Let’s not drop the vaping ball again

Antony Begley

When vaping first arrived in the UK in about 2007, it probably struck many retailers at the time as one of those fads like energy shots – remember them? – that would generate a few headlines and a lot of marketing spend then quietly fade away.

It didn’t turn out that way. Within a few years there were hundreds of thousands of vapers and these days there are an estimated three million of them, albeit half of that number are apparently dualists that both vape and smoke cigarettes.

The industry is now worth a cool £1bn in the UK – but here’s the thing: only about £160m of that cash goes through traditional retail channels. The vast majority of the spend is either online or through specialist vapeshops. Whichever way you look at it, those numbers represent one massively dropped ball by the convenience channel.

With so many similarities between the tobacco and vaping categories, how did we go from being the route to market of choice for cigarettes to being worse than an also-ran in vaping? The answer, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is that our sector hasn’t done a very good job of embracing the category.

Few and far between are the c-stores that sell a well-presented, comprehensive range of products in line with shopper demand. Rare too are the c-stores that can offer informed advice to consumers desperately in need of support from the stores they buy from. Hats off to the vapeshops, who tick both boxes, and are enjoying the benefits while the online vendors are mopping up the bulk of the rest of the market with value pricing and big ranges.

A series of recent developments, however, could very well spark yet another surge in vaping. This makes it all the more important that local retailers in Scotland take a fresh look at the market and ask themselves what they can do to secure a bigger slice of a category that they should be doing much better in.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published an e-cigarettes report last month that essentially concluded that the government is missing significant opportunities to tackle UK smoking rates by loosening up the rule on vaping. The Committee is urging the UK government to consider tax breaks for vaping products, allowing wider use of vaping in public places and rethinking the regulations around e-cigarette packaging and advertising. It is also calling for an “urgent review” of the restrictions on nicotine strength, tank size and bottles which it says “are not founded on scientific evidence”.

In the same week the Scottish Government announced that it is to offer vaping kits for free to prisoners who smoke in Scottish jails as part of a plan to turn all Scottish prisons smoke-free by the end of November this year. Does this reflect a softening of the Scottish Government’s line on vaping too? It certainly looks that way.

The big concern is that if vaping is set for another growth spurt, are local retailers set to miss out again? It’s time we too urgently reviewed the category and worked out exactly what we need to do to capitalise on a massive opportunity before it’s too late.

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Antony Begley, Publishing Director