This was a topic brought up by Chris Mackey, who is a valued listener to the Cigar Jukebox podcast. The issue is whether to buy online or shop local. In Australia this usually comes down to price, because tax and things make cigars here very expensive. However, this issue is international as more B&M local shops compete against large online retailers. I have some passionate views about this, so let’s get into it.
It is difficult to just riff on this without going all over the place, so I am going to break this up into local B&Ms and online with a final verdict at the end.
Local B&M Shops:
- First of all, supporting your local B&M (Bricks and Mortar) shop strengthens cigar culture in your community. I firmly believe that B&Ms are the lifeblood for vibrant cigar culture. They have events and act as meeting places for cigar enthusiasts to have a cigar and enjoy in the social aspect of cigar smoking. Great cigar cultures can be traced to strong and friendly B&M shops. For example, the Nat Sherman Townhouse looks amazing and is a hub of cigar activity that an online shop cannot be. Moreover, you can meet other cigar smokers and learn about cigars in your journey towards aficionado.
- Strong B&Ms indirectly encourage cigar brands / blenders to try new things and experiment. This is a problem in Australia. Without strong local shops, retailers in Australia tend to focus on core brands that will sell at the expense of smaller boutique brands. For example, Paul Stulac cigars began as a house blend in his shop. These more small batch experimental blends would not exists without B&Ms supporting their products.
- The staff rocks. Most staff people I have run into at B&Ms are fantastic. They are really welcoming and can help a cigar smoker of any experience level find what is right for them. This helps you experience new brands, which ultimately helps keep the cigar industry diverse. A good shop staff can also help beginners who may find navigating tons of cigar brands online intimidating. Most importantly, you know that the staff knows cigars. Some online stores are run by people who do not have that cigar knowledge.
- I love the atmosphere in a well run B&M. They just have a great vibe and are very welcoming places. There is something to be said for walking around in a large walk – in humidor, as opposed to scrolling through images online.
- I cannot understate the importance of B&M shops in developing a strong cigar community. In Australia, restrictions and prices have all but eliminated local B&Ms. This has led to cigars being a largely individual pursuit, as opposed to the US where cigar smoking is still a social experience. The role of a good local shop being a meeting place for people is crucial.
- Price, price and price. Most online shops can undercut prices found in local shops. In Australia’s case the price can be undercut by 70%. That is a lot of savings. However, this means that if you are in Australia you are largely shopping overseas and you leave yourself open to customs duty. However, even with customs duty you can still save 20 – 30% in most cases. The issue is that such pricing drives customers away from the local shops, which has an impact in the cigar culture in that area.
- Good online retailers are amazing and can be just as good as local shops. People like Mike at Cigar Huster and Naffa at Cigar Hut know their cigars and provide wonderful service. Mike also is on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook developing a digital cigar community. He and Naffa also run events, which strengthen cigar culture and promote the social aspect of smoking cigars. In this sense Mike and Naffa are working hard to combine the best of both worlds.
- I’ll call this point “why Mike at Cigar Hustler is the best.” He is able to have the great selection associated with online retailers with the events and experimental blends B&Ms are known for. He is currently creating a Cigar hustler cigar, which is similar to Paul Stulac’s beginnings. Cigar Federation also has its own cigar and serves as an online cigar community, which is kind of like Facebook for cigars. In this sense, these online retailers are trying to become digital B&Ms.
- Another key to the success of online retailers is selection. For example, the only way I could try Crowned Heads, RoMa Craft, Debonaire Cigars and Tatuaje is to shop on online US sites. Recently, online retailers have become safe havens for boutique cigars and very attractive for international cigar enthusiasts to get some small batch cigars. Also, online stores enable regional and rural cigar smokers access to cigars that may not be available in their area. This opens these brands up to a wider audience and makes cigars accessible to everyone, which is a great thing.
Overall I think shopping online can help you diversify your humidor and access cigars not available in your area; however, it should not be at the expense of shopping locally. Even though I can buy certain cigars cheaper online in the US than locally at Cigar Hut, I limit my US online shopping to brands not available in this country. The reason for this is that I want local cigar culture to be as vibrant as possible and money going overseas further limits the cigar culture here. I firmly believe people should support their local B&Ms whenever possible. Having said that, I find places like Cigar Hut, Cigar Hustler and Cigar Federation exciting. They are able to provide wonderful cigars to a wide international customer base, while also providing events that build cigar culture in their local area. In Cigar Federation’s case their social / blog / podcast model is developing a cigar culture anyone in the world can access. I think buying both locally and online is the best of both worlds and can build cigar culture across the board. My fear is that online and international sales will push out local B&Ms, which will be a shame.
I want to know what you think . Leave a comment below and add to the conversation.