Put that in Your Pipe

Packaging- A Tobacco Company’s Dilemma

Russ Ouellette
You’d think that, by now,
I would know better than to urinate into the wind, but, what the hell. I’m bringing up a subject that is a constant source of consternation for us- packaging. Let me begin by saying that the problem is partially one of my own making by wanting to please more people rather than standing firm on a decision. When we started making the Hearth & Home tobaccos, they were all in a bulk format. After a while, I received comments and requests to tin our blends, as some folks don’t want to buy loose tobacco and jar it. I understood, but I had some angst in making the choice (with Scott’s okay, of course) because there would be the inevitable comparisons- were the two versions the same (in our case, yes); and why the big price difference? The added labor, container, labeling and shipping costs mean that tinned tobacco has to be, of necessity, more expensive. But as far as the components go, there’s no difference in quality. Yet some people will insist that there are noticeable contrasts. This is unavoidable as bulk is exposed to open air more, and tins have additional fermentation occurring. But in an effort to reach the broadest audience, we went both ways.

Later on, when I was able to develop some new blends that had higher component costs due to the quality and rarity, I wanted to only offer them in tins, as I felt that the integrity of the blends depended upon it. I also dared to try a new concept- pressing by using vacuum-sealing. What happened next was something I should have been prepared for; people asked for the tinned blends to be available in bulk because the tins were too expensive. I also had people ask for smaller packages of the vacuumed tobaccos. Now I had a couple of real dilemmas- do I make these "special" blends less so by selling them loose, and do I increase labor costs by making smaller vacuum-pressed packs? Since our creed is to make customers happy, we gave in for the most part.

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Why is this such an issue? Because there are lots of different attitudes. Some people are extremely particular about the flavor and aroma of their tobaccos and they feel that there’s more consistency and flavor development in tinned tobaccos. I can’t, and won’t, argue this point. It’s a fact. When tobaccos are sold in bulk, the very moment that the bag is opened to weigh out the first sale, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) begin to dissipate. This doesn’t happen with tins until the end consumer cracks it open. Also, in the closed environment, the anaerobic fermentation helps to bring out elements that don’t develop in bulk. But is there enough difference to justify the price gradient? Well, that’s up to the consumer to decide. Sure, it’s a pain to make the same blends both ways, but we reach more people, so we decided to do it. I am not, by any means, making a judgment about other companies who choose a different path- it’s all based on the philosophy of the company, and the economics. Part of the reason we can get away with our choice is because we’re small enough to work with lesser quantities. When making hundreds of pounds at a time, a dissimilar mindset has to be used. At the same time, when working with larger batches, the price can come down, and we’re not geared up for that.

From a personal viewpoint, when I’ve come up with something that I feel really strongly about and the product suffers a bit, in my opinion, by being served up in bulk, it’s disappointing. But I can’t argue affordability. Hence the reason for writing this.

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If someone has tried one of our original blends in bulk, but felt that the flavor was lacking, I would encourage him/her to try a tin. The additional marrying time and the fermentation may make the blend "pop". If a person has smoked one of our Marquee Series tobaccos and enjoyed it, but find it too pricey, give the bulk version a whirl. There will be a difference, no doubt, but maybe not enough to be off-putting.

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Here’s one major difference from our perspective- since most of what we sell, we sell through our own site, we’re not asking other companies to carry so many different forms and sizes. If the larger makers were to do this, a lot of retailers would have to throw their hands in the air and yell, "Enough!" Just think about a supermarket chain facing the fact that there are now 10 kinds of Special K cereal. A store only has so much shelf space, and the original version has sold well, but what do you eliminate to take on more flavors. So the larger manufacturers of pipe tobacco have to think about the possibility of overloading their retail partners.

As with so many issues in this business, there aren’t any pat answers, and every maker has to evaluate their circumstances. Where will we go in the future? My crystal ball is particularly cloudy, so I don’t have a clue, but we’ll take everything on a case-by-case basis. But part of what makes this a magical industry is that we’re now small enough to pay close attention to what our retail partners and our end-users want. The beauty of this is that you’re the winners.

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Despite all the doom and gloom, I still feel positive about the future of pipe smoking. Of course, things can change, but I think we’ve finally reached the point where the politicians and policy makers are beginning to hear the gigantic *yawn* when they bring up another attack against our intrepid little band. In the meantime, we and our friendly competitors are going to find ways to give you what you want, and isn’t that really what it’s all about? Now, what are your thoughts?

 

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Albany, NY. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here

 

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    Kurt Simmons
  • September 7, 2012
You know, Russ, whatever you decide to do is going to bite you in the nether region anyway.You package one way, they want it the other way. You package it both ways and they want a guarantee that each package is identical to all of the others regardless of the fact that they haven't been treated the same; this on got shipped to the cold North, that one got shipped to the dry hot desert southwest, another got lost on the postal dock in swamp-east Florida for a month. Obviously they are all going to have a taste that reflects the aging they have received. You lose!
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    RichC
  • September 7, 2012
Russ...I once only purchased bulk but now I only will buy tinned & for the reasons you mentioned. I enjoy looking in my pipe cabinet not only at my working collection but the stacks of tinned 'baccy with their interesting artwork on the labels. In some cases the taste appeal may even be mis-statement [versus bulk] but the eye cannot be denied when the palate is in the discussion. Maybe I can compare it to having a well presented meal versus the same meal in a less appealing plate. Yep...I enjoy tins!
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    cbear
  • September 7, 2012
What ever you do, from a Coast Salish native American perspective.
If someone is not mad, you are doing it wrong. Our elder's point is that you can't please everyone.
Do what you do and do it well.
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    Spartan
  • September 7, 2012
As a customer service rep, I bow to your logic and how you've handled the packaging of your products. I find no flaw in your approach to caving into the consumer's demands and offering both bulk and tinned tobacco. I think it wise to leave it up to the consumer to think for themselves and decide what they like better. High quality taste at a moderate price, or slightly less high quality taste at rock bottom prices. I think it speak volumes for a company to let the consumer think for themselves a bit. Happy Smoking Russ.
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    baronsamedi
  • September 7, 2012
I've been more into bulk lately, because it all ends up in jars anyway. I do like to buy the 8oz tins of my favorites, though.
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    Neill
  • September 7, 2012
Russ, I think you are making good calls as a whole.
One place that I do think needs improvement is in packaging design. The quality of graphic design in your labels and printing doesn't begin to match the quality of the product. You need to engage a firm that understands consumer product packaging design for men. If we look at the cigar industry, they've gotten it right. Most of the pipe tobacco category has gotten it wrong. I'd like to see you lead in making your packaging as good as your product.
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    TopD
  • September 7, 2012
I can really feel your pain! It would be bad enough trying to make all 'toilet tissue' users happy (which includes everyone) but pipe smokers are a strange bunch and in small supply. I'm a happy smoker knowing there are folks like you willing to fight that battle. "Thank You for your Service Sir!"
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    Jud
  • September 7, 2012
Thanks for the column explaining your thoughts on this, Russ. Most enlightening.
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    photoman13
  • September 7, 2012
Great article I really enjoyed hearing this issue from someone with a little more knowledge.
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Thanks for all the feedback, folks. It makes me feel a little more comfortable with our choices.
Neill- Point well taken. If you look at our label for Cerberus, it's a much better look than our previous ones. The earlier labels were designed by me with an entry-level publishing program. We now employ an incredibly talented graphic artist who will be designing all our labels going forward...thank God.
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    cortezattic
  • September 7, 2012
I'm glad you offer bulk packaging at a substantial savings. I don't think my palate is sensitive enough to notice a difference from tinned offerings.
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    rothnh
  • September 7, 2012
Some months ago, one of the H&H tins I purchased (H&H Landmark Series: Manor Heights, 1.5 oz., new to me) and noticed tobacco had stuck to the bottom of the tin and it appeared that rust was just starting to develop.
I jarred the tobacco, smoked it all and really enjoyed the blend, but was concerned enough about this to Email P&C and make note of it. I suggested using some form of paper insert in the tin, to protect the tobacco, might be a good idea.
I received a quick and courteous Email reply, thanking me for the input and noting that you (Russ) was out due to illness, but this would be brought up to you when you returned. I'd be interested in your comments on this.
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    Chris
  • September 7, 2012
I'm one of the few that are blessed with a local shop that carries a lot of your bulk blends. Getting a few ounces of Daybreak is just a few minutes drive from work for me. That being said, there are blends I don't go through quick enough and the tin makes the most sense.
I'm glad you offer both options on your blends. For me it's just a matter of how often I go through them. Daybreak is my morning smoke so I buy it in bulk. Magnum Opus is something I have as a special treat and 2 or 8 ounce tins work best.
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    portascat
  • September 7, 2012
To me, comparing the tin to bulk is worth it. Buying a tin, then 2-4 oz. of bulk and jarring it, is all part of the process of discovery. From there you can determine the nature of your next purchases.
Most of the tobacco we buy is relatively cheap pleasure, even the more premium blends.It often seems to me that, like in many other areas of life, people "know so much about tobacco" that they can't hardly enjoy it anymore. Instead they fret and worry about things that are hardly important to the more insistent and persistent problems regarding the selection of either beer or whiskey to go along with the pipe.
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    kalc
  • September 8, 2012
Thanks for the great article. Tinned is a good option as long as 8 &/or 16 oz are also available besides the standard 1.5 or 2 oz - so that once i like something particularly, i can buy at lower rates. Your prices are very competitive & there are lots i want to try - so though its good that you are thinking, i am happy :)
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    Eric
  • September 8, 2012
I love the fact you offer your blends in tins, I always prefer to buy them over bulk. Also if your giving some as a gift to someone, tins are the only way to go. Cruedly drawn labels may appear vintage and may fool your users to think that they are getting an established blend ;)
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    shawn
  • September 8, 2012
OK Russ, nicely done. It comes down to business. Your business model appears not to be a low cost provider. You seem to be falling in line with the customer service model were you closely a line with the customer and that comes at a cost which you have mentioned and I sure there is more you have not. You also demonstrate certain business traits that somewhat a line you with being a differentiator – which means product that separate you from the pack. In business, I do not often see leader explain their position, as they are afraid to loss revenue. You have done a great job here and kept my respect even enhanced it. I will shift to tins as your edification has helped me to understand the difference. Thank you Sir.
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    Kevin
  • September 8, 2012
Cerberus is a pretty cool looking tin. For the photo here, I just grabbed what I had around in my own personal stash.
You can see Cerberus here:
http://pipesandcigars.com/international.html
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    elwin
  • September 10, 2012
So what you're saying is, this would probably be the wrong time to ask if you're ever going to offer small sample sized portions of say Lakeland Brickle - so that I don't have to buy a half pound just to find out if I'm going to like it?
(Sorry - couldn't help myself...)
:)
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Elwin,
If you want to try Lakeland Brickle, just ask for a sample when you place an order with us. I'd love to offer the Brickles in smaller amounts, but the labor costs are really high with the time involved in vacuum sealing.
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    nameshy
  • September 12, 2012
I'm under the impression that up until ten or so years ago the tobaccos I smoked from a can were somewhat more loosely packed and now are very much more tightly packed. The actual weight a can held didn't change, but the size of the can became smaller. I think I understand the theory behind this compressing and why it was considered to be an improvement. But isn't it also possible that in some ways the same blends weren't a little better in the former packing method?
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    rothnh
  • September 12, 2012
I'm disappointed that Mr. Ouelette hasn't commented on my post here of 7 September.
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I'm sorry I didn't address your concern. Your idea is a good one, but the packaging is done for us by a manufacturer, and the way the tins are done is not something we control. I certainly will pass your thoughts along, but the ultimate decision is up to our partner. From what I've been told, the problem was with one batch of bottoms hat weren't properly coated, and we have replaced any that people brought to our attention. Thankfully, there weren't many. Please, if you ever have any problem with any product from us, let us know right away so we can replace it or otherwise satisfy you.
Russ
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    rothnh
  • September 12, 2012
Russ, thanks for your reply to my concern.
As I open a smaller tin, I'm accustomed to leaving the tobacco in that tin when I plan to smoke it up in 3-4 weeks. Loved the Manor Heights and glad I caught the problem in my tin's bottom in time! I plan to add another tin of that blend to an order soon since the problem's been addressed and corrected. Thanks again for setting my mind at ease.
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    oldtom
  • September 13, 2012
Good article and I totally agree with your concerns.
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    Chris G
  • September 14, 2012
Russ,
One of the things I really love about you, Scotty, Bobby and the team at P&C is your like-mindedness about great service. As for tins verses bulk, I realized that there would be no possible way for me to consume all the baccy in my cellar in this lifetime, so now buying the tobacco in tins at least makes it easier for my wife to happily sell it off after my demise! LOL
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    whitecloud
  • September 14, 2012
Just a thought: There are foil sandwiched plastic bags that would probably cut down on the transmission of volatiles thru the bag and allow for vacuum sealing. This would allow the product to be kept under vacuum, until opened, like the tin. There may be some other problem that pops up with your packager but I would think it's worth a quick look into. Just a thought. Thanks for the article! I'll have to pick up a few tins to see the difference.
B
Actually, those mylar bags have been used by McClelland for some of their tobaccos, but they stopped using them about 4-5 years ago. I'll have to ask Mike McNeil why they don't use them anymore.
Russ
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    Kevin
  • September 15, 2012
Iwan Ries uses the mylar bags with a ziplock seal. I had a few from the Chicago show.
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    whitecloud
  • September 15, 2012
Kevin, Do you notice any smell from the mylar bags or do you have them mixed with your other tobaccos. I usually leave my bulk in the bag it was packed in and put the whole thing in an apothicary jar. Our dollar store has some great jars that fit 4oz-6oz for $1 each. I think it is a Dollar General. The other place for cheep jars is The Christmas Tree Shop. If I'm not supposed to mention names then they're just the dollar stores.
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    Kevin
  • September 15, 2012
Whitecloud, I don't recall any particular smell from the bags, but I do not have them anymore. I finished the tobacco and tossed them.
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    Chuck
  • September 15, 2012
Rus,as Long as you make Larrys blend I dont care what you put it in,
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    nameshy
  • September 29, 2012
Russ: I couldn't help wondering if my observation of September 12th made any sense to you, or if it was simply not in the ballpark.
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nameshy- You're correct in your observation, at least in some cases, as the size of tins was reduced to decrease packaging and shipping costs. I don't believe, however, that it has much impact on the tobacco. It's possible that it could have some influence over how quickly it marries, but outside that, I don't know if it would change anything else very much.
Russ
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    nameshy
  • October 1, 2012
Thanks, Russ. I probably should have mentioned that I have almost always used blends that have had at least some latakia.
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