Some people pointed to the sultry August heat of San Antonio, others the seemingly difficult challenge of finding reasonably priced airline flights at reasonable times. But in the end, most accepted the fact that retailer attendance at the RTDA 2000 was down because the business of specialty tobacco has changed considerably over the past few years. Yes, there are fewer shops; but the abundant supply of merchandise, and the growing practice among manufacturers who offer show deals well in advance of the the annual RTDA trade show have also worked to slim attendance at the industry’s premiere buying event.

Which is not to say that this year’s event wasn’t successful: despite the somewhat slow pace of traffic on the convention floor, buyers who attended went right to work, and many manufacturers quickly saw sales totals exceed those amassed at last year’s show.

New merchandise and line extensions in premium cigars dominated the show, with RYO/MYO cigarette tobaccos, kits, and accessories making a big splash too. Numerous distribution changes in the pipe world have served to further ignite activity among some classic lines and brands whose luster and profile among retailers had faded in recent years.

For retailers, the show offered the opportunity to sample the newest cigars, take advantage of specials, hand-pick merchandise, and meet the talented people behind the products. Retailers who recall the mad panic that ensued at shows during the cigar draught can appreciate the pleasure of selecting merchandise on their own terms. Unfortunately, it’s never quite that easy: Now stores are coping with falling margins, shelf-space domination by the big companies, and a softer market. And so the ground rules for survival change: price-protected boutique brands, once considered lame-duck products certain to vanish in the post-glut era, have found new appeal to shops, and continued success in the marketplace. Stores that catered strictly to cigar smokers have had to reconsider their customer base, and either expand their selection or face tough times. Outside of cigars, the number two merchandise segment among retailers who were surveyed in this year’s Smokeshop Industry Report (look for it in our December issue), was domestic (mass-market) cigarettes. Among smoking-related merchandise, pipes and tobaccos together came in third.

There are certainly opportunities for stores to keep specialty tobaccos as their primary merchandise category. While consistency has been a longtime goal in consumer goods, today’s consumers always want to know “what’s new.” If you didn’t attend the RTDA show in San Antonio (and even if you did), take a close look at our merchandise report which begins on page 28, for a broad selection of new product ideas on stocking your shelves.

E. Edward Hoyt III