October 2015

Mastering the Vape Space

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Vape Shop of The Month: From Roofer to Vapreneur

By Norm Bour
Photos courtesy of Route 1 Vapor

Chris Austin dreaded every New Hampshire winter. As a professional roofer for decades, he hated climbing up and down ladders during the horrible snow and frigid weather conditions every year. Austin turned 40 last December, and had worked in construction since the age of 15. He dropped out of high school, built boats, worked as a framer and spent long hours “hoping for a way out.” He found it in vaping. Austin opened Route 1 Vapor in Seabrook, N.H., in October 2014, and is now ready to open his second shop in Epping, N.H. How does this happen? How does a construction worker go from being a blue-collar tradesperson to becoming my latest Vape Shop of the Month?

Commitment to Service and Excellence Can Spell Success

The decision to open a vape shop was a family affair, with some financial help and advice from his father. Since Austin was good with his hands, he bought materials and installed them himself. A frugal shopper, he pinched pennies everywhere he could, but knew there were some areas where he would not scrimp: training, service and products.

“We were successful from the beginning,” he said. “There was little competition, and most New Hampshire vape shops are franchises or were too fixated on specific markets. We cater to everyone and give everyone the same service.”

“It’s not about making a sale; it’s about helping them reach their goal,” he added.

Austin does not fit the model of most vape shop owners, nor does he follow most common paths to success. Many successful vape shop Vapreneurs come from a business background, as owners or active participants. A blue-collar worker transitioning into vape success is noteworthy and
significant.

Austin started smoking at age 15 by hanging around an older crowd, and smoked for 20 more years. Transitioning to vaping was not easy. “Smoking is easy. The cigarette sits on your lips; it’s light and convenient. Vaping was awkward, and it took some effort to make that change.” It took a month, but when his taste for food came back and he started feeling better, he knew it was a good decision.

On top of that, he always wanted to be his own boss, and knew that this was his vehicle.

He started by doing research—a lot of research. One of his managers worked at a competitor’s shop and watched what they did right and wrong. Austin visited every shop within a 50-mile radius and found flaws everywhere.

“One of the things that bugged me the most was not being greeted at the door, even after buying from them several times. How easy is that?” he asked.

We asked what his competitors were doing wrong, and he replied, “They don’t take suggestions. When a customer comes in and asks for something, we order it! We take feedback very, very personally. Most don’t do that.”

How Vape Shops of the Month Become Significant

My initial Vape Shop of the Month financial benchmark is hitting $10,000 monthly revenue. Austin almost doubled that in his first 30 days, and has never looked back. By month three, the shop hit its next milestone: $30,000 monthly income.

Route 1 is approaching its first anniversary, and its revenue now is several times that amount. The company recently opened its second shop in Epping, N.H., about 25 minutes away, but not for the reasons you would expect. Austin’s motivation for the second shop was not financial, but to serve the customers who drove that far to buy from him. Shop #3 is planned for next year.

Vape shops hitting numbers like these have become rare in this hyper-competitive industry. A few years ago, hitting six-figure income months were common, but the vape space is evolving. New vape shops are better equipped, better trained, better staffed, and poised for the future. The amateurs are victims of their own failures, but even so, the survivors are reaching formerly lofty heights.

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I asked what made his shop so inviting, and he said, “It’s larger than most—almost 2,000 square feet— and is open and uncluttered. Everyone is greeted atthe door. And every flavor tank has a battery. Period. We never have to exchange batteries, and with an inventory of 146 flavors, that takes some effort.”

Route 1 does little advertising aside from the normal social media channels, but it does something unique: It gets involved with the community and supports charity events. The company sponsors a women’s softball team, along with two Jiu Jitsu fighters who go to tournaments. One is a 6-year old boy whose parents cannot afford to pay for their son’s hobby.

The company sponsors bike rides for cancer along with a local band that won a contest to go to the final round in Tennessee. Talk about supporting a range of projects!

The Christmas Toys for Tots campaign is personal for Austin, who said it goes further than Google advertising. “I get a good feeling every day,” he said, and this concept, called corporate social responsibility, is rarely seen in small businesses. “When people come in teary-eyed, thanking us for what we’ve done, it’s immensely satisfying. I never got that in my roofing business!”

Who is the “typical” customer? Like many other shops, it is not always the young 20-somethings, but instead it is the 40-plus crowd, including a higher percentage of older female customers, and those who have smoked for decades.

The company’s top-selling liquids vary, and with 35 different lines, can be unpredictable. Cold Fusion Juice, a local company from Franklin, Mass., has been a strong seller, and it follows a similar cause marketing focus. State regulators don’t worry about Route 1, as the company is doing this “by the book” as much as possible.

A local advocacy group has monthly meetings and retained an attorney to keep them involved.

The New Hampshire coastal community is seasonal, and many of his regulars leave town during summer. That void is filled by tourists.

We discussed weaknesses in his business model, and Austin acknowledged that they should create their own house brand of e-liquids. “We have considered our own line, but have not done that yet. And we will not do it ourselves!”

I asked what advice he would offer to pending shop owners. “Do your research! Not just within the industry, but also investigate the gaps in the shops around you,” he said.

He also said that customer tracking is elementary, and Route 1 uses a Clover POS system. “I admit it; I’m not the most business savvy person in the world, but we know how to treat people, which makes up for it.”

True enough, which is why I am proud to honor Route 1 as Vape Shop of the Month.

Norm Bour is the founder of VapeMentors, which offers online educational programs, services and resources for anyone in the vape space, including vape shops, online stores and e-liquid brands. He’s also host of Vape Radio, a podcast series that interviews the masters of vape and thought leaders in the vape space. Contact him at norm@VapeMentors.com.