Creating a Higher Profile

New programs at the rtda bring tobacco retailers important tools and support in operating their business and defending their interests.

by Dale Scott

In specialty tobacco retailing, no industry trade association is as well known as the 70-year-old Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (RTDA). While it is best known for its annual summer convention - a massive merchandise buying opportunity that brings retailers and manufacturers face-to-face - the association also works throughout the year on many crucial industry issues. But it's these activities and resources that have remained something of a mystery to many retailers, the very ones who are scrambling for help in fending off hostile legislation and new competitive threats. To help increase the value of the association to its members, the RTDA has begun to roll out a number of new programs.

In February, 2002, after 36 years on the manufacturing side of the industry, Joe Rowe joined RTDA as assistant director. He was brought in to assist executive director Bill Fader in managing the growing association. Rowe focuses on special projects: an enhanced Web site, a legislative activity package on behalf of the membership, and assisting in coordinating the annual convention and trade show.

"We heard members' concern that we 'weren't proactive enough,'" says Rowe, explaining RTDA's new programs. "Though somewhat true, many members were simply unaware of RTDA's daily activities, especially the legislative efforts on their behalf. We needed to improve our communications with them." Much of that effort has focused on RTDA's Internet presence.

"Last Fall," Rowe says, "we decided the existing Web site was an important vehicle for being of greater value to our members. It just needed improvement, to enhance its functionality. Previously, as an 'image' site, it only posted minimal information like annual show schedules."

The upgraded site has a section for the smoking public, and another limited strictly to RTDA members. "The public section is low-profile, to avoid flagging anti-smoking groups." says Rowe. "It merely states who we are, what we do, and whom we represent. It describes members' benefits, and provides applications for membership for tobacconists, and associate membership for manufacturers and other industry people."

In the site's 'Find a Tobacconist' section, clicking on any state takes consumers to a list of the RTDA retailers in that state, with links to their sites, helping promote their businesses. The association has created new RTDA Member window decals featuring a new "colorized" version of the association's RTDA Indian logo. Stores are encouraged to prominently display the decal, all part of an effort to educate tobacco consumers that RTDA membership is the "Sign of the Professional Tobacconist," and member stores are capable of offering unparalleled customer service.

"The 'Members-Only' section posts news daily of legislative bills introduced, by state," Rowe explains. "Thus, members can quickly read the details of legislative activity in their state, without scrolling through other states' bills. We provide their elected officials' names, phone numbers, Web sites, and email addresses. A special feature allows members to automatically and effortlessly send personalized lobbying messages to these officials."

RTDA members can easily locate their elected state legislators by simply entering their address; a lookup function identifies the user's Zip+4 Code used to precisely identify elected representatives for their district. Sample talking points or a sample letter are provided, or users can enter their own custom letter. Final letters can be printed and mailed by the user; submitted instantly by email; or faxed directly to selected officials offices. RTDA members are encouraged to let all of their employees utilize the lobbying function to maximize voter input on crucial legislative initiatives.

Other new features also appear in the improved site's Members Only section, including Industry News and New Products pages. More sections are planned, such as Manufacturer's Special Offerings and the RTDA Online Almanac - a web-based version of the association's annual merchandise almanac. Rowe says the RTDA is encouraging manufacturers to submit their press releases for publication.

In order to raise the profile of the RTDA, the association has launched a major advertising campaign in both trade and consumer tobacco-related publications. "The latter promotes our members' stores directly to smokers," Rowe explains. "Ads in Smoke and Cigar Aficionado explain what a 'professional tobacconist' is and what smokers can expect from RTDA-member shops that Internet or corner stores don't offer: the industry's highest standards of professionalism, maintenance of products according to manufacturers' recommendations, and often, a history that spans generations of family operation."

Additionally, RTDA now offers a group health plan for tobacconists and their employees, and discounts on Avis rentals, with more membership benefits to come.

The RTDA continues to actively cooperate with other essential industry trade associations, including the recently formed National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO). "NATO Expo is a for-profit trade show, separate from NATO, the not-for-profit trade association that primarily serves cigarette outlets," explains Rowe. NATO, the association, invited Rowe to update attendees on current legislative matters at the recent NATO Expo held in Las Vegas in March. "RTDA and NATO collaborate on legislative affairs, along with the Cigar Association of America and the smokeless tobacco segment of our industry. We're fighting restrictive legislation together, to benefit all our members."

Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (RTDA), 12 Galloway Avenue, Suite 1B, Cockeysville, MD 21030, Tel: (410) 628-1674, Fax: (410) 628-1679, Email: rtda@msn.com, Web: www.rtda.org.

SMOKESHOP - April, 2003