This is something that has bothered me as long as I’ve been aware of it. The light came on at my own local shop when the guy called one of the jarred bulks “their blend” and I noticed there was no back room where they might have a blending table. Then there were the telltale five pound foil bags I noticed they’d refill the jars from.
What I’m talking about:
The business practice I will be discussing to and so many shops employ is purchasing bulk tobaccos from a manufacturer, pouring it from the five-pound foil bag into a jar, creating their own name for it, and calling it a house blend.
This is pretty much an industry standard. Many pipe smokers I’ve discussed this with say “that’s just the way it is – its how its always been done.” That’s factual information but not meaningful. I contend this business practice creates problems for pipe smokers. This is why I address it.
Before the internet when everyone was limited to purchasing pipe tobacco from the nearest brick and mortar retail store these renamed bulks weren’t such a problem. “Sassafras Sunset” may have been Lane’s 1Q at Ernie’s Pipe and Cigar shop, but most of Ernie’s customers who loved Sassafras Sunset never knew they were smoking 1Q, rarely if ever went elsewhere to buy their tobacco, so they had no need to question the name. Under the shallow illusion Ernie’s was the only place on Earth to find Sassafras Sunset so they never looked for it anywhere else anyway.
The landscape has changed. Pipe smokers are far more informed. Blogs, pipe tobacco review sites, and online discussion forums allow pipe smokers worldwide to compare notes and research blends. Better yet there is variety like never before. The business of selling pipes and tobacco has been taken online to provide us with better choices and prices that wouldn’t be imaginable before the early 90’s. We aren’t limited to single sources for our tobacco today.
Renaming these industrial bulk tobaccos does nothing to benefit the consumer and only creates problems. The thing that prompted this post is yet another instance of someone asking me “I used to smoke XYZ House Blend from PDQ Brick and Mortar – do you know where I can get more of a blend like that?” To which I obviously have to reply “No bleepin’ clue because I have no idea what PDQ B&M named their so-called XYZ house blend.”
There are other reasons. Following are among the most obvious ones to me.
It is dishonest and doesn’t respect intellectual property of the blender
The only victims of this “crime” are we the consumers. If the creators of a blend don’t mind giving away their copyright that’s there business. That doesn’t detract from the element of dishonesty. Taking credit for making something you didn’t make is sleazy. When a tobacconist calls one of the Altadis, McClelland’s, or Lane bulks his “house blend” he’s essentially calling it his and taking credit for it. How is that not dishonest? Don’t call it a house blend if you didn’t blend it in your house from component tobaccos.
Prevents purchasing power and limits competition
A prime reason for all these shenanigans on the neighborhood merchant’s part is keeping the customers coming back. Creating that illusion of being the only source of a particular blend ensures return customers. No doubt the fear is that telling you “Sassafras Sunset” is really Lane’s 1Q will tempt you to stop paying your tobacconist $60 a pound and start buying it online for half that.
This is how the practice of renaming these bulk blends removes competition. So long as you think there’s only one place to buy a blend you won’t shop elsewhere.
Our international community of pipe smokers can’t compare notes
One of the best things about being a pipe smoker in the 21st Century is being able to communicate with other pipe smokers the world over. More often than not I try a new blend based on someone else’s recommendation on a blog, review site, or forum post. When bulk tobacco is renamed at the shop it eliminates this benefit. Hopefully you’ll be able to bump into another customer who likes it because no one on the forums knows what Sassafras Sunset is.
Here the practice works against the shop owner. Were I to read a post or review of an Altadis blend that piqued my interest I wouldn’t see it at my local shop even if the blend is carried because it has been renamed. Were it accurately labeled I’d buy a couple ounces to try on my next visit.
Won’t be able to find the blend if your source goes out of business
Another intense disadvantage for us occurs if the shop either goes out of business or cuts a blend from their inventory. You can’t get it there any more and you have no idea what it actually is so you are out of luck. This has happened to a number of my readers.
What you can do
Like all consumers we have options. If the practice bothers you like it does me there are some things you can do. Here are some suggestions:
Insist on transparency
Ask your tobacconist what the actual brand name and blend is as he purchased it. You have the right to know what you are buying. If you are told it is a secret or a “house blend” ask if your shop obtains the ingredients and blends them to create the recipe or if the blend was created elsewhere. You may rub the shopkeeper the wrong way, encounter a deer in the headlights look from a salesperson who actually doesn’t know, or they’ll treat you like an adult and valued customer by providing the information.
Research on the internet and ask for blends by name – this is probably more reliable than the sniff test
If there is a bulk you want to try ask for it at your B&M. While they may not want to tell you that your beloved Sassafras Sunset is really 1Q, when you inform them you want to buy 1Q they’ll likely be happy to tell you they have it on hand and dip into the jar of Sassafras Sunset.
Take your business to a retailer who is up front about what they sell
This is what I do. It has been a very long time since I bought bulk tobacco in person. I order online. Some will say that it is important to keep the B&M shops in business by dealing with them whenever possible. I say that online retailers need my support too and earn it by offering the best prices, variety, and transparency in naming their blends. These are real people with families to support too who likely know as much or more about pipes and tobacco than the local cigar merchant. They won the competition for my business long ago.
Free trade for the consumer too
I am all for free market capitalism. People should be able to do business however they like and I am certainly not calling on the state to intervene and shut down this practice. (Not that they would, they’re too busy taxing the hell out of it and looking for other ways to make life difficult for pipe smokers.) I could never advocate a law that forces shop owners to label a blend with the actual manufacturers name. That arrangement should be left between the company making the tobacco and their customer.
Another major part of competition and the free market is an informed consumer. Make your own decisions. Personally I vote with my wallet against the practice by refusing to buy any tobacco that has been renamed.
I am open to other opinions about this. I’d like to hear from all sides of this issue, especially from retailers who still do this. Please do leave a comment. How does this practice help your customers? (We know how it benefits you.) That’s probably the most important question I have for anyone who disagrees with my position on this. If you’d like to answer any of my other points such as the honesty issue that would be great too.