Training Key to Boosting Accessory Sales

e-cigarette colorsThough the category offers high margins and caters to loyal customers, tobacco accessories often go unnoticed by store employees.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor

Lighters, rolling papers and e-cigarette accessories offer convenience stores the opportunity to upsell customers at the counter. Unfortunately, the large majority of convenience store employees get little to no training when it comes to complementary sales.

Experts say that type of sales training leads to increased revenue, making it a commonsense policy. It’s curious, then, that so many operators don’t bother.

“We are finding that store employees aren’t getting even close to enough training on these products,” noted Stephene Buchanan, marketing manager for distributor Phillips & King International. “There are just too many accessories out there, all stacked up at the register. Your employees feel lost, and it can make it difficult to upsell these items for that very reason.”

Impulse can be a major driver at retail, Buchanan said.

“Accessories can be the bread-and-butter cash in your pocket if the product is an inexpensive addition to whatever the consumer may be buying right now.” In addition to store employees not understanding all the products in the store, she continued, the issue of so many “quick sell” items sitting around the register makes it hard for consumers to even consider impulse buying if an employee can’t tell what that particular item is used for.

“Usually, very little training is provided in specific categories,” said Michael Zielinski, executive director of the Royal Buying Group in Lisle, Ill. “Manufacturers have not invested in appropriate training sales aids for cashiers in general.”

In order to help improve sales, Zielinski suggested a simple handout for the consumer can be helpful. “Cashiers do not have the opportunity, normally, to spend significant time with each customer without alienating the customer waiting in line behind them,” he said. “Increased merchandising and messages direct to the customer would be a recommended solution.”

Working in Tandem
Having strategies in place for upselling customers on tobacco accessories is a good idea. Creating bundles with related products, for example, is a relatively easy strategy to execute. However, Zielinski cautioned, this normally requires coordination and a sharing of the promotional spend amongst different manufacturers in order to be effective.

“Collaboration between these manufacturers is best handled by distributors or brokers who have relationships with all of the complementary products for a specific category and can get c-store operators the best deal to maximize profitability,” he said.

Steven Montgomery, president of b2b Solutions LLC, in Lake Forest, Ill., said he is not aware of any convenience store trying to upsell rolling papers, primarily because of the political implications, although that may no longer be true in Colorado.

“The difficulty with upselling these items is that the customer who is buying a package of cigarettes is likely a repeat customer, and after having had the sales associate in the store try to sell him a lighter a few times he really doesn’t want to hear it again,” Montgomery said.

What is happening instead is the (continued on p. 49) placement of lighter displays, such as those from category leader BIC, is put on the store’s front counter. These can range from housing a value lighter to more expensive varieties, depending on the local market and shopper demographics. The same, Montgomery said, is true of e-cigarettes.

“Many of the e-cigarette companies like NJOY provide attractive counter displays that help sell their products,” Montgomery said. “The use of these displays allows the sales associate to try to plus-sell other items and/or hold a very brief conversation with the customer.”

Benefits of Training
“We have conducted several training sessions when it comes to traditional e-cigs as well as e-liquids,” said Tim Greene, category manager for Smoker Friendly International, the family-owned cigarette and tobacco retailer based in Boulder, Colo. A variety of manufacturers including Nicotek, Vapor Blends and Ploom have come and presented their products to our managers to enable them to effectively upsell.”

The chain has seen great results from these trainings. “We feel that the more our staff at the store level knows about the products, the better we can serve our customers,” Greene said. “We continue to work with other manufacturers on scheduling more training.”

Smoker Friendly also offers sampling stations on e-liquids and other products. “This allows our customers to try before buying,” said Greene, “and it allows our employees to better interact with our customers, educating them on the products we offer.”

As far as upselling opportunities, store personnel are instructed to use suggestive selling techniques with roll-your-own customers on tubes and papers, a strategy that naturally hinges on their specific needs and smoking habits.“When it comes to e-cigs and liquids, the opportunity to upsell cartridges, tanks and flavors is always there,” Greene said. “Customers are always looking for a better chance to enhance their smoking experience. We try to provide our store staff with the products and knowledge to better serve our customers.”

Buchanan recommended not trying to offer customers everything under the sun. She advised stores to pick a few displays and items and testing them for a short period.

“Teach employees about the products.” Buchanan said. “If they don’t move, get them off your register and try a few others.”

Suggestive Selling Tips
Upselling can prove a powerful strategy when dealing with tobacco accessories. The challenge, however, is twofold: many employees don’t know enough about the products to convince consumers to spend more, and by the time the purchaser has gotten to the register he may already have totaled up his cost and no longer be open to spending more. He is also more than likely eager to get out of the store.

Research by VideoMining Corp., the State College, Pa.-based provider of in-store behavior analytics, indicateed that customers are in an average c-store for just two minutes. Of this, 35 seconds is spent at the checkout counter alone. This provides little time for the sales associate to try to upsell.

Despite the difficulties, teaching employees to upsell in this category can add dollars to the bottom line. Here are some strategies:

Employees need to speak knowledgeably about the products they want consumers to buy. To ensure that, they should be schooled in the products’ features. If possible, arrange for manufacturer or distributor reps to come to the store periodically for brief presentations.

Be sure that employees know which are the highest-profit items—which to talk about first—in order to maximize add-on profits.

Give employees an incentive for working harder to build rings. The incentives can be nearly anything, but make sure that if you’re asking store personnel to do more, that they have a reason for doing it.

Instruct employees to leave customers alone who clearly want to be left alone. Lack of eye contact, monosyllabic answers to questions and a tendency to look away are giveaways that they are not receptive to being pitched. Also, have them assess the customer’s knowledge level. No one likes being talked down to.

Practice makes perfect. Role playing during off hours will help improve salesmanship.

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