August 1998
Volume 25
Number 4

Pipes are Back
And Here's Why!
by Richard Carleton Hacker

In Case you haven't noticed, pipe purchases are picking up. In fact, they have been for quite some time now. This is especially good news in light of the relatively flat cigar sales that took many retailers by surprise during the crucial holiday buying season and beyond. So if you haven't started thinking about stocking pipes alongside your stogies, the upcoming RTDA Trade Show would be an ideal time to discover - or rediscover - this 400-year-old smoking instrument and the new customers and accompanying upward sales curve it can bring to your store.

First, of course, it might help to know exactly why pipes are undergoing a renaissance. Ironically, it is, in large part, a result of the cigar boom and the current period of adjustment that the industry is experiencing. One of the main reasons cigar sales have slowed is that prices escalated too rapidly. This triggered a consumer rebellion, and consequently, many cigar smokers stopped buying unless they could get a "deal." In addition, it is an unfortunate fact that some cigar brands were less than satisfactory in their construction and taste. Thus, the customer became disillusioned. And, as I had previously reported in these pages, a number of younger cigar smokers were simply looking for something new to smoke. All three of these factors converged to divert the customer's attention to the pipe.

Because many of the newer pipe smokers are in the twenty to thirty-something range, it might be assumed that image also played a major factor in this new focus on the briar, as it had done with cigars. After all, pipe smokers have long been associated with honesty, intellect, and sophistication; isn't the pipe indelibly linked to the likes of Bing Crosby, Douglas MacArthur, and Sherlock Holmes? Surprisingly, this imagery doesn't have that great an effect on the newer pipe smoker. Yesteryear's entertainers, military leaders, and fictional detectives do not have the same attraction to today's Gen-Xers and baby boomers as they do to older smokers.

While the positive image of the pipe smoker is still very much intact (as evidenced by the smattering of non-tobacco retail ads we are starting to see once again, depicting a man with a pipe in his mouth), it is not the overriding factor fueling the current pipe boom. This is an important point to be aware of if we are to help the pipe boom accelerate. After all, there isn't one major "A-List" movie star today who openly boasts of smoking a pipe, even though many of them do. Why do they hide the fact? Because the pipe has not yet been dubbed "cool." That may come in time, but for now there is a much more basic reason pipe sales are increasing. Primarily, it is cost.

Thirty-something cigar smokers used to paying five to fifteen dollars a stick are suddenly becoming aware that for about thirty-five cents they can get a bowlful of blended pipe tobacco that will last as long as a robusto. Curiosity also plays a role in the resurgence of the pipe, as many of the newer smokers have never before put a match to a leaf of tobacco.

The retailer's challenge is to convince these new smokers that in addition to good tobacco, they also need a good pipe. The cheap barrel pipes won't always satisfy the quality conscious consumer who, just a year ago, was bent on getting the best humidor for the money. Now he wants the best pipe for the money. Here is where education comes in, for a "best buy" can be an $85 Peterson, a $100 Savinelli, or a $500 Dunhill. It all depends on what the customer wants, but in many cases, they may not even know. That, again, is where the retailer can ride to the rescue, as this offers you an ideal opportunity to cultivate the same kind of friendship and trust that you achieved with the cigar smoker, by leading the new pipe enthusiast down the path of knowledge and enjoyment.

Take the time to explain the differences between briar and meerschaum, and the pros and cons of aromatic and English blends. Show your customers how to properly fill, light, and clean a pipe, so that their smoking experience will be an enjoyable one. Explain the differences and similarities between pipe and cigar smoking, so that your customers know what to expect. If they balk at the higher price of a pipe, explain that the design and quality of a pipe is an extension of their own personality and that many high-grade briars actually increase in value as they are smoked.

Will the pipe boom be as big as the cigar boom? Probably not, but it certainly cannot be ignored. With the proper mix of salesmanship and depth of product, it can only strengthen your customer base. Just as the cigar smoker of the mid-1990s was a different consumer than his father, today's emerging pipe smoker is also a different breed. He is more demanding and has a greater thirst for knowledge. As such, he is the perfect ally to help our industry survive well into the next century.

Of course, if Leonardo DiCaprio should decide to fire up a straight grain billiard while doing the Letterman show...

SMOKESHOP - August 98