Alex Kupper, senior category specialist for Thorntons, has been with the bp-owned convenience-store chain, in various roles, for seven years. The tobacco category is facing a multitude of challenges, but depending on how one looks at it, these can be exciting, he says. He tries to see impending regulations not as a “doomsday scenario” but a chance to stand out as a brand and work with manufacturers to offer consumers innovative products.

What do you love about your category?
How impactful it is to the c-store retail space. Yes, it’s under compression just by way of natural usage, shifting and changing—which is another exciting part—but overall, the No. 1 piece is just how impactful it is to the bottom line.

What are some of the biggest challenges?
There’s a lot of regulation that’s being proposed and implemented ... that seem very daunting to the category, like it’s trying to put it into the extinct area. So just looking forward into the future, and the discussions we’ve had with our partners, is we want to make sure that we can stand up with two feet and confidently offer something of relevance for the consumer to keep visiting our brick-and-mortar stores so that we can keep serving them and keep providing that experience, which is extremely unique and extremely resilient.

What are you looking forward to in the next year?
You think about all of the shifts, and poly-usage has been around for a long time, but how you can best utilize space and prepare your stores and your company’s expectations for the future. Some of the new [product innovation] coming down is exciting for the consumer, too. … The aggregate adult tobacco consumer in the U.S. is looking for a safe way to be able to meet that nicotine sensation but in different forms. So that’s the exciting part.

“It’s just another opportunity for you to be able to stand out.”

How do you expect that to shake out?
There are all kinds of extensive research that’s been done … to help folks move beyond the arms of combustible cigarettes. So that’s the opposite of the doomsday scenario, kind of like the shining light of, “Oh, we can [move away from cigarettes] with support from regulators, and from good retailers, and good partners with the media.” … But there is a shining light out there that we can, and at the end of the day, maintain retail presence and maintain a spot for folks to go and to interact with on their day-to-day journey.

What advice would you give to another tobacco category manager?
Always have contingency plans. ... Just know that if there is a large impact to the category, all retailers, hopefully, are affected. It’s just another opportunity for you to be able to stand out and garner more of that attention from the consumer and more share of their visits, share of wallets.

What consumer trends are you watching now that affect the category?
[In cigarettes,] there’s just a lot a lot of shifts by way of inflation. But you have to look at the long game as well and know that economic situations, they always do find their level eventually. So the consumers do find a pathway back to the brands that they prefer over brands that just service their needs as of right now when things are tight.