Insider Deals at the
J.B. Russell Show

While the RTDA remains the undisputed display of wholesale merchandise for specialty tobacco retailers, its considerable size, large audience, and summer scheduling prompted James B. Russell to try its own, targeted pipe show. Retailers who attended were rewarded with enticing discounts, first-hand access to brand-new merchandise, and a dizzying array of inventory from which to hand-select.

by Jim Lawson

Pipe shows are sprouting like spring flowers throughout the U.S. Early pipe shows were largely groups of local pipe enthusiasts who met to socialize, display their collections, and swap pipes with each other. Over time the shows began to attract area retailers who sold their wares to attendees; then, importers and distributors espied an opportunity to promote their brands at these shows. One of the newest to enter the arena is a show with a novel twist.

James B. Russell, Inc. held its first (annual) pipe show at a hotel near its corporate headquarters in Saddle River, N.J. on April 21. The show, although not the first of its kind, (Max Rohr Importers held a similar type in the 1970s), differed from contemporary ones in two respects: James B. Russell and its suppliers/manufacturers were the sole exhibitors; and the public was not invited - only established brick-and-mortar retailers were permitted to attend.

The festivities began on the Friday evening, April 20th, in a ballroom at the Saddle Brook Marriot featuring a catered meal, bar, and an elegant JBR ice sculpture featuring a giant pipe which emitted puffs of smoke (actually dry ice). A professional musician tickled the ivories of a baby grand piano near the ballroom's entrance. The ambiance was tasteful and relaxed, not ostentatious, and retailers and exhibitors mingled freely.

On Saturday morning a seminar was given by Cadogan's c.e.o. Michael Adler, self-published author Rick Hacker, and pipemaker Erik Nording; naturally, their topic was pipes. Hacker began by noting the mainstream media's news blackout on any positive aspect of the tobacco trade; he deduces that the boom isn't really over, since more people than ever are enjoying premium tobacco products.

Adler offered a brief overview of his family's six generations in Cadogan's 150-year-old history, stating, "I owe it to my ancestors to stay with this business." Nording stood before an easel and sketched out a representation of raw briar, explaining how it is harvested and subsequently cut up for use in pipe making. Retailers listened attentively.

Also during this time, a JBR customer-of-the year plaque was presented to Pete Zaring, owner of Knoxville Cigar Co., and Pipes For Less (a web-based concern). Afterward, Zaring described Link as "probably the best pipe distributor today; he's doing a real fine job."

Before the natives got too restless, the doors of the main ballroom were thrown open. Inside were 4,000 pipes on display: The new Sasieni 5-Dots, Charatan Freehands, GBDs, Comoy's of London Freehands, a groaning display of Nordings, and hundreds of Don Carlos pipes. Pipe Highlights The hottest seller at the show was the new Sasieni 5-Dot pipe, which features a large black or light rusticated bowl with a plateaux top, and is offered with or without a silver band. The 5-Dot has a suggested retail price range of $150 to $184. Between 200 and 300 5-Dots were brought to the JBR show; the company ended the day with only 10 or 15 pieces on hand.

The Comoy's of London Freehands sold well. Each of these numbered pipes is waxed, not varnished, and comes with a certificate that bears the number and an image of the very pipe accompanying it; some collectors will latch onto this concept. All the Freehands, according to Link, are made by one veteran employee at the Cadogan factory. At JBR's insistence, all Comoy's of London pipes are now made in England - not France or Italy, as in recent years.

Michael Adler contends that since bowl-turning in England is practically "a dead art," all of Cadogan's bowls are turned outside the country, but are then sanded, stained, stamped, and otherwise finished by his firm, as is the case for some other English competitors. Incidentally, Link mentions that Charatan and Sasieni pipes will once again be produced from start to finish in England; the manufacturer recently purchased a new facility for that purpose.

Of the 800 to 1000 Don Carlos pipes taken from the JBR warehouse to the show, roughly half of them sold that day. Afterward, Link noted that during the show, he noticed scarcely any empty table slots where the Don Carlos' were displayed; later on, he learned that his staff kept replenishing stock stored underneath, and that when some retailers learned that more inventory was hidden from view, they began combing through the rest of the reserved inventory.

The Nording Hunter Blend tobaccos were officially introduced. The three blends, Retriever, Pointer, and Fox Hound, are made by McClelland Tobacco of Kansas City, Missouri. Five hundred cans of each blend were ordered initially; demand has been so high that a total of 3,000 more tins are on order.

The most notable aspect of the JBR pipe show was not its location, the facilities, Erik Nording's live pipemaking demonstration, or the huge display of JBR's pipes, but the fact that the retailers - numbering no more than 30 overall - purchased a huge quantity of pipes at the show. Estimates by JBR suggest that these two-and-a-half dozen retailers, who received a 10% discount on all purchases, snatched up more than 2,000 pipes. JBR confided its total in gross sales to this reporter, but asked that it not be disclosed publicly. However, it can be stated that sales exceeded the cost of sponsoring the show by more than tenfold; Link said that he would have been pleased had the show merely met JBR's expenses.

Louis and Andrea Winterfield, owners of Stag Tobacconist in Colorado Springs, Co., flew in to attend the show. They described it as "very well done and more relaxed than the RTDA," although disappointing in attendance. Others described the frustration of having to wait in line or reach over other retailers at past RTDA shows, in order to look at merchandise; with such few numbers at the JBR show, shopping for products was a breeze. Another out-of-towner, Ronald Kern of Tobacco Village in Whitehall, Penn., echoed the same sentiment, explaining that "The atmosphere was very relaxed." He also noted the excellent selection of pipes to choose from.

Upcoming Developments
Link says that he is being approached by a number of pipe manufacturers who are seeking to have their brands distributed by JBR; even some prominent names are under consideration. He has also commissioned a new limited edition pipe for JBR. This will be a collaboration of the Hacker, Nording, and Adler. Link says Hacker will design the pipe, Nording will handle the silver work and perhaps "tweak the design," and Adler's Cadogan firm will produce the final result.

Link claims that the three have been given "carte blanche" on this project, no price point has been specified; he just expects the very best pipe that these men can come up with. The working name for the nascent pipe is Legends, a designation Link previously bestowed upon these men. In fact, a lithograph bearing the likeness of this trio and entitled "The Pipe Legends" was offered to retailers at the JBR show. Adler, the youngest of the three, protested good-naturedly that, at age 37, he hardly qualifies for the "Legend" honorific, whereas Hacker and Nording were mute on their eligibility.

The rousing success of the Nording Hunter Blend Series of tinned tobaccos inspired Link to ask McClelland Tobacco's Mike and Mary McNeil to develop six new James B. Russell blends for the RTDA show in Tampa. Swedish Match's ever-popular Borkum Riff tobaccos are also being introduced to the JBR product family. For further details, retailers are encouraged to contact JBR.

A second JBR pipe show is already in the works for 2002, however, it is expected that the show will be held in a different region of the country - perhaps Chicago. JBR customers are being asked to vote on this issue at www.jamesbrussell.com. By moving the show around the country, different retailers may be enticed to attend.

Link, the president of a pipe-dominant distribution company, is a non-pipesmoker. However, with warmer weather upon us, he plans to correct this oversight by relaxing on his boat and forgoing his usual cigars in favor of the briar. The firsthand pipe experience he gains, combined with his already apparent drive, a revamped sales team, led by new national sales manager Dick Peterson, and a growing array of products promise to make James B. Russell a powerhouse contender for the loyalties of retailers.

James B. Russell, Inc., 25 Park Way, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458, Toll-free: (800) 526-4653, Fax: (201) 934-6370, Web: www.jamesbrussell.com

SMOKESHOP - June/July 2000