Coronavirus may be helping to grow sales of vaping products in convenience stores but a big shift to online buying may represent a significant long-term threat for the sector.
by Antony Begley
These are challenging times for retailers with all semblance of normality fast fading into the rear-view mirror. Covid-19 is changing the sector beyond recognition, but while the world may have been turned on its head, there’s no question that local retailing is at least being rewarded for its outstanding efforts over the last month or two with hugely increased takings in the till.
Many categories have benefitted with vaping among them but with every opportunity comes a challenge. Sales in-store may be increasing for many retailers but a recent report from the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) suggests that there may be a sting in the tail of the coronavirus sales hike: vapers and smokers across the country are making the switch in huge numbers to online and telephone-based home delivery services for their vape devices and products.
Despite the closure of thousands of specialist vapeshops under lockdown, the vaping industry in general is, according to UKVIA, “experiencing phenomenal demand”.
This is in large part due to vapers and smokers shifting to online retailers and, to a certain extent, to home delivery services.
UKVIA cites Vape Club, a dedicated online retailer, which has reported a 150-200% increase in business that has required the company to double the amount of product it normally stores.
Similarly, Edinburgh-based VPZ, one of the largest independent vape retail chains in the UK, has shifted from selling products via its 155 stores around the country to solely online and is seeing huge volumes.
The threat to convenience stores here is clear, and one that UKVIA recognises. If consumers get used to buying online it may become difficult to tempt them back to stores when the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us.
UKVIA Director John Dunne says: “We respect the government’s decision for the lockdown but it’s vital that smokers and vapers can still access vape products as they are 95% less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
“The huge response from the vaping sector represents a monumental effort and reflects the entrepreneurial and agile nature of the sector but vapers and smokers should also not forget that convenience stores shops remain open and will be selling vape products.
“Whilst vapers and smokers have been able to turn to online shopping we are very aware that for many there is a desire to speak to face-to-face about their situations and vaping needs. We’ve already seen MPs writing to Government to point out the key role that physical stores play in providing specialist advice to customers and to ensuring that the country meets it smoke free goals.”
Ensuring that the vape category is well presented in-store with strong availability, then, has never been more important for local retailers if they are to secure long-term growth in the category.
Duncan Cunningham, UK Corporate Affairs Director at Imperial Tobacco & blu, comments: “The impact of covid-19 is being felt throughout the industry and we appreciate the challenges this presents for retailers operating under such difficult conditions. The stories of community support being offered by the exceptional retailers within our industry as they go above and beyond to maintain their essential service to consumers nationwide are outstanding.
“The health and welfare of our employees and business partners is our top priority. Given the fast-paced nature of developments relating to Covid-19, we continue to keep these plans under constant review. We encourage any retailers requiring further information or advice regarding supply to their business to speak to their dedicated sales rep.”
While coronavirus is massively disrupting the local retailing sector at the moment, there is still plenty for retailers to get excited about in the vaping category.
Despite only being around a decade old, the UK market continues to develop and evolve at pace from both a commercial and technical perspective. The key challenge for local retailers, believes Cunningham, is in ensuring store staff are knowledgeable about the category and able to offer good advice to shoppers who need it more than ever, particularly as the impending Menthol Ban is set to drive more growth into the category as smokers seek out menthol alternatives.
He says: “Many shoppers entering the vape category will have little or no existing knowledge of what the different products or brands are, or which liquid strength or flavour might be the best fit for them. The retailers who can offer knowledgeable advice to these shoppers will be the ones that see the most success and truly establish themselves as a destination store for vapers. Familiarising themselves and their staff with the different products and terminologies will allow retailers to advise customers on what products are right for them.”
Much of the latest NPD from the major vaping brands has been around nicotine salts which are absorbed more rapidly and deliver more intense, smoother, deeper flavours and a vaping experience that may be more familiar to consumers who used to smoke cigarettes.
JTI has recently launched updated ‘nicsalt’ ranges under its Logic brand. A new Logic Compact Intense range has been introduced into the independent and wholesale channels featuring a variety of flavour pods. The range is available in 18mg strength and five flavours: Amber Tobacco, Peppermint, Berry Ripple, Banoffee and Chai Latte. The pods are compatible with the Logic Compact device and have an RSP of £5.99 for a pack of two.
Nick Geens, Head of Reduced Risk Products at JTI UK, comments: “We’re pleased to introduce the range of nicotine salt flavour pods into the independent and convenience channels to extend and develop our Logic portfolio. The Intense range offers a great profit opportunity for retailers catering to those customers looking for an enriched vaping experience.”
Similarly, JTI has updated its Logic EPIQ range to include nicotine salts and 70/30 e-liquids for an enhanced vaping experience.
With an RSP of £2.99, the new formats tap into the growing demand for high quality e-liquids at an affordable price point.
The Logic EPIQ nicotine salts range (18mg) is available in a variety of flavours including Amber Tobacco, Peppermint, Berry Mint and Forest Fruits. The 70/30 e-liquid range (3mg) offers advanced vapers who regularly use mod devices and seek a bigger vapour plume a higher VG proposition. Flavours include: Coconut Macaroon, Mint Royale, Berry Crumble and Cherry Apple.
The myblu Intense range also features nicotine salts with a starter kit including a pod-mod vape device and USB charger, along with 2 x Intense Liquidpods, at an RSP of £19.99. The Intense Liquidpods within the kit include both Menthol and Golden Tobacco variants, two of myblu’s best-selling e-liquid flavours.
It seems likely that the Menthol Ban which kicks in on 20 May will see many adult smokers give vaping a try, possibly for the first time, which reinforces the importance of having a good range of menthol vaping products available.
It is estimated that over a quarter of UK adult smokers – roughly 1.7 million people – currently smoke menthol or crushball cigarettes.
US giant JUUL Labs has launched a new Menthol flavour JUULpod just in time for the ban, offering adult smokers a wider range of alternatives to combustible cigarettes.
Menthol JUULpods join the existing portfolio of flavours which includes Glacier Mint, Mango Nectar, Golden Tobacco and Alpine Berry.
John Patterson, JUUL Labs UK Sales Director, says: “JUUL Labs’ focus is to provide adult smokers with an alternative to combustible cigarettes, and combating underage use of our products.
“Smoking related diseases are responsible for almost 96,000 deaths in the UK annually [ONS 2018]. Smokers should first and foremost try and give up combustible cigarettes – but if they can’t or won’t, it is critically important to provide access to potentially less harmful nicotine products.”
Menthol JUULpods are available with a 4-pack on sale at an RSP of £10.99.