Cigar sales light up
In its newsstand days, the Milan Tobacconists store in downtown Roanoke attracted some customers who ducked furtively inside and left the same way.
The newspapers and the magazines, either mainstream or titillating, have been gone for a year now. Co-owner David Meyer says his sales of smokes are up and the periodical browsers who seldom bought are gone.
"When we got rid of those magazines it was the best day of my life," said Meyer, whose wife, Renee, is his business partner. Although the likes of Time and People were among Milan's selection, the shop also maintained a small stock of magazines, discreetly displayed, that rarely ended up on customers' living room tables.
"We weren't selling many magazines," he said. Sales did not justify related costs.
And Milan and the Meyers happily shrugged off the raincoat set.
"As a matter of fact, we picked up a lot of customers since we gave up the girlie magazines," he said.
Sacking the newsstand also freed up money.
"It allowed us to bring in more exclusive lines of cigars and to remodel," Meyer said.
Stuffed leather chairs and a couch for smokers' comfort now occupy the front-of-the-store space where the 7-by-16-foot magazine rack used to be, and the shop has added more expensive cigars, some topping $30 each.
Those would be certain varieties of the Davidoff brand, which features various Dominican Republic tobacco blends.
Before the magazines' departure, Meyer wouldn't have dreamed of applying to become a Davidoff dealership. The company, based in Geneva, sanctions only 200 sales locations in the United States and requires an inspection of each shop it ordains as worthy.
The retail standard set by Davidoff is imposing: The company-owned signature store is a boutique at Madison Avenue and 54th Street in New York.
Meyer remodeled his store at 106 S. Jefferson St. to live up to the Davidoff image. "We put in new carpet and some new display cases," he said.
After passing muster, Meyer said he still had a concern about stocking the more expensive stogies. "I really didn't know if Davidoffs would sell in Roanoke -- if customers who might typically spend two or three dollars for a cigar would buy one that costs 10 times that much."
But to Meyer's pleasant surprise, Davidoffs now account for about 15 percent of overall sales.
The increase comes at a time when sales of premium imported cigars have flattened after a decade-long hot streak. But in the past year the rise in restaurant smoking bans, whether imposed by local laws or management -- combined with a weaker U.S. dollar that effectively raises import prices -- have taken a toll. A proposed federal tax increase on imports to help pay for a suggested expansion of a children's health insurance program could add up to $3 to the price of a gourmet cigar, which has the tobacco industry worried -- although President Bush has vowed to veto the measure.
In August the French and Spanish-owned tobacco giant Altadis reported that its cigar segment's sales fell 8 percent in the first half of 2007 to $565 million. Altadis reported strong results from its Cuban cigar division, but had trouble in the U.S. market, where Cuban cigars aren't permitted because of federal trade sanctions.
The declining health of Fidel Castro has prompted speculation about what renewed business ties with Cuba might mean to various industries. The quality of Cuba's best cigars is legendary, and their absence -- legally -- in the U.S. for more than four decades has some smokers eagerly anticipating their return in a post-Castro era.
But Meyer isn't convinced that Cuban cigars will make a big difference in his sales. He occasionally smokes Cuban cigars received as gifts from friends returning from Europe or other places where the island's imports are allowed. "They're a little strong for some tastes. I'm just not sure the mystique about Cuban cigars would last if they're readily available," he said.
He compared the aura around Cuban cigars to the reputation Coors beer had in the 1970s before the Colorado-based company's brew was distributed east of the Mississippi River. "When Coors was something people carried back East in their luggage it was special. But when it turned up in the coolers at convenience stores it became just another beer," Meyer said.
Davidoffs, while readily available on the Internet, are rarely found in 7-Elevens.
During one brief period at the store Wednesday afternoon, cigar customers included Robert Shepherd, Tom Mackay and one man who said he preferred to remain nameless.
Chatting with Alphonso "Poochie" Preston, a 32-year employee at Milan, the man joked about the displeasure his wife would express if she learned about his purchases.
"Just tell her, 'It beats chasing wild women and drinking cheap beer.' "
Shepherd, who lives in Salem, said he's bought cigars at Milan for about 10 years. He favors the store, he said, both because the cigars are fresh and because he likes to give Preston a hard time.
Mackay took up cigars when he stopped smoking cigarettes. He said a test of lung capacity registered at 97 percent -- an anecdote that elicited a quip from Meyer.
"I believe it," he said. "I always thought you were full of hot air."
Preston acknowledged that some women don't like cigars. But others light up with their husbands or buy their own, he said. Most women prefer small cigars but others like them big, he said.
"My philosophy is, if you're going to smoke them, smoke them big or don't smoke them at all."
Cigar smoker Sigmund Freud, the guy who analyzed everything, is supposed to have observed, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Source: Roanoke Times