Of the many unusual and unique consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unexpected sales of high-end luxury goods stand out as a seeming anomaly. A health crisis which caused economic mayhem for millions of individuals turned out to be a boon for suppliers of expensive and collectable merchandise. Those of means, who found themselves without the usual avenues for their disposable income like travel and fine dining, sought new outlets to invest their money.
Those of us in the retail tobacco trade know full well the propensity of our well-heeled customers to acquire and collect luxury items like fine pens and lighters. For those in the business of importing and selling those types of items, the year 2020 saw record sales. One such fortunate company is Coles of London, a luxury pen and lighter distributor, helmed by its president Mark Cole. As a native Londoner, how he came to be a leading U.S. importer of fine luxury goods makes for a compelling narrative.
In 2001, when Mark Cole was a CPA working for accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand in London, it’s likely that importing and distributing fine writing and lighting instruments to the United States was the furthest thing from his mind. But Cole knew he wanted to leave the number crunching world and go into business for himself. He began by distributing pens in Great Britain, and, in the process, created his own brand and line of pens. Eventually, he acted on an opportunity to come to the U.S. to distribute Yolo, a brand of ergonomically designed pens. When that brand folded a few years later, Cole became the distributor of several other lines of pens, including the brand Visconti.
Then, in 2018, Cole was able to add the S.T. Dupont line of pens, allowing him to discontinue all the other brands aside from Visconti. At the time, Davidoff was the exclusive U.S. distributor for all Dupont merchandise, but Cole had approached S.T. Dupont, initially, with the intention of taking over the pen distribution.
“Originally it was just the pen channel that we took over,” says Cole. “We worked in parallel with Davidoff for a couple of years.”
A few years later, however, Davidoff and Dupont parted ways, and Cole was offered the entire product line. “They weren’t just talking to us, they were talking with a couple of bigger players that were already in the cigar channel. But I think Dupont felt we had done a very good job in the pen channel in a very short amount of time.” For that reason, Dupont felt that Coles could be successful with the cigar-related products, and in January of 2021 Coles took over the sales of lighters and cigar-related accessories.
Despite a lack of experience with such merchandise, the Coles sales team was fortunate to have West Coast Sales Manager John Lane, an avid cigar smoker who, as Cole explains, “is extremely familiar with Dupont. He owns a Davidoff Dupont lighter himself. So he is a huge source of knowledge for my sales staff.”
In addition, in April, lighter industry veteran Les Mann joined the team, offering, according to Cole, “ a wealth of wisdom.” Cole also credits Craig Cass, of The Tinder Box in Charlotte, North Carolina, with being “hugely helpful and supportive of us.”
As with most distributors, the main emerging challenge this year is receiving inventory, something Cole has been juggling most of the year.
“We’ve been with Visconti a long time, and we’re on track to have our most successful year ever with Visconti this year,” he says. “The good news for Visconti is that their manufacturing was not really affected by COVID. We’ve had very, very few logistical problems with Visconti. The situation with Dupont is quite different. We’ve only started with them in the cigar channel this year, so I have no other year to compare and Dupont has been more affected by COVID than Visconti, primarily because Dupont is a bigger company. Also, the shipping from France is a lot slower than from Italy, for whatever reason.”
Regardless of supply chain challenges, Cole believes the future looks bright for both luxury lines. To complement the S.T. Dupont lighter selection, the company is expanding its offerings of accessories, with several new humidors and ashtrays being introduced this year.
Cole adds: “Every year there are new lighters. Sometimes there are just new finishes, sometimes they re-design lighters. This year the Mega Jet was a new technology because it has a very wide flame. The Defi XXtreme was the first time they had a double torch lighter.”
Aside from the development of new technology, Cole is also fortunate to have some influence on new designs and models for the U.S. market. “This applies to both Visconti and Dupont. For Visconti, I have helped them develop and design pens ever since we started. We are by far their largest and most important distributor in the world. I’m often advising them on pens I need for the U.S. market, and they’re very open to that. A wonderful company to work with. When it comes to Dupont, they are very open to our ideas. They already made three exclusive pen collections for us based on what we wanted. They’ve also launched some lighter collections based on our requests.”
Coles has also introduced several new lines of Visconti writing instruments, notably the stunning Van Gogh Collection, their best-selling line. Such painstaking attention to detail points out the manufacturer’s commitment to producing pieces suitable for collection, yet with everyday practicality.
In an effort to connect with the premium cigar industry, Coles has exhibited at the PCA Trade Show and other industry events. Emphasizing the importance of communication, Cole says: “At the end of the day, being successful in life is about developing and managing close relationships. And relationships are all about communication. A very important part of us taking over has been to communicate with all the stores, talk to them about our business, and also talk to them about how we’re going to operate as the distributor of Dupont. We’re listening to their comments. We listened to what their needs were, and we’ve been trying to meet those needs.”
For tobacconists contemplating adding pens to their product mix or to those who unsure if pens are a good fit for their store, Cole has the following advice: “Of course a cigar store’s primary focus is going to be selling cigars and cigar accessories. When it comes to gifting and the holiday season, lighters are an obvious choice for a cigar store. The pen is a not-so-obvious choice, but one that gives more options to the consumer. A pen is a wonderful accessory. Everybody uses a pen. And there’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be gained by writing with a nice writing instrument.” He hastens to add that a pen is not a difficult item to sell, and a retailer can get started with as few as four or five pens and still have a good selection.
With sufficient inventory and an expanding sales force, it appears Coles of London will be poised to experience significant growth in the coming year, and in those that follow. For more information on Visconti Pens and S.T. Dupont Lighters visit colesoflondon.com.