Views on Snus
Retailers debate the segment’s challenges and potential
OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. -- Snus manufacturers say it’s the little segment that could. A relative newcomer, the spit-free tobacco product has enjoyed solid growth since it first hit the United States around 2007. Last year was no exception, with Nielsen showing snus dollar sales in large c-store chains rose by 7.2% in 2013, with volume up 4.8%.
It’s a nice success story for those in the snus business to sell. But are those numbers actually translating into retailer profits?
For some, Nielsen paints an accurate picture.
“Nielsen’s 4% growth sounds about right for our c-stores,” said Andrea Myers, president of the convenience and tobacco store operator Kocolene Marketing LLC, Seymour, Ind. “It’s higher than that in our tobacco stores, where we’re averaging double digit growth. We really push it.”
But Nielsen’s growth is definitely not indicative of all retailers, such as the Framingham, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms. The company’s senior manager of tobacco Anne Flint said she “really has not seen snus take off” at Cumberland’s 574 locations.
Others have been downright frustrated by their snus sales – or lack thereof.
“I am not sure this segment has validity based on our sales and really, the lack of commitment from the manufacturers,” said Frank White, director of retail operations for Tri-State Petroleum, Wheeling, W.Va. “I’m not seeing that they’re that committed to it.”
Bishop agreed that snus has become somewhat of a forgotten segment, often overshadowed by the newer, glitzier sector electronic cigarettes and vaporizers.
“We’re kind of in a position now where there’s still a healthy number of snus users,” he said, estimating there’s a few million snus consumers in the U.S. “But in terms of buzz in the industry and focus from the consumers, there really isn’t a lot.”
That said, Bishop is still a believer in snus’ value within the modern tobacco set, provided retailers are willing to attack the challenges that come with it.
“If there’s any differences between what Nielsen’s large chain numbers report and the broader industry performance, it’s likely due to a function of the execution,” Bishop said.
As to the biggest challenges to executing snus sales, retailers listed the following:
“Is it selling? Yes,” Myers said. “But it’s not catching the world on fire. Some of our c-stores do pretty well with it, others don’t.”
Any number of regional factors might make snus a more or less compelling option for consumers in different areas. Many retailers find the best solution to combatting inconsistent snus sales is constantly review their own data, offering a more robust snus selection in stores where it’s performing and scaling back in stores where it’s not.
“If a city or a town has a lot of smoking bans, it will sell a little better because people have to use something else,” said Myers. “As more and more smoking bans are now including electronic cigarettes and vaping, this is another nicotine delivery option.”
It’s an all-too-common dilemma for the modern tobacco retailer: too many OTP products, nowhere to put them. The dilemma is heightened when it comes to a relatively new product, like snus, prompting Bishop to list placement as snus’ primary challenge for retailers.
Unlike most OTP segments, snus placement varies greatly: Camel and Marlboro brands tend to be merchandised with their cigarette counterparts, while General has a standalone refrigeration unit that is typically placed within the OTP section.
“The problem is there is no unified segment on the backbar,” he said. “It makes it very difficult for consumers who haven’t tried snus to learn about it. If it’s not clearly visible is no different than having it below the counter. There’s a problem with ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Consumers aren’t looking for it and the cashiers aren’t promoting it.”
Trial and Awareness
“The biggest challenge is consumer education,” said Flint. “Not enough has been done to educate possible snus users as to what it is and the possibility of it being less of a cancer risk than cigarettes. With all the different programs c-stores have, the burden needs to fall on manufacturers to educate the consumer.”
Specifically, retailers would like to see more education campaigns, in-store advertising and price breaks through coupons, promotions or even smaller, less expensive trial sizes.
Myers expressed optimism that, with help from the manufacturers, snus is a category that will continue to grow.
“Once people try it, most of our customers really like it and become return customers,” she said. “But getting that first-time purchase is really hard.”