The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an unprecedented impact on individuals, businesses, and our economy as a whole. During these uncertain times, the Premium Cigar Association remains committed to helping our premium tobacco retail members. In an effort to help you continue to generate revenue during this time, we have developed the following list of short-term strategies to help generate much-needed revenue for your business. While this may not solve every challenge you’re facing, we hope it will offer some solutions and help you generate ideas to help you stay connected to your customers and continue generating revenue during this time.
Collaborate with Other Local Businesses
Many businesses are offering alternative sales options to customers. To stand out and reach a wider audience, consider collaborating with other businesses to create co-marketing opportunities. For instance, is there a great local brewery nearby? Talk with them about creating a unique package to include both cigars + beer. With both businesses promoting the collaboration, you’ll both get double the exposure! Make sure both parties are promoting the unique offering through social media, email, websites, etc with links back to one another’s website and social media accounts.
Promote Gift Cards
Gift cards offer an immediate injection of cash for retailers, and most often ensures a customer will return to the business in the future. For retailers with thin margins, gift cards can offer some much-needed relief during these difficult times. You might also consider offering a free gift card (of a small denomination) with every order to help incentivize customers now, while simultaneously helping to secure future sales.
Short-Term Sales on Underperforming Stock
Businesses deemed non-essential are now experiencing a significant decline in sales. To help offset this, consider promoting a time-limited (~1 week) sale on inventory that isn’t moving.
- Use your inventory management system to perform an ABC analysis of your products, thus allowing you to accurately prioritize your products.
- Following the ABC analysis, consider selling your “C-grade” products through a short-term (time-limited) sale (discount, bundling, etc).
A few ways to reduce dead stock:
- Donate a portion of the sale to a charity like Feeding America or others working to help people during COVID-19
- Give it away as a gift with purchase
- Bundle it with other products for a price that is less than it would be if buying individually
Deploy Product Alerts to Combat Inventory Issues
Some retailers have started moving away from promo campaigns and are instead pushing out “back in stock” emails to combat inventory challenges. These product alerts are a simple yet highly effective way to let your customers know about their favorite products. Price drop, low inventory, and back in stock detection helps you quickly target customers who have interacted with specific products—based on viewed, carted, purchased, and wish list activity, and automate high-conversion messages.
Consider a Pre-Order Program
This is an incredibly difficult time for small businesses, and people know it. For retailers, keeping a healthy cash flow is paramount, and many are asking customers to pre-order products by leaving a deposit or paying up front. To help jumpstart a pre-order program, you can send a multi-channel message (email, text, social media, video) to your subscriber list to let customers know you’ll be taking pre-orders. Let customers know you’ll notify them as soon as the product is back in stock (either through social media messenger, email or text) and ready to be fulfilled.
Offer Payment Plans
Across the board, when we’re doing our online shopping now, we almost expect some sort of discount. To protect your cash flow during this economic downturn, consider offering a payment plan for larger orders, with the option for customers to break payments up over a 3 to 4-month timeframe.
As the saying goes, “when one door closes, another one opens.” This has never been truer than now. Whether your store is closed, or you’ve had to reduce operating hours and limit visitors, now is the time to consider alternate options and incentives. To encourage people to stay inside and shop online, consider offering a limited-edition capsule collection or product as an online-only offer. All retailers are watching the numbers now, but those who are responding by putting people first are staying ahead of—and flattening, the curve.
Uplift and Engage Your Community
Now is a great time to share your knowledge and expertise with your customers and community in a fun way. Posting tutorials on “how to properly cut a cigar” or “how to keep cigars fresh” or “a few of my favorite cigars” are a few examples that will connect you with loyal customers and larger audiences alike. Creating and sharing videos like these are fun ways to enrich people’s lives while encouraging people to stay safe and stay home. You could even expand this and combine a few things you enjoy, like grilling out while enjoying a cigar and talking about both. This is a great way to connect your shared passions with others who may also share them, while encouraging people to know you better, and thus feel more connected to you and your business. This is also a great time to help people get to know your entire team, through zoom calls or over live broadcasting to social media, or by simply choosing one day each week to invite people to get know someone on your team, wherein the chosen team member could talk about their passion for the industry, their role in the business, and more!
Social media is a great way to connect with your audience and keep them involved. Let customers know how your business is adapting, alternative options available, and, if you’re having difficulties. People connect with authenticity and truthfulness, especially now.
Free Shipping and Delivery Options
People are shopping online now more than ever, but many online stores are still charging for shipping. Combine that with the widespread delivery delays, and you have an opportunity to stand out like a shining star. By offering free shipping, curbside pickup or local delivery, customers are more incentivized to shop with you over the competition. And once things begin to re-open, customers will remember this, and will often come back and shop with again. If you are shipping, skip expensive packaging and get free packaging, available from all major US couriers (USPS, DHL Express, UPS).
Apply for Government Relief
While incurring more debt is generally a last resort, governments worldwide are rolling out relief measures to support small businesses impacted by COVID-19. See our comprehensive list of resources currently available here.
While people are limited in where they can physically go, they still want and expect access to their favorite products. To meet this demand, many businesses have expanded to offer online ordering, and if you can, why not? Even if you aren’t set up to provide online sales, try offering over-the-phone sales, curbside pickup, and delivery to help ease the burden to customers and help keep your business going.
Update Your Business Listings
It is important to let customers know of any changes to your business. Check to make sure your listings on Google, Facebook, Yelp, Bing, etc are up-to-date to reflect your current store hours and services. A lot of these online platforms have now included options to include a message about any additional services you are offering. This is critical as many will see your business on these sites first, especially when they’re searching from mobile devices.
With sales going online, it is now more important than ever before to stand out over the competition. Online reviews are highly effective and influential for consumers when considering making a purchase.
- Ask for reviews on every channel where you make sales
- Ask for a review after every purchase
Launch an E-Commerce Site
Launching an e-commerce site can be a big undertaking for many small retailers, however, if you have the time and resources, it can be a huge success. Before you get started, you’ll want to learn more about e-commerce and decide if this is the right path for you to take. Check out these free webinars from Lightspeed to learn more about e-commerce. For premium tobacco retailers, e-commerce platforms can be a bit more complex. Retailers should consult state laws to ensure compliance, as different states have different requirements and regulations.
E-Commerce Relief Plans
If you are ready to launch an e-commerce site, several companies are offering discounts to retailers during this time. Learn more about some of the options available here.
Step Up Your Digital Marketing
Meet your customers where they are. As consumers are largely working from home and practicing safe social distancing, they’re spending more time online than ever before. This presents a new opportunity for you to connect with them, and also means you’ll have to be a bit more aggressive to get their attention. It’s time to step up your digital marketing game.
Re-analyze your marketing spend, improve the effectiveness of your virtual communications, and optimize your website (and e-commerce site if available).
Treat your homepage like your storefront. With limited or non-existent physical foot traffic, your website homepage is now acting as the experience a customer would normally have when walking into your store. Try to incorporate some of the physical store experiences into your site. Use product pages, ensuring all inventory is up-to-date, and consider adding virtual tours or videos to personalize the experience. Also consider adding live chat to your website to further connect with customers when face-to-face contact is limited.
- Welcome site visitors with warmth, empathy and compassion on your home page. Your homepage is like a first impression. If they immediately feel you are with them in this and care about them, visitors will feel a stronger connection to you and your business.
- Be transparent. Be sure to communicate honestly to customers on your homepage, product detail pages, and shopping cart page to clearly communicate delays in shipping or changes in product availability.
- Invest in SEO. Search Engine Optimization is essential to growing your online presence and promoting your business. To ensure your store shows up first, it is important to research and implement keywords that will drive people directly to you. When your SEO is optimized, Google will rank your site higher and drive more traffic to your site, which will likely produce increased sales.
Your social media pages are an extension of your website and should offer a similar experience as your website. Think of your social media posts more like conversations and adjust your verbiage to be more inviting and engaging. Post often, engage with your customers by posing questions, and set up virtual events. If you don’t have a large following, now is a great time to start building on this! Invite friends and customers to like and follow your page and consider running contests to help grow your audience. Additional recommendations for your social media channels:
- Collaborate with PR and communication teams to develop proactive messaging and content guidance
- Leverage video across YouTube and Social, as consumer behavior (especially now) has shifted to video
- Host livestream events to stay in touch with your customers and grow your reach
- Continue customer service through social channels, and be transparent about potential response times
- Ensure your social posts do not include any COVID-related insensitive messaging
Create experiences through Social Media: In the absence of IRL experiences, your customers in isolation are looking more to social media for content and connection. Again, you want to meet your customers where they are. Consider live-streaming virtual “herf” sessions, talks with your customers, or hosting virtual chat sessions with some of the brands your customers love. Tools like Instagram Live, Facebook Live, IGTV, Zoom, and more allow you to broadcast to an unlimited number of people anytime you want. Additional broadcast ideas might include:
- Bring the ‘Cigar Lounge’ experience to the digital platform and invite people to ‘come smoke with us’. Attendees can type in questions and comments and engage in an inclusive experience, giving them a sense of normalcy during these times, while still encouraging safe social distancing practices.
- Host a live Q&A
- Showcase a new product through a live video – you could even make this a weekly occurrence, with an in-depth discussion of a different product each week
- Invite a manufacturer to join you on a LIVE session and let customers get to know more about their favorite brands and products direct from the maker
Reach out to your customers directly, letting them know of your alternate store operations and sales options, while remaining sensitive to the situation. While generating revenue is even more important now, businesses must first and foremost remain sensitive. Sending out a direct sales blast would be ill-advised, especially if there has been little to no contact in the past few months. It would be better to imagine each email as a one-on-one letter or note, letting people know you’re in this with them and sensitive to their plight before going into the details of your new offerings.
Connect via Text (SMS)
Your customers are more connected to their phones than ever before. Push notifications can be a great tactic to connect with your audience, but it is important to be mindful of the way your communicating. To run a successful SMS campaign, you’ll want to know your audience’s preferences and multichannel activity, consider the other communications you’re sending to them on other channels and dial those down as needed, and make sure to make the messages as relevant as possible to that particular audience.
- Encourage employees to ask customers if they want to opt-in for text promotions and sales to build your list.
- Include text (SMS) opt-in on your website pop-ups or online store.
Use Video Chat
A premium tobacconist is so much more than a local retailer. More often than not, when customers come into your store, they spend a great deal of time talking with shop owners and staff, and other customers. With social distancing now in place, the same in person conversations are no longer an option, however, there is still an opportunity to connect. Through video chats, you can talk with your customers and build a stronger connection than you can through phone calls, emails or text messaging. Consider creating a schedule where customers can block off time to talk with you on a video chat session or simply offering video calls as an added option when people call your business.
Monitor Customer Wish Lists
While some of your customers may not be spending the way they were before, they’re still saving items to their wish list to buy later (if you have that feature available). Others may simply be favoriting items as a way to distract themselves through window shopping. Identify your audiences who have saved items in specific categories or brands and let them know when the products are ‘now on sale’ or consider featuring these items in future messages to pique their interest now or later on when they’re ready to purchase again.
Talk with Manufacturers
As the coronavirus continues to impact the world, premium cigar manufacturers have stepped up to offer support to PCA retailers. Los Caidos Cigars, the brand who gives a portion of every purchase to a 501(c)(3) financially supporting family members of Fallen police officers and firefighters, recently announced additional exclusive offers for PCA retailers. Steve Zengel, owner and founder of Los Caidos, also told us on a recent livestream, that the company would provide extended terms of 45—60 days or longer on his special 11-count boxes to any retail member of the PCA who needs help at this time.
Recently, Ace Prime and Crowned Heads formed a strategic alliance and launched Bulb to support local cigar retailers. The Bulb Box is a monthly subscription that directly supports the local cigar retailer. Subscribers receive exclusive content, special deals, and access to live experiences with special guests, with profits going to retailers.
Nat Sherman is also helping out, shipping Retailer Support Kits to their retail partners still operating during the pandemic. Retailers receive free (no charge & free shipping) curbside pickup support kits (limited to 2 per store), which include 25 shopping bags, 50 zipper bags, 25 cardboard carrying sleeves, a box of 25 matches and 25 cigar cutters. The items are meant to help keep cigar retailers stocked with items necessary to keep their businesses running.
All in all, the most important thing brick and mortar retailers can do right now is to stay in contact with customers. Despite store closures, reduced foot traffic or reduced hours, this connection must remain intact. Whether through one-on-one phone calls to simply ‘check in and see how you’re doing’ or though digital forms when in-person engagement is impossible or reduced, connection is key to coming through this stronger than we were before. Even when your physical store is inaccessible, customers need to feel you are still there, and should still feel the strength of their loyalty and engagement with your business and your brand.