The Human Touch | Tobacconist magazine

The Human Touch

At Neumann’s Cigars & More, successful retailing means connecting with customers
Story by Stephen A. Ross
Photos by Brook Mrkvicka 

It’s a few minutes before 10 a.m. on a Friday at Neumann’s Cigars & More in Libertyville, Illinois, and already there are a half-dozen customers waiting for the store to open. People who don’t like smoking might say that these men are poor, unfortunate souls who are just craving their first smoke for the day, but they’d be missing the point entirely. They’d ignore the easy camaraderie among the men as they patiently wait for the doors to be unlocked. They’d also miss how easily the Neumann’s Cigars & More staff joins in on the conversation as the men file into the store, make their purchases and then settle into comfortable chairs in the lounge to continue their fun. For much of the day, there is a joyful celebration going on inside the store. Cigars may be the focus, but the friendships and the community are what keep them coming back, which is exactly what Ken and Julie Neumann, owners of Neumann’s Cigars & More, love most about being in the cigar industry.

“There are people standing in line before we open not because they need their nicotine fix but because they enjoy being here,” Ken remarks. “They are the guys who pull us through January and February when our weather is horrible. They buy two or three cigars every day. They support us. Maybe it’s because we’re not a corporate entity but because we’re a husband and wife team, and they have seen our kids grow up. They identify with that, and they like it, so I think that’s why they support us so much.”

Spend a few hours talking with Ken and Julie and it will become clear that they care for their customers just as much as their customers care for them. They recall special relationships that have led to invitations to weddings and other special occasions.

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They’ll also relate times when they’ve been asked by out-of-state family members to check in on sick customers. And they’ll tell of the moments when they mourned the loss of a customer. Indeed, one customer so identified with Neumann’s Cigars & More that he wanted the store to have his ashes after he died, claiming that the Neumanns, the store staff and its customers were more like his family than his own relatives. So the “& More” part of the store’s name is not so much about pipes and pipe tobaccos or lighters and humidors—though all of those are of course available at Neumann’s Cigars & More—but about the service and familial atmosphere at the store.

“Everybody likes that VIP treatment and being made to feel special,” says Julie. “Give people the experience that they’re looking for and they’ll keep coming back. That’s the best way we can compete against the internet, and it’s the right thing to do anyway. We get to be the maitre d’s of the store—talk to people and find out what’s going on in their lives. If something special is happening in their life, we want to help them celebrate. That’s what we love about this business. You feel good about it.”

While the familial aspects of selling cigars have been what both Ken and Julie have grown to love—to the point that both spend significant time fighting for the industry—it’s a business they entered by accident. Ken’s family owned a company that made golf clubs, and he grew up thinking that he would take over the family business. Shortly after they were married in 1994, Ken and Julie established a company selling women’s golf clubs. While on a trip to Toronto in 1995, Ken saw a bullet cigar cutter and thought it would be a good opportunity to market cigars and cigar accessories to the golf courses and country clubs they serviced. With the Cigar Boom raging, the couple found that they sold more cigars than golf clubs.

“There’s a family that’s developed here. Our cigar family is our customers. Our employees are great, and they have conversations with every single customer. We always thank our customers because they ultimately feed our family. Our success has been about the people who work here and the people who shop here. We care about them, and they care about us.” – Julie Neumann

“The cigars eventually took over,” Ken remembers. “The golf industry was changing and was becoming a lot more commercialized. Cigars were just easier. The family aspect of the cigar industry was so much like what I grew up with in the golf industry. We got into the cigar business, and it turned out to be a family-run industry based on handshake deals. You were rewarded for the size of your heart instead of the size of your wallet, and I really appreciated that.”

By 1998, Julie was convinced that the couple should open a retail store, but Ken wasn’t so sure. Then a business building that needed renovation became available in Libertyville. They could afford the building and stock it with cigars if they did the renovations themselves. By that June, the first Neumann’s Cigars & More store opened. The Neumanns added a second location in nearby Long Grove, Illinois, in 2010.

“We had maybe 100 open boxes of cigars,” Ken recalls. “We did all the build-out ourselves. We bought the building in March, and we opened right before Father’s Day. It was a lot of work to put into it. This building was a disaster when we bought it; otherwise we couldn’t have afforded it. A lot of people told us that they didn’t think we were going to make it, but next year we will celebrate our 20th anniversary.”

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While there might have been a few skeptics, there were also some people who helped Ken and Julie in their early days as cigar retailers. Dave Andrea—then a board member of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America and owner of Andrea’s Tobacconist in Kenosha, Wisconsin—proved to be an important friend and introduced the couple to a lot of manufacturers at their first trade show, helping them open accounts and stock their new store. Remembering the kindness Andrea and others showed them, the Neumanns enjoy encouraging others to become tobacconists.

“You never forget the people who helped you,” says Julie, who currently serves as secretary for the Tobacconists’ Association of America. “In turn, you do that for others. We’re happy to help, and we love to see people get into the business. It’s nice to share our experience with others.”

Ken, the current IPCPR president, agrees. “I want more cigar shops to open, but I want them to be good cigar shops,” he asserts. “Stores that are owned by good people who really appreciate the business. The more good retailers we have, the stronger our industry and the larger voice that we can have. Competition makes us all better.”

The Neumanns have helped people start several other retail shops in their area, thus putting into practice what they preach. Having more strong and healthy tobacconists staffed by passionate and dedicated retailers does indeed benefit the industry, and maintaining a healthy and friendly competition among stores benefits all the area’s premium tobacco enthusiasts. Every store is unique and can offer something different to the area’s clientele.

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“You can copy our store exactly and put it 15 miles from here, but it won’t be the same business,” Ken says. “Cigar shops aren’t like Walmarts or Targets, where each store is pretty much the same. You get different customers. You have different employees. You emphasize different brands. We do our own business here, and even our other store in Long Grove is completely different from our Libertyville store. That’s what makes this industry so interesting, and the more people we have involved in the industry, the more unique and vibrant it can become.”

Any cigar shop of note offers a wide selection of cigars and accessories, but it’s the customer service and the expertise of the staff—the human touch—that allow some cigar shops to stand out from the rest. Customers are drawn to Neumann’s Cigars & More because of Ken and Julie Neumann and their knowledgeable staff of 12, led by 13-year employee and general manager Kellen Merchen and five-year employee and assistant manager Jim Pas, who work hard to foster an atmosphere of friendly professionalism that encourages customers to stick around and enjoy their cigars. In an age when online shopping promises convenience and savings, retailers like Ken and Julie thrive because they recognize that people crave experiences and enjoy being part of a “Cheers” environment. Most important, any customer who has spent any time at either Neumann’s Cigars & More location knows that the commitment to customer service is genuine.

“There’s a family that’s developed here,” Julie says. “Our cigar family is our customers. Our employees are great, and they have conversations with every single customer. We always thank our customers because they ultimately feed our family. Our success has been about the people who work here and the people who shop here. We care about them, and they care about us.”

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