For cigar retailers and the trade at large, Christmas does indeed come in July - in the form of the industry's big event, the annual trade show of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America.

The lion's share of all new merchandise launched throughout the year debuts at the RTDA show. In the months, weeks, and final frantic days prior to the show, cigar makers scramble to put the finishing touches on their newest creations for retailers to view and - if the planets all align themselves just right - sample. There will be plenty to choose from, since cigar makers are enjoying something of a renaissance these days, beginning with an abundant supply of quality, aged tobaccos. But, in an effort to differentiate themselves from others in the marketplace, cigar makers turn first to the tobaccos they use in their quest to create unique products unlikely to be replicated in the form of other brands. Continued innovation and development of new tobacco strains, as well as cultivation and rebirth of older, forgotten ones, has dramatically broadened the palate of flavors available to cigar blenders. Turning to less common growing regions, or - more precisely - traditional growing regions that are not common sources of cigar tobaccos destined for the U.S. market, has allowed many innovative firms to push the envelope of tastes and smoking experiences.

Those vertically integrated manufacturers who grow, cure, ferment, and age their own tobaccos control the destiny of their own cigars, creating individual styles.

The result of all this great tobacco? A wide variety of intriguing cigar styles that is constantly expanding.

Other tobacco trends are also prevalent. Flavored cigars, both high-end premium brands as well as value-priced, mass-market brands, continue to gain market share. The RYO/MYO segment, while not expanding as quickly as it has in the past, continues to benefit on a regional basis throughout the country as local taxes increase sporadically.

Meanwhile, add in all of the pipe makers, pipe tobaccos, specialty tobaccos, accessories, and other gift suppliers at the RTDA trade show, and it's no wonder why the event is such an important part of a tobacco shop's merchandise planning effort.

Just in time for RTDA, it doesn't hurt that year-to-date cigar imports this year are showing strong gains. Large cigar imports jumped by nearly 13% for the first four months of 2004 compared to 2003, while hand made, premium cigar imports increased by nearly 11%. Little cigar imports for the same period jumped by 100% compared to 2003. That should give everyone reason to smile, and make the RTDA even more festive than it's already bound to be.

E. Edward "Ted" Hoyt III