Loitering, Even Lounging, Allowed

E-cig lounges blend community with broad product variety

It was only a matter of time before the insane growth of e-cigarettes begat the e-cig shop and lounge.

Following on the heels of cigar lounges, entrepreneurs who invest in such retail models believe that the e-cig category is going nowhere but up.

Sina War, co-owner of Uptown Vapor Shoppe in Minneapolis, performed due diligence and in quick fashion became a believer. She had an “ah-ha” moment about the upside of e-cig lounges during a trip to California.

“I saw a lot of positive indicators there,” says War, whose two lounges sell a plethora of e-cigs as well as supplies and refills—sometimes known as e-juice or e-liquid. “I saw that the e-cig user was all over the map—a wide-ranging customer base from young to old. I also took notice of tobacco shops and how they approached e-cig marketing, and thought we could do it better. We decided to concentrate 100% on e-cigs and nothing else.”

The family-owned business opened two locations in April, the second in suburban Maplewood, Minn. “Our showroom is themed ‘Then and Now,’ and calls back to the era of 1950s celebrities,” says War.  

Uptown sports glass cases full of almost every type of e-cigarette, and entices trial with 20-plus flavors that customers can “vape” for free before they buy. “Most of our customers educate themselves before they come into our store, and then once they’re here, we help them pick out a device and flavors to fit their needs,” she says.

War says she’s not hedging any bets on this venture: There are no other tobacco-related products sold in her stores. “Not only do we only sell e-cigs, but we don’t sell food or beverages. I noticed while in California that some vapor shops sold things like Red Bull. For us, it’s e-cigs and local artwork on the walls.”

War says the business has grown steadily since April, and that one regular customer typically refers three other people. “We find that it’s a community where people are supporting each other in their attempt to quit smoking.”

Lou Maiellano, president of TAZ Marketing & Consulting Group, Sevierville, Tenn., sees lounges as high-end places for devotees of e-cigs to splurge and experiment with all the flavors at their disposal and upscale devices offered. It’s not uncommon for some people to spend $150 and up for devices, liquids and cases.

“I’m really excited about it. I’m working with three entities that are looking to open five locations,” he says, pointing out the social, ritual aspect of the experience. “Starbucks works—we don’t think that’s crazy.”

Maiellano thinks c-stores could experience “slight attrition” where these lounges could siphon off sales from c-stores. “The more lounges that open, the more power that emanates with their wide range of flavors, equipment and devices,” he says.

At Uptown Vapor Shoppe, which is about 700 sq. ft., seven full-time e-cig experts are tasked with knowing all the ins and outs of e-cigs—all the better to recommend flavors, equipment and nicotine levels to customers.

The shop markets 35 different flavors that include Apple, Apple Pie, Blueberry, Cantaloupe, Caramel Popcorn, Coffee, Cupcake, Honeydew and Lemonade.

War says customers who are in the process of quitting smoking opt for tobacco flavors most often. “They also ‘vape’ what they like to taste regularly, so if they consume coffee, then coffee-flavored e-cigs is what they opt for,” she says.

C-stores can compete on product quality with e-cig lounges if they step up their game with higher-performing devices and better e-liquids, says Maiellano. But aside from quality, he says that most store clerks aren’t as well versed with the store’s e-cig stock. At e-cig lounges, customers feel almost pampered.

“You can go to a c-store to buy premium cigars, so they have proven they can and do offer quality,” he says. “If I’m a retailer I would be looking for ways to offer the quality that e-cig shops and lounges do, but one thing they can’t duplicate is the ‘lounge’ part of that equation.”