My impressions and the highlights are covered in this article. So many of those are worthy of detailed articles of their own and will get them in the coming days. Don't scream at your monitor if I drop a statement such as "by the way, V2 Tobacco is coming out with a completely new line targeting women" and don't detail it to your satisfaction. Or that I finally met and had a very interesting conversation with Bill Eder, Marketing VP of Nordic American Smokeless which included why he blew off our interview last summer. Or even that I finally confirmed that there is, in fact, a Grand Prix snus and have the samples to prove it! Some real shockers came out of that conversation too. Each will get the article they deserve.
As a respected member of the Press, I of course had access to everything. Before visiting the Exhibit Hall, I attended a session entitled "Survival After SCHPP - A Business Discussion". It was chaired by Terry Gallagher; President of Smoker Friendly International/Cigarette Store Corporation and Frank Armstrong, Owner of Blue Ridge Tobacco and Candle Outlets.
Most of the early discussion centered around business practices, tobacco tax advice, and employee incentives and precautions. While interesting, most of it was not relevant to why I was there or what you wanted to know until a product slide came up and one of the bullet points was "Snus".
The 600 or so stores which are part of the Smoker Friendly empire are very involved in snus. They currently carry General Snus and Reynolds Camel SNUS. I learned later from another source that Smoker Friendly was testing an American snus called "Discreet" at about 150 locations. More about Discreet Snus later.
As your representative to Tobacco Plus and protected by the U.S. Constitution, I raised my hand and interrupted the presentation with my pointed snus questions. Terry's answers were what proved to be one of the few positive ones I heard on the retail marketing of snus products in the United States.
Friendly Smoker did believe that education was a key element in consumer awareness. Unlike others I spoke with later, Friendly Smoker also had and was implementing a plan. It was amazingly simple: they treated Snus just like their cigar and pipe products. The Store Managers were trained on what snus was and took that back to their stores to pass on to their teams and to interested consumers.
Like other tobacco products Friendly Smoker stores carry, the would have snus tastings and snus events. They didn't give away free product but tied a bonus to a purchase during the events: buy X amount of Y snus and get Z incentive.
Compare that to many clueless convenience store owners whose snus product reps basically dropped off the product, gave them some marketing material, and left. The result is in some cases, people walking into these stores not knowing anything about snus and walking out with 10 cans of Reynold's Camel SNUS for free yet still not knowing anything about snus or SNUS...except they got 10 cans of something for free.
I hoped to speak with Terry after the session was over, but received a call from SnusCENTRAL Sweden telling me someone from our SnusCENTRAL.com Snus Store was in the lobby waiting for me. I mouthed a thank you to Terry and Frank and regretfully left the session; my security detail knocking down anyone in our path.
The Exhibit Hall was an amazing experience in itself. Women dressed as 1950's Cigarette Girls wearing trays of cigarette packs wandered the area, handing out free cigarettes packs to those that wanted them. Cigar companies handing out samples, where attendees could relax or discuss business in a central Cigar Lounge area over free soda or alcoholic drinks. Just the sight of people walking through the show smoking cigarettes or cigars with impunity was a jarring step back into time.
This being Louisiana, however, there was a drawback. State ATF Agents arrived early handing out 12 page packets to anyone who was giving away or selling tobacco products at the show trying to collect the State's tobacco taxes up front. NPM's not registered in Louisiana were told they could not display their product. This affected attendance at this years Expo: 200 exhibitor booths were available but only 110 were taken. The show in Chicago was much better attended as was Las Vegas as the State Governments were much friendlier to the exhibitors. The flip side is that it's much more expensive to display in those cities.
This also affected the number of attendees this year as well. In questioning Manufacturers, Distributors, and other attendees as to the turnout for Tobacco Plus 2009, I received politically correct "a little light but not bad" to "way down" to "outright dismal". This worked well for me, however as I was able to spend more time talking, getting to know, and putting faces to people I had known but never met.
Among those were Lou Maiellano, President of TAZ Marketing & Consulting Group. Well known to those in the industry, TAZ is better known among the consumer snus communities as the publishers of www.tobaccotoday.info, one of the most respected tobacco blogs on the internet. We use the feed from TobaccoToday.info as a contributing source to our syndicated news section on SnusCENTRAL.org.
As mentioned earlier, I finally got to meet Patrick Vogel of V2 Tobacco in person. We've had a long email relationship and seeing/talking to him face to face was a major reason for my coming to Tobacco Plus. V2 continues to grow and do extremely well.
Patrick had prototypes of new V2 products which will appear during the next 2 to 5 months. These include Thunder Snus in mini portions. Each mini portion will contain 8gm per POUCH of nicotine; making them the highest nicotine mini portion snus on the market!
V2 will also be launching a new mini portion brand specifically targeting woman called Fellinni. These will be white portions all containing 8mg/pouch of nicotine. Flavors include Mint, Licorice, and Eucalyptus.
I finally got to see a can of V2's Rothbrix Snus which is simply Phantom Snus under a different name for the US market. Speaking of Phantom, look for Phantom White and Phantom Mini in the coming months.
Patrick has promised to send me the graphics and more information in the immediate future. This will all be covered in greater depth in a followup article.
Bill Eder of Nordic American and I finally met. He really had no choice: I was stalking his booth until he returned from lunch. Our conversation and subsequent information I've learned are also very worthy of an article. Bill promised to get me some graphics and more information first.
Liggett/Vector Tobacco really does make a Grand Prix Snus! It was right there on their counter. I told them that if I hadn't stumbled across an early graphic, I wouldn't have believed it existed. Grand Prix was considered an urban myth: every six months someones cousin's mother's uncle would post that a friend of his saw Grand Prix at a remote truck stop. Imagine my surprise when they showed me a map of seven markets or States Grand Prix was already marketing in with seven more coming on line in 2009. Another shocker for those of you who don't know, Grand Prix is manufactured in Sweden by SnusAB for Liggett/Vector.
Even more shocking, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex has been an established Grand Prix market. I turned to Western Territory Manager; who was wearing a good looking cowboy hat indicating he was probably from Texas and said "I've LIVED in the DFW Market for 9 years. I've visited a lot of tobacco stores, convenience stores, and gas stations in the 9 years I've lived in Frisco, TX. Why have I never seen a store, or never seen a snuser with Grand Prix?"
A retailer approached the Liggett/Vector booth so he was spared from answering. Other conversation topics included the Grand Prix website (there is none), the lack of a dealer directory, and they asked my honest opinion on the Grand Prix packaging. Since they asked....... my expert opinion as expressed will be in a future article.
They are supposed to follow up with a retailer directory...I told them right now all I had was the Swedish Match Store Locator when people asked where they could buy Swedish-made snus over the counter in the US. Of course if Liggett was OK with that....of course they were not and rightfully so. They are also supposed to send some updated graphics: There is now a Spearmint and Wintergreen Grand Prix available as well.
I finally got the chance to try an electronic cigarette: the disposable Ruyan Jazz and cigar version, the Ruyan Vegas. This too deserves it's own article. With the Jazz in one hand and the Vegas in the other, the combination of inhaled nicotine going in and simulated "smoke" coming out of my mouth was unsettling to say the least. I asked them if Ruyan users had difficulties using them in restaurants or airplanes. They said no one had tried it on an airplane yet, but in restaurants they found when they explained it was just water vapor and nothing was burning, they found little resistance.
Kenneth from SnusCENTRAL Sweden had to finally pull me away from the booth...without the samples I was trying. Suddenly those cigarette girls with the trays full of cigarettes took on a new perspective. I took a few deep breaths, popped in a fresh portion of Grovsnus Svart and walked past them. Over two years cigarette free; it's amazing how the previous 35 years as a smoker still have a weak, but definite hold even today. I knew that if I had one real cigarette...... thank God for high nicotine Swedish Snus.
Another incident reinforced the incredible value of Swedish snus to me and ironically answered the question I had asked earlier. On the plane flying back to Dallas, I woman pulled the flight attendant over and was showing her something. The flight attendant asked if what it produced looked like smoke. The woman apparently replied yes because the flight attendant then said very clearly "if it looks like smoke, you can not use it on an airplane."
While observing this I was quietly enjoying a portion of Thunder Frosted Snus and the 16 mg/g of nicotine I urgently needed to stay awake. No one even noticed. I silently thanked the Swedes for inventing snus 200+ years ago and went back to writing.
Swedish Match North America was kind of a let-down. Sandy Fowler-Jones, SMNA Public Relations Director with whom I've exchanged a few emails and phone calls over the years wasn't at the show. I introduced myself to the gentlemen there who were completely uninterested once they realized I wasn't a potential customer, but jerked back as I mentioned "by the way" that SMNA had contracted with me for a General Snus advertising campaign on SnusCENTRAL starting next week.
When I mentioned that they already had a Q&A section on SnusCENTRAL.org through SMAB with [self-redacted] coming within a few weeks, I had their full attention. They asked who I was working with at Swedish Match. I ran through a list of names of my colleagues and friends at SMAB in Sweden. "No, NO! Who are you working with at Swedish Match North America??????" I thought and replied "Well, Sandy Fowler-Jones and I exchange emails a couple times a year."
That apparently placated them. Their faces lost their animation and they started swiveling their chairs away from me. I said to their backs "Say hi to Sandy for me!" One of them gave me a little wave to acknowledge he had heard me and that was my visit to the SMNA booth.
The folks at JTI America were very friendly and were excited to see the JTI Swedish Camel Snus container. JTI wasn't marketing a snus product in the US as of yet. I suggested they own some great brand names here: have JTI Sweden private label the same snus they use for Camel outside the United States under one of the brand names JTI owns here. They indicated that wasn't a bad idea...when the time is right in the US to begin actively selling snus. That phrase was one I heard from a number of manufacturers at the show.
Most American manufacturers simply don't have a plan. They are waiting for "someone to jump in". I guess like lemmings, they will try to catch up quick. One exception was American Smokeless Tobacco Company.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Discreet Snus. Discreet Snus is an American made snus by American Smokeless Tobacco Company and is packaged in zip-lock type bags. I tried one of the flavored versions and found it too mild for my taste and with a nicotine buzz I could not discern at all. Not bad tasting; just too mild, low in nicotine and of course, reflecting the American Flavored snus model. They couldn't answer my technical questions but took my card and promised to have someone contact me.
I later received an email from a Tom O'Connell apologizing for missing me at the show and promising to call Monday and giving me his number if I wanted to call him first.
I had just begun writing this article when my phone rang. It was Tom O'Connell of American Smokeless Tobacco. What resulted was a fascinating hour and a half+ conversation/interview. Once of my first questions was "what are the nicotine and TSNA levels of Discreet Snus. To my complete shock, without a pause he rambled off the numbers. Stark contrast to others I'd asked the same question of at the show who either professed ignorance or refused to answer concerning their products.
About half way though our conversation, I asked Tom what his title was at American Smokeless. He replied "Owner and Janitor".
Our conversation ended as he pulled into his driveway. I've got four pages of notes on this conversation. It most certainly deserves it's own article and some of the concepts Tom raised are stand-alone articles of their own. I can't do the conversation, Tom O'Connell, or Discreet Snus justice in a paragraph or to so I'm going to leave with this final comment on American Smokeless Tobacco, it's representatives, and Tom O'Connell especially.
After meeting after meeting with "old school" tobacco guys who were so guarded in not only discussing their products, but the industry and the future of snus in general, I found Tom O'Connell be the most open, personable, and knowledgeable of all the American snus manufacturers I met. He forced me to look at some of the realities of the American snus marketplace I had previously ignored or forgotten as my cigarette smoking days slipped further into the past. He has given me pause, which trust me is not an easy thing to do.
He also ruined the conclusion of this story I had envisioned writing so I'm left without an ending. In a way, that is fitting. What I had cynically written off as a confused, ignorant, and outdated thought and marketing process by American snus manufacturers may also be for some, a traditional American response when marketing a new product with the target market having either a complete lack of, or incorrect product knowledge or product perception. Tom reminded me of the story of the introduction of Coca Cola.
What's old is new again, it seems. At least for some American snus producers. The others are still standing around waiting for "someone to jump in" Some may ultimately find they waited too long. More to follow.
America's Leading Activist Snus Guru
Reporting From SnusCENTRAL.org