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August/Sept.
1999

ENCOURAGING SIGNS

Plenty of new cigar shapes, sizes, and blends dominated the new product introductions at this year's annual RTDA trade show, a welcome respite from the bewildering onslaught of endless new brands that have tempted, and often burned, retailers trying to anticipate what consumers will want.

Which is not to say that a smaller, but healthy dose of entirely new cigars weren't also seen. Conspicuously absent were numerous brands and companies that had burst wildly onto the seen in recent years, brash with self-bravado but incapable of surviving their own blinding rise to momentary fame. They came, they crashed, they burned. A few will be missed, most will not. These days, the strong, the persistent, and the simply great smokes survive.

While the major manufacturers have certainly reclaimed lost ground, they have by no means obliterated popular second-tier brands. In fact, ax number of smaller companies found their sales expectations exceeded only a day or two into the trade show. Generally speaking, most exhibitors were delighted with their results, a significant improvement over last year's moribund mood. Highly discounted production overruns and closeouts remain a significant factor in the marketplace, however, and they continue to exert a downward force on cigar prices and manufacturer profits.

Innovation in accessories has taken something of a back burner as growth in this sector abruptly shifted directions. The good news - continued softening in prices - means retailers may have better luck in enticing otherwise well-equipped customers this holiday season with upgrades. Sophisticated lighters, sleek cutters, top-quality humidors, and other accessories were all in abundance in Las Vegas.

Pipes continue to perplex the trend watchers. While shear import statistics for raw briar, finished pipes, and smoking tobaccos - combined with domestic production figures - have proven inconclusive in pegging any substantial trends overall, many importers, distributors, and retailers have reported considerable activity in particular segments. While the chances of seeing a full-fledged pipe boom along the lines of premium cigars is unrealistic at best, pipes did achieve a surprise standout status at this year's show.

Beyond the trade show, an unfortunate development in recent months has put many in the industry on alert: "Don Nobodies" reappearing in the form of counterfeits of operational brands. If an unknown distributor offers your store a rock-bottom deal on brands that seems too good to be true, it probably is. The line between a good bargain and fraud is being actively drawn by the manufacturers whose reputations are being compromised by such activities. Although the consumer is often the ultimate loser, a lot of other innocent parties are also pulled in along the way, and that includes retailers. Losing the trust and confidence of your valuable customers is hardly worth the risk. Nothing beats a good smoke at a good price, but if you smell a rat, steer clear!

E. Edward Hoyt III
Editor