Buying Cigars Online From Famous Smoke Shop

Interview With Gary Korb

Arthur Zaretsky Talking to Customers at the Famous Smoke Shop
Arthur Zaretsky Talking to Customers at the Famous Smoke Shop. Photo Courtesy of Famous Smoke Shop

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The Famous Smoke Shop is one of my favorite places to buy cigars online. I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Gary Korb, Chief Copywriter at Famous Smoke, a few questions about the company where he works.

Tell us a little bit about the Famous Smoke Shop. When was it established, who owns it, how many locations, etc.?


Gary Korb: The company, actually, the original cigar store, was established in 1939 by David and Rose Zaretsky in New York City.

Their son and current president, Arthur Zaretsky, took over the business in 1980. There is only one retail store, which is located on the premises of our company headquarters in Easton, PA.

Tell us about your online store, mail order catalog, and any other ways that you sell to customers out of state. Talk a little about state sales taxes, delivery options, buying single cigars, etc.


Our online store features practically every major and boutique cigar label available, including a large selection of cigars made exclusively for us. The site is easy to navigate and customers have the option to buy boxes, 5-packs, or singles. We also offer free UPS Ground shipping on all orders over $99, as well as on all "house" brands. We print 11 catalogs a year including several specially-targeted catalogs.

Each catalog has a featured special on the cover, while the inside is filled with deals like free samplers, cutters, humidors, etc., which are also reflected on the website.

One advantage to buying on our website is subscribing to our email sales, which often offer an additional discount off a brand seen in the catalog, or some other free item. Another one of our most successful areas of marketing has been in creating a massive library of cigar samplers.

Sales tax is charged only to customers who reside in Pennsylvania.

Shipping is offered primarily via UPS in all categories from Ground to Next Day Air (AM). Our rates are also among the lowest compared to most online retailers, but more often than not, Ground Shipping is free.

We also offer International shipping, which is handled through our Customer Service department. However, all duties are the responsibility of the customer. If a customer's only shipping option is a PO Box, or if they're in the military, we ship via the USPS.

What is your return policy? Talk a little about customer service.
 

Famous Smoke Shop offers one of the most liberal and fairest return policies in the business. On boxes or bundles of 25 cigars or more, full credit is issued if four cigars or less have been smoked. On boxes or bundles of 20 cigars, full credit is issued if three cigars or less have been smoked. On boxes or bundles of 10 to 15 cigars, full credit is issued if two cigars or less have been smoked. It's mighty reasonable.

With regard to customer service, this is one area where Famous Smoke Shop really shines. We go above and beyond the call of duty to help our customers, and we have a silo-full of thank you emails to prove it. Whether it's a problem with an order, a return, or just helping customers choose the right cigar, our excellence in customer service has just helped us earn our second BizRate.com "Gold Honoree" award.

My job also spills over into the customer service area, since I receive a lot of emails from customers looking for cigar suggestions or answers to questions about the care of their cigars.

How many different brands do you carry, and which are your most popular?


We carry over 500 brands, most of which are handmade premium cigars, as well machine-made cigars.

Our most popular brands in terms of hard numbers are Arturo Fuente, ACID, Rocky Patel, Padrón, and Romeo y Julieta. But among those brands are also several "house" brands, which include our Rocky Patel American Market Selection, Famous Dominican 4000, and La Floridita.

What are your duties at Famous Smoke?


My official title is "Chief Copywriter," but I wear many hats, like the one I described earlier regarding customer service. I'm also the resident cigar "answer man," and since I also have a background in Public Relations, I also serve as a publicist.

Plus, I'm also a journalist, writing original articles, interviews, and news stories on new cigars, etc., for CigarAdvisor.com.

When I started here seven years ago, I was mainly responsible for writing the entire catalog, the website product descriptions, and the weekly email sale. Since then, the company has grown exponentially, and thankfully I have a co-writer, Hayward Tenney, and a proofreader, Anne Ringlaben, who have helped immensely with regard to the catalogs, emails, package inserts, website copy, as well as the communications for our local retail store.

Hayward and I split up some of the work to keep the messages from getting stale, too. Besides, it's good to have another "voice" that our customers can identify with. Practically all of the copy goes through me for final editing, including the galley proofs of our monthly catalogs.

Besides famous-smoke.com, tell us about your other websites. For example, Cigar Advisor, Cigar Monster, etc.


CigarAdvisor.com was Arthur's idea. He felt we needed to be more than just an online cigar store. Providing a "noncommercial" information channel on cigars and the state of the industry would be a big benefit to all cigar smokers, and he was right. Many readers who have found CigarAdvisor.com have also become regular Famous-Smoke.com customers.

CigarMonster.com was another one of Arthur's ideas. "Deal-a-day" sites create a lot of excitement among consumers, and CigarMonster.com has become the "go-to" site for a lot of cigar "addicts."

We also have an auction site, CigarAuctioneer.com where cigar smokers can often pick up a box of rare, limited edition, or hard to find cigars, some of which are only sold in retail stores. There are a few peripheral websites, too, like our Famous Smoke Shop YouTube Channel, a Facebook Page, and our Cigar Advisor Blog.

Tell us about Famous Smoke's house brands and/or exclusives.

Our house brands is another area where we have been extremely successful. We take great pride in them, too, because most of them offer lots of value for the money.

Some brands like Don Tomás Special Edition Connecticut, Nicarao, Rafael Gonzalez, and Independencia are distribution exclusives.

Then we have selections that are made exclusively for us. Rocky Patel has provided some of our bestselling "house brands," such as the Rocky Patel Cuban Blend, American Market Selection, and Rosado selections, to name a few. We also carry two Plasencia Reserva Organica selections, the first 100% Certified Organic cigars, which are made for us in Nicaragua by Nestor Plasencia. Plasencia also makes our La Floridita bundles and La Floridita Limited Edition cigars, not to mention many of our Famous Value Line and "Thousands" bundle selections. General Cigar makes our Olor and Olor Fuerte selections, and Oliva makes our Olor Nicaragua and Georges Reserve cigars.

There are way too many to cram into this interview, but the one thing I can tell you that's consistent throughout all of our exclusive brands is that we are very involved in the blending and quality control process. If you have a house brand, and it's basically crap, it just makes you look bad, so we do our best to provide the highest quality in our "boutique" brands at the most reasonable prices. Obviously, they can't all be winners, but the best compliment is when we hear our customers have recommended our house brands to their friends, or smoke them exclusively.

How do you think your prices compare with the competition? Talk about overall prices in general, and your best everyday prices on specific national brands. Also talk about periodic special deals, sales, etc.
 

In terms of price, no doubt we're ahead of most of the competition on the national brands. The industry boils down to only a few top players, and often the difference in price is negligible. At the end of the day it comes down to the "comfort level" between the customer and the retailer; more specifically, trust, which is what we try to build.

The most frequent form of online marketing we do is email sales, banner ads, and keyword advertising. We do four regularly scheduled emails sales a week. A one day sale, a weekly sale, a weekend sale, and a weekly auction email. We also do a lot of special Holiday email sales. All of our emails are opt-in. We don't force them on our customers or trick our customers into receiving them with pre-checked boxes on the registration page. They have to request them.

Do you sell a lot of cigar accessories, humidors, etc.?
 

Actually, we do pretty well with cigar accessories and humidors. We carry most of the top accessory manufacturers like Csonka, XIKAR, and Firstland, but we also offer a lot of free accessories and humidors with boxes of cigars, too. The online humidor marketplace is very competitive, but we carry a pretty good selection across the board, even the high-end humidors by Davidoff and Diamond Crown.

Which cigars are your personal favorites, and do your tastes change over time?


Rather than rattle off a list of my personal favorites, I'd rather talk about the type of cigar I like, because the list would be too long, and I'd probably offend somebody by leaving a brand out. I tend to prefer cigars that are creamy, medium-to-full in body, earthy, complex in flavor, and somewhat sweet. I suppose if I had to cite an example it would be the Rocky Patel Vintage 1992 Toro. I don't think I've ever had a bad one.

As far as my tastes changing, I'm not unlike many cigar smokers, in that, over time I've developed a palate for more full-flavored cigars. Over the years I've gravitated to cigars from Nicaragua and Honduras. Perdomo and Alec Bradley, for example, have really impressed with me with their last several releases, particularly the Habano and Tempus lines respectively. I also smoke a lot of Oliva cigars, and my "everyday favorite" is their Flor de Oliva 5X50 in the Sumatra wrapper. What I can't stomach are cigars that are overly powerful, spicy or peppery. I love spicy food, but not spicy cigars. Of course, there are some exceptions, which may also depend on what I'm drinking with the cigar. Most often I prefer Port, but I've developed a taste for single malts over the last couple of years, too.

Why do you think Famous Smoke is the best? What does Famous Smoke do better than anyone else? Anything new coming soon to Famous Smoke?


I'll quote Arthur here by stating, "We're not always the cheapest, but we're the best." I think the primary reason we're the best is because we really care about our customers. We respond quickly to their needs, we have great expertise, fast service, and try to respond to every email as quickly as possible. Customers really appreciate that. I think the other reason is Arthur's voracious appetite for seeking out cutting edge marketing ideas and technology.

As far as new things, we recently began accepting the RevolutionCard. It's very cool because it offers a higher level of security for online purchases. To help introduce it, customers will receive a $25 rebate on each of their first two website orders with their RevolutionCard, and special rebates on future purchases of select brands whenever they use the card.

We're also working with a highly-regarded cigar maker on a very special exclusive cigar, but I'm not at liberty to say who or what it is at this time. What I can say is, from the sample I had the other day, it's mighty awesome. How's that for a teaser?

That sounds like a great reason to stay tuned. Moving on to my next question, what do you think the future holds for the cigar industry?

I think the industry is alive and well, and growing at a comfortable rate. I've received a lot of emails from customers who have switched from cigarettes to cigars, so I'm sure they're not alone. The most threatening "scary monster" is the continual passage of state and local smoking bans, which seems to happen almost on a daily basis. They're aimed primarily at cigarette smokers, but there are some cigar smokers who quit once they can no longer enjoy a good cigar at their regular hangout.

The pending SCHIP legislation is also making the industry nervous, and depending on how the bill is eventually finalized, it could mean the end of the local neighborhood cigar store, especially if a floor tax is included.

Then there's big tobacco. They still have some lobbying power, but with a new administration coming in soon it's hard to say how the dice will roll since most politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to side with the anti-smoking coalition. Politically, I'm more of a Libertarian, so I think the market should decide where people should be allowed to smoke, not the government. The sad truth is cigar smokers suffer for the "sins," if you will, of the cigarette smokers. The most frustrating thing is you can't even make a case for cigars because the anti-smoking fascists just plain hate all forms of tobacco period.

That said, production continues in all of the cigar making countries, with new blends coming out each year, and I believe there will always be a market for premium handmade cigars. I think the formation of private cigar clubs is one of the best solutions for getting around the smoking bans as places to enjoy cigars become more scarce.

Well, all good things, including this interview, must come to an end. Do you have any concluding remarks?


One of the best things about being a cigar smoker is the camaraderie that goes with it. I love hanging around the cigar store on the weekends and exchanging opinions with other cigar smokers. Another thing I like to do is when I see someone on the street smoking a cigar is to politely stop them and give them my card. One time I was driving home and happened to see a gentleman behind me in a BMW smoking a cigar. We both got off at the same exit.

On the exit ramp the light was red, so I jumped off my car and handed him a Famous Smoke Shop catalog. I admit that was risky, and at first, he must have thought I was nuts, but instead he thanked me. Trust me, I don't do that all the time, but I enjoy promoting premium cigars, and I know if they buy from Famous they're always going to get a good deal.