box, North Carolina
- “We have an upsell contest for add-ons at register.” — Milo & Debbie Stubban, Milo’s Tobacco Road, Illinois
- “Set up a jar for those who are buying gifts for others. Ask for their info. Draw 7 “After Days of Christmas” prizes from the bowl. Mix it up. Have them be from all local retail shops. A liquor store. A hardware store. Gas cards. Massage places. Bakeries. Coffee shop. Etc.” — Steve Zengel, Los Caidos
#11 Customer Appreciation
In addition to the holidays being the season of selling, it’s also a great time to show appreciation for your existing customers. Find a way to show you appreciate them and make them feel valued during this season. Steve Zengel of Los Caidos suggests, “Send your top 100 customers a holiday card with a $1 scratch off.” Something as simple as this shows you took the time to think of them and appreciate their loyalty.
Some other ways to show appreciation and boost customer loyalty during the holidays can include:
- Special discounts for existing customers
- Offering free shipping
- Launch a rewards program — this will appeal to new and existing customers alike
- Gifting your most loyal customers with an experience as a gift, like a dinner or activity
More Great Tips to Slay the Holiday Season
Beyond the top tips listed above, there are even more ways to make the 2021 holiday shopping season a success in your store.
- Extended Holiday Store Hours: many retailers expand their hours of operation during the holidays to encourage more shopping during the busiest retail season of the year. To compete with other retailers doing the same, be sure to promote your extended holiday hours so people know to come in.
- Gift Cards: Gift cards are a staple during the holiday season! Whether someone is shopping for a cigar lover but doesn’t know what to buy or they just need some great stocking stuffers, have these displayed well near your register for some quick, easy sales.
- Customer Appreciation: In addition to the holidays being the season of selling, it’s also a great time to show appreciation for your VIP customers. Find a way to show you appreciate them during this time, whether it’s through
- Gift Wrapping: In-store complimentary gift wrapping adds a little something extra to complete the customers’ holiday shopping experience. Jay Davis, owner of Blue Smoke Dallas says gift packaging for customers is one of his top tips for the season, and Kathleen Kelly of Cup O’Joes in New York suggests offering to make gift baskets for customers really makes a difference.
Making the Season Merry and Bright
The Holiday Season this year brings a lot of hope for many. And as a small business owner in the premium tobacco space, this is likely the most anticipated season in at least two years. When it comes to getting your store holiday-ready, don’t forget to think outside the box, get creative and have a little fun! And however you choose to amplify your retail game this year, we wish you a successful season filled with joy, peace, and prosperity!