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Thursday, February 02, 2006

More Chat with SmokingPipes.com


Today's picture is another pipe from the SmokingPipes.com site. This olivewood Spanu is gorgeous, in my opinion - I'd love to get one of these someday. I have a Spanu corkwood pipe which is an excellent smoker, and one of my favorites. Many pipe folks that I know think the corkwood pipes are the ugliest things since dirt, but I love them for their originality and sheer sense of fun (and they bounce!). The sheer endurance of mine for being stuffed into a pocket, scratched, and banged around has made it a frequent travel pipe.

To continue with yesterday's pipe chat with Sykes Wilford of SmokingPipes.com:


I notice that a lot of folks really viciously price-shop tobacco online. I will plug you guys by mentioning that I recently wanted to order a good-sized pile of tobacco, and did a little price shopping. While JR's had some lower prices per tin, I calculated quickly that when adding in their shipping & handling costs, my JR's order was going to be about $20 MORE than the same order to SP. Do you catch a lot of flack and/or haggling about per-tin pricing? People writing you to say that net shop X sells Elizabethan for fifteen cents less than you do, and that sort of thing?

We don't haggle and we don't really get a lot of requests to. We realize that customers are primarily price-sensitive with pipe tobacco since a tin of Elizabethan from Smokingpipes.com and a tin of Elizabethan from JRCigar (or whomever) are identical. Those are exactly the things that folks price shop on (contrarily, other factors tend to matter more for pipes, since you're not comparing identical widgets there). Anyway, that means that we squeeze as much internal efficiency as possible and reduce the price of the tobacco as much as possible. We really do sell it as cheap as we can. We're not always the cheapest on everything, but we're pretty close on everything and the cheapest on a lot of things.

Imagine I'm a new pipemaker trying to decide whether to sell all my work directly (setting up my own site, etc), or selling via a retailer like yourself. First, what do you look for from a pipemaker? If Joe Unknown has been making some decent pipes in his garage for the past year and now wants to sell them, what are you looking for from him? Style, consistency? How important is your estimation of his commitment? Do you deal with part-timers or do you prefer pipemakers who are full-time committed? If you had one thing to shout to all the pipemakers who might want you to represent them, what would it be?

It is such a mix of factors that they're tough to separate. When you get right down to it, it's about the pipes. We only carry thirty-six pipe brands, about half of which are individual pipe makers. I tell people that my default answer is 'no, I'm sorry I'm not interested right now', but I'll look at anything. We also have to expect to be able to sell a certain number of pipes for it to make sense, though we break that rule for some pipe makers because of the pipes they make-- Gotoh and Teddy spring to mind here. It's really all about the pipes at that level. For less expensive pipes, it has more to do with price, consistency of supply and other such things, of course.

Now, on the flip side, if I'm a new pipemaker trying to choose between selling my work direct and keeping the whole price, or wholesaling to a retailer like yourself, what is your pitch - what do you have to offer to make up for your chunk of the profit?
For myself, I can say that the biggest thing I like about selling via a retailer is the simplicity of it - no individual emails to answer, dozens of boxes to pack and address, etc (I hate shipping). But at the same time, I miss the direct contact with each buyer.


We're pretty straight forward about this and, to a great degree, you answered your own question. It depends on the number of pipes and the proclivities of the pipe maker. Actually, Trever, I frequently hold you up as an example of a pipe maker who sells direct who does a great job of it. You're pretty tech savvy, you speak two languages [I laugh!], you're a good writer, you're good at promoting yourself and you're dealing with a manageable number of pipes. You really don't need me. If you're like Tokutomi (or any number of other people), you do need me if you want your pipes to be widely recognized. For you, it's pretty obvious that going direct makes more sense. Now, imagine if you removed your ability to speak English and your ability to write HTML and suddenly, I look really good! The other trade off is number of pipes-- as a pipe maker makes more pipes, specialization is important and it's more efficient to let someone else do all of the marketing and selling bits. A lot of folks forget that it takes a lot of time and effort to sell pipes-- you know that you spend a lot of time and effort on these things, I'm sure. Further, there are some pipe makers who just don't want to do it. They'd rather be making pipes with that additional time than dealing with websites and e-mail or going to the post office. So, when pipe makers ask me what they should do, I tell them all of those things. I also tend not to really pitch us as a solution. I find that it's either an obvious fit or it really isn't a fit at all. As in, we are either obviously perfect for each other or it pretty obviously makes no sense.
Without going into detail, we do a lot more for the pipe makers we represent than is commonly the case-- we really see it as a partnership. And, likewise, for some pipe makers this is really important and central for them to be a success and for others, this just isn't stuff they need. And that's fine-- we look at it as providing a service to pipe makers (just as we serve customers) and sometimes, gasp, a pipe maker just doesn't need what we do.


(This chat concludes tomorrow as Trever and Sykes reveal the geekiest things they have ever done. Stay tuned....)