Herbal TNT: Herbal Tea & Tobacco
“I don’t know. Are we going to be Blockbuster or someone’s Netflix? . . . I wonder sometimes how long we are going to be able to remain competitive.”
Savvy business maneuvering is all about pattern recognition. It’s about observing the trends and making logical predictions based on the data extracted, buzzkill or no.
After 21 years in business, Chris Ruhlin of Bangor, Maine is nothing, if not savvy. And though his musings are unambiguously pessimistic, he is anything but, especially considering all that he’s facing. There’s just a lot to unpack. More on that later.
Herbal Tea and Tobacco’s beginnings are practically the archetypal tale of a head shop success story. There was a $1,200 tax return, a booth at the state fair, and a dream. Demand met supply, and they fell in love instantly.
“We were selling out every day,” he recalls fondly. “I had to call up at the end of each day and have stuff overnighted from California to Maine, so I could do it again the next day. I did that for fifteen days. That gave us the funding for our starting inventory.” There was also a carnie who told him about blown glass. It was 1997, after all. You can’t make this shit up.
The shop opened with all of three display cases. To avoid the appearance of an empty space, they hung tapestries. That didn’t always go over the way they intended.
“People would make us move the tapestries,” he laughs. “Some people thought it was a set up. They were convinced there were cops on the other side.”
Oddly enough, most of Chris’s current woes, both actual and envisioned, stem from his state’s legalization. For starters, there’s the flood of new competition, though the dozens of new stores in his region do little to phase him. He’s more concerned about the online retailers, an existential threat to brick and mortars of all varieties. Thus far, they’ve maintained relevance through a focus on customer service.
“Provide instant gratification,” he explains. “Have what they want when they want it and give them the best possible support after that purchase . . . For example, we make sure that we have a ready supply of downstems so if someone breaks theirs, they can buy a replacement piece affordably . . . A lot of shops will sell a piece and then never carry that line again, so when [something] breaks, they’re just kind of SOL.”
There’s also a growing apathy amongst his customers. Toking legally, now the norm, has become passé. “Just an example,” he points out, “our 420 celebration has changed radically . . . The year before last, we had a live band. It was an epic celebration, but we had maybe one quarter of the participants that we used to from say, five years ago. 420 sales used to be bigger than Christmas for us. And I would ask people, ‘Geez, what’s going on?’ and they were like, ‘Every day is 420 now.’”
Then there’s the legal trouble, though with his case pending, he’s wisely taking a ‘Mum’s the word’ approach. A simple search of his name on Google will bring up at least half a dozen articles about his plight. But take the reports with a grain of salt; the narrative written for the state-sponsored media often fails to reflect reality. In any case, he’s not looking for pity.
“I’m a big boy,” he states with a shrug. “Everything I’ve ever done had some risks associated with it and I was always OK with those personally. But the impact on my family is very difficult to watch.”
Through it all, though, he’s still remarkably upbeat. The uphill battle in the courts would destroy a lesser man, but he remains resolute, determined to be unbroken. And the hurdles posed by the burgeoning market, mere indications to pivot and reinvent, observations he is kind enough to share with the rest of us. He has a few he’d like to share with the vendors as well.
“As retailers, what we want are new products and innovation . . . Invest into research and development to bring new products into the market instead of trying to imitate what other people are doing . . . while I’m on the subject, don’t wholesale it through your own website to the general public. If somebody can bring it up on their phone and show it to me for five dollars more than I pay for it, I’m not going to do business with you. At least, for now, there are enough people who still want instant gratification . . . So as long as we’re still there, stop competing with us.”