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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Chat with SmokingPipes.com

Before I get started with today's post, I should mention that I've posted some new pipes to our catalogs, for those folks who haven't already heard the news from our mailing list or our RSS feed. As I write this, both the new Talbert Briar smooth and sandblast are already sold (as well as nearly all of the mortas), but there is still one smooth, bamboo-shank Morta Classic left available, as well as a single Ligne Bretagne sandblasted chimney. Now that the sales are out of the way, on with the show!

I was looking around the Smokingpipes.com site today to try and find a suitable photo to accompany this article, and I couldn't resist this pic. This pipe is a Ser Jacopo, and I really like the balance of the shape and the radical tilt of the bulldog bowl. Better, the lines of the shank flow evenly into the lines of the stem (Pipes that have a sudden line change from shank to stem really bug me, visually - just another weird Trever quirk).

Following along in a series of chats I want to post featuring various folks in the pipe biz, I swapped thoughts and questions with Sykes Wilford of the aforementioned www.Smokingpipes.com. Our first exchange alone has provided enough commentary for at least a couple of blog entries, and I can carry it further if there is specific interest. Mostly, it centers around the life of an internet tobacconist today, and how it connects and intertwines with the real world of brick & mortar... Plus there are some comments regarding new pipemakers, how to market, and what retailers do for the trade. My questions are pasted below in bold, and Sykes' answers are in italics. Off we go!

I'll start off with a serious question. Smokingpipes got its start as a net vendor, then evolved into a B&M. Do you think that net vendors are the death of the traditional B&M pipe shop - or, at the risk of sounding cruel, are net vendors only dangerous to those shops that refuse to evolve and change?


I can't speak for net vendors in general. I think that there are some things that work better on the net and that there are some things that work better face to face. I also think that this is about the customer. The customer wants better prices, better service, more enthusiastic and knowledgeable people to work with and great selection. I don't get up every morning thinking 'how can I put b&m stores out of business'; I get up every morning thinking 'how can I improve the customer experience at Smokingpipes.com and Low Country Pipe & Cigar' (and that sounds trite, but it is very seriously true). There are huge advantages to selling face-to-face, while the only big disadvantage is that you're stuck with the number of potential customers that are local to you (which is less of an issue in New York than it is in Little River, SC). It's a heck of a lot cheaper to sell a pipe in a B&M than online for us, for example. I guess what I'm getting at is that I really don't think a whole lot about this. And, furthermore, I think that spending time thinking about it is a dangerous activity-- it distracts us from doing what we should be doing and that's, of course, serving the customer.

As you probably know, I ran a retail shop here side-by-side with our net business for a couple of years, but I had to close it up because it was too costly and too much of a time nuisance - I was out in the shop for thirty minutes teaching first-time pipe smokers how to pack and tamp just to sell a corncob, when I could have been making pipes. Of course, I did not have any staff! Have you had any problems like this - the shop traffic impacting on your ability to run the website?


You answered your own question. We have a staff of fourteen. One of those is just oriented towards the store and two more (including me) spend some of our time in the store. I spend some time on store stuff, but it's about an 80%/20% split for me in favor of Smokingpipes.com.

What's your favorite thing about running a retail shop and what do you find the most annoying? For myself, my favorite bit was being able to help new smokers get started right, and the biggest annoyance was easily the moochers and time wasters. I never cease to be stunned at the gall of people who will walk in with a plastic bag to fill up with as much free tobacco samples as they can stuff in.



Well, it's fun being able to work face to face with someone, rather than across the phone or e-mail. My biggest frustration is that it's much more dependent on having people come in the door. With web sales, everyone who answers the phones here (Anna, Tony, Jeff, Bear and me) has other assigned duties (ranging from outbound sales to handling customer e-mail to pipe descriptions and pipe listing to, well, whatever it is I do these days). Those things fill up the time around the phone calls. We're not just sitting at a computer waiting for the phone to ring. In the store, it's harder to do that. When I cover in the store (usually on Saturdays), it's harder to be productive when there are no customers (and any retail operation experiences
this problem-- you provision for busy and have a bunch of dead time). So, I guess this is my biggest frustration-- having to wait for something to happen when I have a bunch of work that I could do if I could only move vertically ten feet. When the store is busy, there isn't anywhere else I'd prefer to be; when it's not, I'd like to be almost anywhere else. I try to mitigate this by taking my laptop down and working on more long-term projects, but it's usually not the same as working from my desk, or even from home.


I can relate to this very well - I heartily despised the time wasted in the retail shop when there was only one "drifter" in - Someone (usually a summer tourist, in our region) who was just bored, and looking for something interesting to look at. We both knew they weren't going to buy anything, but I still had to stay out there and look helpful as long as they were drifitng around the store, when I really wanted to be in the workshop making stuff. I agree 100% with Sykes - when it was busy, and there were real pipe people there, it was fantastic, like having your own pipe club and pub rolled into one, but the wasted time was really grinding.
I'll post more of this chat tomorrow!