Local tobacconist founds international group for women cigar afficionadas
Mary Lynn Kane vows to change the cigar industry's attitude about women smokers – one puff at a time.
As the owner of Lake Country Cigars in Delafield and a cigar smoker of 29 years, Kane, of Oconomowoc, knew women had purchasing power when it came to cigars, but the industry needed a nudge.
"Some manufacturers still have to be convinced that there is a true women's market," she said. "So we wanted to tell them what they're missing by not focusing on women."
A long-time public relations professional, Kane attacked her mission methodically – or rather, with methodology. Under the auspices of the group she founded five years ago – the International Women's Cigar Society (IWCS) – she conducted a first-of-its-kind survey earlier this year of women cigar smokers in the U.S. and Europe. And the industry is reeling.
She presented the results at the industry powerhouse conference of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) in July. The IPCPR is the oldest, largest and most active trade association representing and assisting retail tobacconists. Its membership is worldwide and Kane shared information that sent their preconceived notions about women and cigars up in smoke.
"The results will help retailers understand the women's market. For example, we found that women will buy more than men if given the choice in a cigar shop," Kane explained. "They spend more on accessories, like the cigar case that matches their purse or a lighter that looks more like a beautiful piece of jewelry."
Kane polled women who already identified themselves as regular cigar smokers and closed the survey when she received 500 responses to create what she called a "believable sample size" – which happened in fairly short order. Kane, with the help of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, designed 63 questions covering preferred ring gauge (the circumference of the cigar), flavor preference and favorite brands.
But the real money questions for tobacconists pertained to how women like to be treated at a retail store, what makes them loyal customers and why they don't want a cigar especially made for women.
"When more than three-quarters of the respondents say they don't want a cigar specially made for a 'woman' they're saying it's important to them that they not be singled out as different than the male smoker," Kane said. "But these same women say they would attend more cigar events if they had more to offer women. So tobacconists need to consider all the results."
There always has been a sensitivity to the female cigar smoker at Lake Country Cigars. Owned by Kane and her husband of 23 years, Don Kane, she started one of the first women's cigar clubs, Cigar Babes. In its 17 years, the group has taken 15 trips to Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and has raised more than $300,000 for various children's charities in the cities where the cigar manufacturers are located.
During their travels, they have seen the female labor force working in the cigar business and decided fundraisers to help with medical care and childhood education were one way they could give back to the industry workers.
"We enjoy spending time together and we enjoy learning more about the industry," said Deb Ellsworth, of Genesee, one of the original Lake Country Cigar Babes. "Traveling with the group has been an enlightening experience and makes the smoking experience that much more interesting when you've learned about the manufacturer."
Ellsworth participated in a video Kane produced for the IWCS called "My First Time." The piece, which can be found on YouTube, features Southeastern Wisconsin women talking about how they were introduced to cigar smoking.
Most women, the survey found, first enter a tobacconist with their husband or a male friend. Many of the women in the video discuss the secret to a happy cigar-smoking marriage, which Mary Lynn and Don Kane know well – his and hers humidors.
"Just like double sinks in the bathroom, his and hers humidors is where it's at," Kane laughed as she puffed slowly from her perch behind the bar at the cigar shop.
Kane remembered when she and Don saw the premier issue of Cigar Aficionado in 1992 and then journeyed to a cigar shop never imagining that journey would take them to becoming tobacconists. They opened Lake Country Cigars in 1998 and have become active in promoting legislation that helps the premium cigar industry, as well as becoming one of the preeminent retailers in the Midwest.
Kane recalled reading that first issue of Cigar Aficionado and ever since is quick to fire off an email to publishers and writers of any of the trade publications when they refer solely to men in their articles.
"I can tell you that five years ago I was writing a lot more than I am now," she said.
Her message to women is simple: "Enjoy and be accepted," Kane said. Her message to the industry: "We don't want to change the world. We just want to be accepted and have a feeling of comfort in a cigar shop."
Women cigar smokers may not walk into that shop alone the first time, but Kane is spreading the message that women are coming en masse and the industry would do well to be ready for them.
I tried to read this entire article. I really did. But it smelled so bad. I thought I was going to get cancer from just having it open on my computer.
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