Pandemic lockdowns led to customers stocking up on their favorite products wherever and whenever they could find them, and the data reflects this: Smoking accessories saw a massive 23.5% increase in dollar sales and a 16.3% increase in unit sales for the latest 52 weeks ending April 18, 2021, according to IRI Total U.S. Convenience data.
Lighters specifically saw a 6.1% rise in dollar sales for the period.
While total store trips were down, basket sizes were up. Plus, stay-at-home orders meant those who smoke — tobacco or cannabis — had fewer restrictions for doing so.
Ultimately, it proved a perfect storm for the lighter subcategory.
Sayre, Pa.-based Dandy Mini Mart’s c-stores were up about 38% in smoking accessories for the year, confirmed Vice President of Food Service and Merchandising Dyson Williams, who attributed increases to an overall shift in consumer habits.
“We saw cigarette sales rise during the early part of the pandemic,” he said. “Also, people wanting to make less trips to specialty stores, etc.”
The c-store chain operates 65 stores in Pennsylvania and New York.
Meanwhile, Indiana-based Good Oil Co., which operates 15 Good to Go stores in Indiana and one in Illinois, saw an even bigger early increase in accessories sales — 41.48% — according to Mike Jones, the c-store chain’s director of marketing and foodservice.
Good to Go recently made all of its SKUs available for delivery through Vroom Delivery, including tobacco and smoking accessories products.
And while, for the latest four weeks ending April 18, 2021, smoking accessories began to flatten, up just 1.8% in dollar sales and down 2.6% in unit sales, lighters specifically saw a dollar sales rise of 31.1% for the same four weeks, with unit sales up 19.7%.
What’s more, many c-stores are still reporting strong tobacco accessories sales. Good to Go, for one, shows a 16% increase for the first four months of 2021.
At Springfield, Mo.-based Gier Oil’s Eagle Stop Stores, with more than 50 c-store locations in the state, smoking accessories are going strong, thanks to an expansion of the subcategory in recent months.
“Lighters are doing great,” said Nick Lepper, Eagle Stop’s category director. “We have expanded from the standard, plastic spark-wheel lighter into electronic and torch-style lighters — single, double and triple flames.”
Lepper took over as category director at the start of the year. With the entire tobacco category, he noted, the chain’s biggest challenges are organization and space — for lighters, counterspace in particular is always a concern, he said.
“In an effort to maintain a clean look for the counter and offer consumer-demanded products, I have worked with our partners to acquire racks for the stores that will merchandise all styles in the incremental space,” Lepper said.
With lighters and beyond, opportunity still exists for c-stores to cater to legal cannabis smokers.
Recreational cannabis is now legal in 17 states and Washington, D.C. And a number of others have decriminalized its use. According to the Pew Research Center, this means 43% of U.S. adults now live in a place that has legalized cannabis for recreational use. And CivicScience survey data from the first quarter of 2021 shows that nearly 70% of U.S. adults (ages 21 or older) would support the legalization of marijuana in their respective states.
Plus, Euromonitor International estimates more than 360% growth of the sector by 2025, totaling more than $53 billion in sales.
Some stores, like Chicago-based Foxtrot, are already offering modern, cannabis-related accessories like a hand-blown glass smoking pipe, listed in the Lifestyle section of the chain’s website, which “offers a sophisticated, playful and smooth smoking experience.”
But, like all things, with limited space, it comes down to knowing your customer base. For many c-stores, traditional lighters remain the top sellers.