Briar Market Today
'Ben Rapaport, Spring 2022
L’Abbondanza is a chain of Italian supermarkets, a shopping mall, and at least one restaurant with that name. The English translation, abundance, is the appropriate word to describe today’s briar pipe business landscape: an abundance of both factory-produced classic pipes and an abundance of artisan pipes having their own unique shapes and styles. In a word, it’s a cornucopia ... a plethora of myriad choices for every buyer today.
Two recent predictive reports address the future of the pipe trade. “Tobacco Pipe Market Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast, 2021—2031” (transparencymarketresearch,com): “Increase in sale of tobacco pipes through online distribution channels, especially on company-owned websites of manufacturers and on e-commerce websites such as Amazon, Walmart, and various other local e-commerce portals across the globe is anticipated to create huge opportunities for manufacturers and suppliers of tobacco pipes during the forecast period. Producers and distributors also offer attractive discounts to drive the sales of tobacco pipes on various e-commerce websites.” The other is “Global Tobacco Pipe Market by Type (Briar Type, Meerschaum Type, Corn Cob Type, Others), By Application (Above 60 Years Old, 18-60 Years Old) And By Region (North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia Pacific and Middle East & Africa), Forecast To 2028” (dataintelo.com).
Neither report portrays the intricate details of today’s competition. In my view, you can’t predict the future of the pipe trade without knowing its present performance. So, from prediction to present reality. In a August 1998 Baltimore Sun article written by Mark Feeney about pipe and cigar smokers was this hopeful prognostication: “If we were ever again to become a nation that prided itself on the literate, numerate acumen of the mass of our public, then pipes, I think, would flourish.” Well, since that time, the pipe business has flourished. (Fair warning: I am not on terra firma with the word “flourish,” because neither the Industry, the Premium Cigar Association, the Pipe Tobacco Council, Inc. or the independent website, briarreport.com, track annual pipe sales data.)
“The Profitable Business of Pipes” (tobaccobusiness.com, May 2021) portrayed the importance of pipe sales for the 21st century tobacconist. What the article did not acknowledge are four other interrelated phenomena in play today that are beyond the reach of today’s every Bricks & Mortar (B&M) retailer. First, to get a sensing of this burgeoning market, the pipe smoker can access any of the several online databases, e.g., pipedia.org, that contain the names of just about every pipe factory and every independent pipe maker here and abroad. In my database, currently, there are briar pipe artisans in 54 countries including, as examples, Albania, China, Estonia, Indonesia, Latvia, Uruguay and Vietnam, countries that had no prior pipe-making history. The number of pipe makers on my list is around 800 … and still counting. That’s today’s baseline.
Second is the annual gathering in Illinois every May sponsored by the Chicago Pipe Collectors Club. The number of exhibitors and attendees at this annual show grows by leaps and bounds since its first gathering in 1996. There are several other weekend pipe shows around the country and in Europe, but none comes close to the Chicagoland affair in size, scope, and participation, especially if one considers the number of foreign pipe makers and collectors in attendance. The Internet sparked a third influence, online pipe retailers and estate-pipe sellers (here and abroad); the latter group have had a big impact, buying “used” or “pre-owned” pipes and reselling them as “new and professionally restored estate smoking pipes,” and some may also sell “new old stock” pipes (purchased from another company). (Even Etsy and Craigslist are estate pipe sellers!) That can be a buyer’s dilemma: vintage versus new.
The fourth phenomenon is, strangely enough, one auction house, more aptly a powerhouse for buyers. Taurus Auctions, Fair Lawn, New Jersey, has sponsored four sequential online “Premier Pipe” auctions, each offering new and estate briars from many talented artisans with name recognition: April 2021 (338 lots) and November 2021 (275 lots), and March 2022 (276 lots) and May 2022 (251 lots). That’s more than 1,100 pipes in a span of 13 months, probably more pipes than any retailer has in stock at any one time. (Taurus is not revealing whether there will be more such auctions in the future.)
So, at the moment, it’s the battle for the consumer’s dollar among store-, online-, show-, and, of late, auction-available pipes. (I don’t consider eBay a viable competitor. ) In a play on words, I am reminded of the 1978 movie, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”; in 2022 it’s “The Invasion of the Briar Sellers.” But haven’t the experts continued to drone on about the ever-shrinking pipe-smoker community? If an accurate assessment, are all these competing sellers now outnumbering buyers? (It’s a rhetorical question.)
It was not that way 30 or so years ago, but times have changed and so has the marketplace. The Shakespearian quotation “What’s past is prologue,” meaning that history sets the context for the present, certainly did not hold true for the pipe industry. The first Tinder Box store—the only B&M outlet that opened in 1928—shuttered in 2007, and the number of Tinder Box mall locations has markedly shrunk. Of the more than 100 in the nationwide chain in its expansive era, 20 are in operation. Mom & Pop tobacco stores across the country are vanishing at a rapid pace. None of this was predicted or could have been foreseen in Larry J. Hartman’s 1976 MBA thesis, “The Briar Shoppe: A Retail Business Plan” (scholarworks.umt.edu). And Alan Harrison bemoans the loss of the local tobacconist: “In Praise of Local B&M Pipe Shops” (oldcarolinapipecottage.com):
B&M stores are meaningful in ways that online platforms cannot emulate in the digital world. A physical store presents a local flare, from the store owner to the environment to the clientele, the local pipe shop’s immediate interest is to serve the surrounding community. I’ve traveled to many of the top pipe shops around the country, and this is one thing they all have in common: local flare. It’s beautiful. The people and experiences that a local shop serves on a daily basis creates the shop’s heartbeat, a business life in touch with humanity. Online platforms can serve locally, of course. But it’s just not the same dynamic.
The digital world for both makers and merchants has revolutionized the way business is conducted today with at least one unintended consequence. The closure of small-town B&M stores—and dead malls that included a tobacco shop—has negatively impacted a certain contingent of pipe smokers: the elderly and the infirm. Some of these older smokers may not own or want a computer or a smart phone. Others, for financial or medical reasons, are unable to travel to an out-of-town or to an out-of-state show. Who services this sizeable community of buyers? (Another rhetorical question.)
Then there is the newcomer to our pipe-smoking community who is trying to get up to speed. How does he begin, and how does he choose a pipe in this new environment? There are plenty of online pipe-shape-name charts that reveal all the classic standards and their variations. But there’s now another division or class of pipe that’s a made serious dent in the sales of those classic standards: fanciful briars with exotic names that exhibit flair and finesse, such as volcano, acorn, snail, elephant’s foot, horn, egg, blowfish, et al. Should the newcomer only be guided by “Top 40 Best Smoking Pipe Brands, Makers & Suppliers” (internationalman.com) or “Top 10 Best Tobacco Pipes To Buy Online For All Budgets” (bespokeunit.com)?
I don’t know if this broad assortment and variety, this cornucopia of pipe choices is the ideal world. Is more really better? For me, more is just more! Life should be simple, not complicated. There’s no question in my mind that the sea of new briar available today makes life challenging. This abundance of options can stall one’s decision-making. When confronted with different names for the same shape, or one-off stylistic changes to a standard shape that many artisans offer nowadays, it can become a challenge as to which to buy. Having been an attendee at the CPCC show for many years, I have always been astounded and awe-struck by the sea of pipes on exhibit, briar eye candy designed to stimulate the buyer. Today’s briar market has many look-alikes, so I quote the apostle Paul “…not something close to the same, but the same; not something that resembles the same, but the same; not something so near the same that you can hardly tell the difference, but the same.”
Marketers assume that the more choices offered, the more likely customers will be able to find the right thing. They assume, for instance, that offering 50 styles of jeans instead of two increases the chances that shoppers will find a pair they really like. Nevertheless, research now shows that there can be too much choice; when there is, consumers are less likely to buy anything at all, and if they do buy, they are less satisfied with their selection. It all began with jam. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display. Discovering how much assortment is warranted is a considerable empirical challenge. But companies that get the balance right will be amply rewarded. But I don’t believe that any of today’s briar pipe artisans conduct this mental exercise.
It’s a brave, new world. It’s a mega-choice milieu of what some have called the age of asymmetric pipe design, and the larger the assortment, the harder it is to choose; it’s the paradox of choice. It’s more complicated than the explanation in “Factory vs. Artisan Tobacco Pipes” (tobaccopipes.com). It’s also a fact that the business of business is business. It just happened … the natural evolution of this industry. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s called progress. Competition is the backbone of economic policy. It may not be evident, but there is a subtle, but important, difference in the market competition among rival factory brands and among rival artisans selling similar products, and that is that the former group has the financial resources to advertise, whereas the latter group are on their own, and if not on their websites, it’s a costly investment.
Where do we go from here? What might the future hold for the pipe smoker? AI-assisted or virtual-reality pipe designs, or some other yet-to-be invented design technology to meet customer specifications? In-home consultation by the pipe maker to a prospective buyer? Or, an all-expense-paid visit for a prospective buyer to the maker’s home or workshop? A seller offering drone delivery of a finished pipe? Will any of this, or something I have not even considered play a role in the marketing, promotion and merchandising of pipes in the future? Unfortunately, I am not blessed with precognition.
To close, the neophyte, by definition, is not yet a savvy, shrewd, or sophisticated buyer and needs guidance, but who has the time and the interest to educate him? (Years ago, I suggested to Frank Burla that one or more of his assistants at the Chicagoland show act as a welcoming ombudsman to any attendee who’s new to the hobby.) Nothing can substitute for person-to-person education, but there’s some online guidance. One good Samaritan is the smokingpipes.com tutorial, “How to Select A Pipe.” How to Select A Pipe, Smokingpipes.com. Obviously, the objective is to have the reader buy a pipe from this online seller. Other online guidance is “Your First Pipe, Buying Advice” Your First Pipe, Buying Advice from Racine and Laramie Tobacconist, “3 Tips For Choosing The Smoking Pipe” 3 Tips For Choosing The Smoking Pipe (lighterusa.com), and at least one video, “A Guide to the New Pipe Smoker—How to Select Your First Pipe.” A Guide to the New Pipe Smoker—How to Select Your First Pipe. And if you have about an hour to watch a video of two pipe smokers offering their views on artisan pipe makers, check out YouTube’s “The Future of Pipe Smoking.” The Future of Pipe Smoking
In the final analysis, the fundamental question is: Does this portrait of the industry help everyone: the pipe maker, the B&M retailer, the online seller, the show exhibitor, and the pipe smoker? It’s probably a question that has more than one right answer.