For businesses, targeted community outreach can turn altruism to our advantage. Sometimes.
How goes the giving out there? It’s a difficult question to put to retailers who are now coping with unprecedented managerial challenges.
Tobacconists are, for the most part, a gregarious and civic-minded lot, long accustomed to giving back to their communities in ways that often escape notice, except to the beneficiaries they help. We wondered how community outreach was faring these days, so we reached out to a couple dozen tobacconists around the nation to “take the temperature” of the giving spirit during these interesting times. We asked whether they are still giving, and why and in what ways they give. We heard quite a range of responses.
Ryan Sturman, the owner of Sturman’s Smoke Shop in Boise, Idaho, said: “I’m not sure there is ever a downside to helping others. We donate to any local charity that comes knocking. First, we enjoy helping others, and second, it’s nice to help people view smoke shops in a different light—help them realize that cigar stores are all about community and relationships. It always brings a sense of pride.”
Jeff Packer, who owns Tinder Box Tacoma in Tacoma, Washington, elaborated on the theme, saying his shop had participated in a wide variety of outreach efforts—“charity motorcycle rides, silent auctions, golfing events, several organizations with a variety of agendas, including police investigative conferences, first responder conferences and military family events.” However, he did add this: “Charity is just that. Don’t expect to get a side benefit for donating. You are doing it for the right reasons. The promotional aspect of getting your name out there has never paid off for my store.”
Nina Batson, who operates Classic Cigars in Owasso, Oklahoma, said she takes a careful and selective approach to giving. “I can’t consider, for instance, donating to schools, because of the 21 age limit associated with tobacco. A few of my customers ask for donations for their own charities, and if I know them, I try to do all I can.” But she added the following cautionary note: “My advice is to give only what you can afford, because everybody has wants and needs, and I get frequent requests. If you give to everyone who asks, you’ll go broke.” Packer, our Tacoma respondent, agreed: “Everyone thinks that if you run a small business, you are rolling in money. But the reality is that I live deposit to deposit, and bill to bill.”
We observed, too, that not every giver has managed to capture even a spark of karma’s magic. One Virginia merchant reported: “We’ve done that kind of thing in the past, but it was just a giveaway. We realized no benefit.” A shop owner in New York state said that, while his store continues to donate auction items to favorite charities, the time, effort and expense of more customized activism “gives us a warm, charitable feeling but does nothing for the bottom line.”
Yet there are tobacconists that have seen outreach produce a direct, positive impact on their bottom line. Angela Yue, of Lord Puffer Tobacconist in Escondido, California, explains, “Community outreach has helped us tremendously. Our customers have always been there for us since day one, so we like to give back to their businesses and projects as much as we can. We have a particularly good relationship with our local police and fire department. We like to sponsor them whether it be financially or through cigar donations. If you give back to your community, your community will give back to you.”
She adds that even in a high-tax, high-regulatory state like California, she can still find beneficial ways to reach out. “I come from the state of high taxes but we have not experienced any pitfalls because if you do your homework there are legal ways to make charitable contributions in your state. If we can do it in such a high-tax state as California, anyone can do it! One example is that we pay full retail price for all donations we make towards our community. This way, all the federal AND state taxes have been paid.”
Harris Saunders, owner of Birmingham Cigars in Birmingham, Alabama, takes an intentional approach to community activism, one that he recommends other shop owners consider. “We get requests all the time for donations,” Saunders said. “If it is a silent or live auction we always say yes.” But his most innovative suggestion takes the form of charity cigar parties.
Saunders says: “We donate a party for up to 25 people, which includes a cigar for each guest, plus they are allowed to have it catered if they want. We serve alcohol so they are not allowed to bring that in.” These parties are donated to the nonprofit. They auction off the party and raise the money on their end, and then call Saunders to set up the event at the shop. “And they give me a tax deduction receipt for the value of the party,” says Saunders—normally a $500 value, which makes for a nice benefit on Tax Day. Saunders calls such parties “a fun and easy way to get new people in your store.” He says, “The event is in our lounge, but not private. We reserve a section for the group. This works great, and if they never redeem it you still helped the group raise money at their auction and you are not out anything.”
Saunders calls such a party “a great opportunity to educate the group on cigar basics.” And he adds: “Most will end up purchasing other items while there and become new customers to join your loyalty and reward programs to market to in the future. We get quite a few new customers from this, and we have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for great causes over the last 14 years. Also, your regular customers like it since they feel like you are supporting their cause. It makes them even more loyal.”
So it appears the soul of charity in the world of tobacconists is not dead, even if it is perhaps a bit attenuated in current conditions. Fact is, with some people, a difficult economy actually intensifies the impetus to do good, to find some way of making the world outside our four walls a better place, even if only by a small increment.
The wish to do good is innate. Maybe you have left an overgenerous tip for a waiter who seemed on the verge of breakdown—something extra for a young man or woman who was radiating stress and near-panic during an overcrowded dinner rush. A $20 tip left for a $5 sandwich can reduce a hardworking server to tears of joy. It’s a perfectly natural impulse, the wish to feel that someone’s life was made just a little easier because of something nice that we did. To alleviate suffering makes us sleep better at night. And after all, it is not really true that every good deed gets punished. Often, for a variety of reasons, good works really can redound to the benefit of the do-gooder, even if just in the form of a tax write-off.
Beyond the obvious dollars-and-cents considerations, do not discount the more intangible benefits of relationship-building in your town, which can come of a deliberate approach to community outreach. Even the smallest gesture, properly handled, can register in the memory of a beneficiary, one who might someday reciprocate in some surprising way. Consider: In everyone’s home county, right now, there are people laboring for the safety and health of us all, 24/7—people who could use a kind gesture today as never before. We all know that law enforcement officers and health care workers have real reason to feel worried, beleaguered and underappreciated in these times. Even if you can’t afford to give away the store, no one was ever insulted by a nice case of warm donuts delivered to the workplace. Slap your store logo on whatever gift you can make—and, for sure, keep your receipts for Tax Day. But do something nice, and see if karma can work some of its magic for you.
At worst, you will have added a touch of kindness to the world. At best, you will bolster the image of our industry, and you’ll have won some new friends and admirers. Tobacco people can never have too many of those.
Dave Garofalo Wrote the Book on Making Donations Pay
Dave Garofalo, the owner of Two Guys Smoke Shop, with three locations in New Hampshire, has done lots of promotions over his 35 years in the cigar industry. Indeed, Garofalo is such an inveterate promoter that last year he was finally moved to write a book on business marketing: David vs Goliath: How to Compete, and Beat, The On-Line Giant. 100 Proven Promotions for Brick & Mortar Retailers. Available on davidgarofalo.com and Amazon, the book is a compendium of marketing tips and wisdom useful for any description of B&M shop, not only tobacconists … although Garofalo’s methods have been tested in his own cigar stores. Part of the book focuses specifically on ways that Garofalo has turned charitable giving and community outreach to his business’s advantage.
The way Garofalo puts it: “You can simply donate, or you can turn your donations into a spectacle, and that’s what I do. We are asked by our customers and neighbors all the time to give to all kinds of causes. Some of them cost a lot of money and produce little to no recognition or new customers or sales. Still, the fact is, we all want to be charitable, and the more successful we become the more charitable we can be. So you should look at your charitable donations as opportunities to come up with creative methods for getting a good return on investment. If you can gain some recognition for your business’s charitable activities, at the same time you will grow and be able to be even more charitable in the future.”
But you cannot give to them all, right? “I always wrestled with choosing donations to make,” Garofalo says. “If a good customer asks you to donate to a cause that is important to them, how can you say no? How about one of your competitors’ customers? Maybe they asked your competitor, and were told no. So if you say yes, will you be doing something nice and at the same time you might just win that customer over.” Still, Garofalo cautions, you have to be smart about it, lest you donate yourself right out of business. So he thought to himself, “If only you could give and make money doing it.”
Garofalo says in the past he would give away boxes of cigars for promotional consideration, but those efforts didn’t seem to go anywhere. “I would never get the person to come to the store or be a customer. I’d just lose product with no gain.” Nowadays, Garofalo prefers the idea of giving away, not just a product, but an “experience”—cigar tastings, for example. In keeping with his book’s mission, Garofalo notes that this concept can be adapted to other kinds of shops. “You can do a cupcake tasting, cake decorating class, wine tasting, wine lessons, sewing class, or a DIY class for whatever you sell. But the “Cigar Tasting for 8” is an experience I have been doing for years.”
Garofalo says: “This breakthrough concept turned my charity donations into more customers, more fans and more profit. How is that possible? It’s all in the type of donation you make. Done properly, this kind of event adds eight new customers—new customers who need a humidor, lighter, cutter, travel cases, ashtrays, butane gas and everything to have a great experience like they did the night they spent with you, their new friend. Those eight cigars may have cost me $30 or so, but before the customers left, I have brought in 10 times that amount in sales from the event alone. Which adds up to tens of thousands of dollars for the lifetime value of the customer.”
Garofalo is, through and through, a giving soul. If you call him for advice about running a charitable event, no doubt he will help all he can. He’s got plenty of additional ideas. But he already has helped in the biggest way we could ask for. You could light up a good smoke, curl up with Garofalo’s book David vs Goliath, and pick the brain of one of the most successful B&M marketing guys in the industry. There is no need to give until it hurts, if you can give your way into growth.