NATIONAL REPORT — There are as many as 15,000 vape stores currently operating in the United States and that number may just be the tip of the iceberg. In fact, "vapor shops" became their own category on the popular social media site Yelp as of May.
Why should convenience store retailers care? Because recent research shows vape shops are taking away c-store electronic cigarette customers as they move to vapor products, making it critical for c-stores to get in the game as soon as possible. Also, younger adult smokers — one of the key demographics c-stores have been trying to attract as customers — are particularly interested in vapor.
CSNews Online recently spoke to owners of several vapor stores around the country to gain insight on what's driving the expansion of these businesses and what they have that c-stores don't.
Spike Babaian, co-owner of Vape NY, a chain of vape shops with three locations in New York City — Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn — said the vapor products currently being sold in most convenience stores are "last generation." While new users turn to the older generation of products because the new products tend to be more complicated, established vapers have moved well beyond this point.
Vape NY offers approximately 30 different flavors, five different nicotine strengths and more than 200 different combinations of tops and bottoms — 75 to 100 different types of tanks (tops) and about 80 to 100 different types of batteries or devices (bottoms).
"Being able to try different flavors and different tank systems is what gives vape shops an advantage over convenience stores. Mixing and matching is what fine-tunes the product to work for a certain person," she said. "In a convenience store, you are buying a kit so you are stuck with that tank and that battery. You can change the flavor, buy a different liquid to put into the open tank, but you really can't change much else."
Michelle LaBarbera, director of marketing for Davie, Fla.-based Vapor Group Inc., agrees that variety is a key advantage vape shops have over c-stores. Vapor Group started out as a developer and manufacturer of vaporizers and e-cigarette brands and has since started opening its own retail stores in Florida.
With more vape shops popping up around the country, LaBarbera believes convenience stores will be able to compete in this emerging category — but only to a degree.
"Convenience stores will compete to some extent, but the products will be basic. They will have the kits that have a USB charger, a typical battery and an atomizer that a consumer can pick up quickly. Convenience stores will carry some liquids, but you are not going to have the variety like you do in a brick-and-mortar vape store," according to LaBarbera.
Vape stores also offer more high-end products than c-stores and a different type of customer service, LaBarbera added. "We offer expert assistance in product selection as opposed to a c-store where employees don’t really know anything about the products unless they are a vaper."
Total Vapor employees go through extensive training and have the chance to test products.
Most vape shops are owned by people who personally use the products, noted Vape NY's Babaian. Hence, educating users on vapor products is also where vape shops have an edge over convenience stores, or any other retail channel that enters the category, she explained.
"They understand what the customer wants. The people in the convenience store just hand the customer a product and get the money. They don’t have the ability to explain what's wrong with it, how to fix it," Babaian said.
In fact, up to this point, Vape NY has not hired anyone who does not vape.
"If you don’t use the product, you cannot teach someone else how to use the product. And if you don't know how to use the product, you cannot fix the product," she said. "A very big part of employment at a vape shop is not just understanding how the product works and being able to explain it, but also being able to figure out what may be wrong with it."
For more on vape shops, look in the October issue of Convenience Store News.