With another RTDA trade show under the hat, and retail preparations well under way for the upcoming holidays, it seems to be anyone's guess what the mixed economic signals of late portend for the big shopping season. There's every reason to be hopeful, but even more reasons to plan strategically.

There are plenty of positive signs. The overall retail industry, according the National Retail Federation (NRF), is beginning to show strength. Total holiday sales are projected to grow by 5.7 percent over last holiday in the major merchandise categories. "After several strong months of retail sales growth, it seems clear that the economy is picking up momentum just in time for the holidays," said NRF chief economist Rosalind Wells. "Retail sales gains for the 2003 holiday season will be far better than the meager increases retailers experienced a year ago."

The tobacco industry has dished up plenty of interesting sample packs, five or ten-packs, gift assortments, limited edition lines, vintage blends, special-edition humidor/cigar sets, and more in an effort to keep smokers brand-conscious. Add in all of the new lines and line extensions, and there's a lot to offer die-hard cigar fanatics, as well as their less-knowledgeable friends and family out to find gifts. Prices for many new or relaunched lines have been "pocket-friendly," and these lower prices should help combat cigar sticker shock in areas with soaring excise taxes.

Give shoppers plenty of reasons to come into your store, and even more reasons to stay and buy. Press manufacturers for any kind of POS materials, posters, or shelf-talkers they can supply, and get to work creating some excitement - in your windows, in your direct mail efforts, and inside your store. The holidays tend to be about treats, and everyone responds to a festive atmosphere; don't hesitate to kick things up a few notches as November approaches.

Passion counts for everything in premium cigars, and the neighborhood smoke shop is the nexus of news, camaraderie, and real, hands-on merchandise. Capitalize on your inherent assets, and keep the shop a welcome, relaxed oasis where the hassled cigar lover can find solace, inspiration, and the thrill of all things new.

Three times as many premium cigars are sold annually in the U.S. now than were sold a decade ago, despite the intense pressures of smoking restriction and a tobacco-hostile world. Clearly, the interest and passion among consumers is alive and well. But so is competition among retail channels; shops must work aggressively to capture their share of this market, and play up their strengths as ambassadors of the cigar makers themselves, conveying all of the passion, craftsmanship, and care that makers pour into their craft.

E. Edward "Ted" Hoyt III