The 2nd Annual J.B. Russell Pipe Show took a new approach this year, opening the trade buying event to consumers and paying retail sponsors a commission on all retail sales. Consumers had a blast.

"He made that look way too easy," marveled an onlooker enthralled by the swift, precise motions of Erik Nording shaping a pipe bowl on a sanding wheel. The rough cut briar rapidly melted into a characteristically Danish-looking freehand. Nording killed the power to the sander and looked intently at the pipe, turning and examining it.

"This is a very good piece of briar," he offered, staring at every surface, then gleefully added with a big smile as he passed it on to the crowd, "Had I known, I never would have brought it! This would have made me a lot of money!"

"This guy's a real card," said another pipe enthusiast to his friend.

The audience couldn't seem to get enough of either Nording's entertaining humor or skillful demonstration. It lasted well over an hour, progressing through successive finer sandings and buffings to staining, polishing, and finally the signing of the demonstration pipe, which was ultimately raffled off to one of the show's attendees.

Nording, a 40-year pipe making veteran and a blacksmith and engineer by trade, was just one of the reasons that nearly 100 consumers and 20 retailers spent a blustery winter Saturday in a large, pipe-filled ballroom at the Saddle Brook Marriot in Saddle Brook, N.J. in late March, courtesy of New Jersey distributor James B. Russell.

The day had started with three entertaining discussions conducted by the featured guests, each making repeat appearances from last year's show. In addition to Nording were Michael Adler, c.e.o. of the British pipe producer Cadogan, and pipe and cigar author Richard Carlton Hacker. Adler spoke about the challenges of bowl selection and grading pipes, and explained how the company was expanding its lines, from the upcoming Sasieni 8 Dot to the Comoy's Christmas Pipe and silver banded Oxford Comoys.

Nording and Hacker each recalled personal encounters with famous pipes and famous pipe makers, colorfully illustrating their own passion for the pursuit of pipes.

"You're going to see something that those in the trade see, but you never have: 5,000 pipes," said J.B. Russell president John Link, welcoming visitors to the show before opening the exhibit hall. The room was packed with tables of pipes from Comoys, GBD, Sasieni, Nording, and Don Carlos, as well as pipe tobaccos such as Rattrays, Balkan Sasieni, Nording's Hunter Blend, and the company's own Royal Collection as well as accessories and dry-cured cigars from Swedish Match - La Paz, Clubmaster, and Wings.

In only its second year, the show has evolved to reflect Link's adoption of retailer-sponsored, direct-to-consumer sales, which were first introduced on the company's wholesale-oriented website, www.jamesbrussell.com. Called the Retail Partnership Program, it enables the distributor to market directly to consumers without undercutting its own customers, traditional retail stores. The company only processes a consumer sale if the customer provides the name of their favorite tobacconist; the company then credits a percentage of the sale to the retailer's Russell account.

In addition to fostering direct retail sales on the website and show, J.B. Russell has also launched a new quarterly publication, Smokin'. Link describes it as a consumer magazine for pipe enthusiasts - a catalog at heart showing every shape and size of featured pipe lines with retail prices and an order form, but also featuring stories on the people behind the brands, histories, and other background. All product sales from the publication also operate under the company's Retail Partnership Program, returning a percentage to smoke shops.

"By giving consumers direct access to our magazine," says Link, "we are meeting the needs of our customers and simultaneously guaranteeing a windfall to our retailers."

Link stresses that the program gives consumers exposure to the full range of the company's various product lines, which would be impractical if not impossible for any "brick and mortar" tobacco shop to stock in its entirety. Link reasons that he's also capturing a portion of Internet sales away from Internet-only retailers, returning some of the business back to traditional retailers.

Traffic and business were both brisk at the show, with retailers and consumers arriving from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania - much busier in fact than last year. Still, Link sees the event as an untapped opportunity for more retailers to embrace. Where else can pipe lovers see an accomplished Danish craftsman in action, select from thousands of pipes, meet authors and top company officials, and enter numerous raffles for chances to win free pipes?

For those who arrived the night before, Russell even hosted a complimentary buffet dinner with open bar, a chance for retailers and consumers to chat with Nording, Hacker, Adler, and Link informally. Retailers who took advantage appreciated such direct access to company principals, the exchange of ideas, and the effort made on their behalf.

Link's advice? If he were a retail shop owner, he'd bring an entire busload of customers. Retailers win, pipe enthusiasts win, and a good time was had by all.

James B. Russell, Inc., 25 Park Way, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458, Tel: (201) 934-7177, Fax: (201) 934-6370, Web: www.jamesbrussell.com.

SMOKESHOP - June/July 2002