Opinion: Electronic Cigarettes Industry
Since our online launch on March 1st 2012 we’ve managed to anger more than a few people and a few companies. Some believe that we chose our winners based on location, i.e., Florida. Since South Beach Smoke and Green Smoke are located almost 5 hours south of us (but still in Florida) they were chosen because we are “buddies”. Blu Cigs, located in North Carolina, well, I don’t know, maybe because some of us stopped in NC on our drive down to Florida from New Hampshire in early 2010. Whatever is being said, the truth had nothing to do with location.
Naturally, every company believes they have the best product, it’s natural to believe that your product is the best, or why even bother? . And we’re not saying with absolute certainty that OUR word is gospel; it’s merely our opinion based on 8 weeks of trials, which I dare say is more extensive than the vast majority of other eCig reviews. Which brings me to an obvious observation.
I don’t believe anyone really believes that we have machines here that can taste Vapor output from an electronic cigarettes. If you do, please know that we don’t. Vapor “tests” were done by everyone gathering together and my making judgments based on a freshly charged battery, a new cartomizer, and a room without a fan. Our people walked around the subject who was vaping and scoring it on their own, on paper (or iPads). Asking questions of themselves such as “How does the vapor stack up against a tobacco-based cigarette?” Only when the writer/reviewer was ready to perform his or her vapor test did everyone gather around to participate in the test. Afterwards they wrote up their notes and submitted them to the person doing the review. I would say that 51% of the decision was in the hands of the reviewer, 49% was taken from the generated notes.
Without some access to a machine that could measure the vapor production, if there is such a thing, this was the best idea we could come up with. Observation.
Electronic Cigarettes Industry – Taste Tasting
This was the area where we nearly came to blows on several occasions. It was decided to include something in the reviews that told the reader, or reminded the reader, that taste is SUBJECTIVE. We do not know what you like, only you do. We can tell you that “we” love the taste of brand X, but only you know if you like the taste of brand X.
However, when you have at least 4 people judging the flavor of a particular brand/flavor blend/nicotine level you get 4 times the input about that taste question. If all 4 people loved a particular taste by a particular brand then chances are 4 times higher that you will too.
The best way to taste an electronic cigarettes is, once again, a fresh battery and cartomizer. The “tasters” should not have brushed their teeth in the past 2 hours, eaten spicy or super sweet foods, and especially not to have drank pineapple juice in the past several hours. (Don’t believe the pineapple claim? Try it. On any food. Pineapple will change your taste buds for a few hours).
However, because we are breathing in a water-based vapor there shouldn’t be any need to have to wait more than a few minutes to switch a flavor. A few sips of water, check a few emails, gather up some notes, make a phone call, and change the battery and cartomizer and do it all over again.
Tasting is done privately. We based it on how it tasted going in, then in the mouth, as it went into the lungs (and sinus chamber), and on exhaling out… This was our best practice for doing a taste test for an eCigarette despite taste buds being restricted to the tongue.
The Electronic Cigarettes Industry – Consistency Testing
This is the toughest test to measure. Once again it’s a private affair, no input from other writers. And it took hours to do. Here’s why:
We judged consistency on judging the quality of vapor and taste with a brand new charged battery and cartomizer, and staying with that setup for half the day at least. For smokers we used a higher nicotine level, for those looking to quit, or non-smokers, we used Zero Level nicotine.
Each writer used the electronic cigarettes as follows; Take 10, 3-4 second puffs, spaced about 10 seconds apart. Set it down for 10 minutes and then repeat the process. This goes on for up to 6 hours, or until the longest lasting brand/flavor began to change. ALL the brands had to have their battery exchanged during this time.
If Brand A was great out the box and stayed great for 3 straight sessions and then began to fade in flavor and/or vapor, it was written down. The reviewer did this for each flavor the brand submitted. And each time the results were written down.
After ALL the brands and flavors were tested by all 4 writers then the result of ALL configurations were put into the computer and formatted, printed out, and handed to everyone at one of our Roundtable Discussions.
Then, an average is determined… those then surpassed the average were given scores ranging from +1 to +5 and those that fell below the average received scores -1 to -5.
Generally, Menthol creates the heaviest vapor for all the brands we tried. Menthol also stayed consistent longer than any other flavor. We have no idea why, perhaps we’ll ask one of the companies for an explanation. Besides Menthol, no other obvious connection could be made between flavor and vapor.
The Electronic Cigarettes Industry – Customer Service
Again, Customer Service is performed alone. Plainly speaking, we called all the brands Support and Customer lines and spoke as a customer who was having a problem and then again as someone looking for information. We judged the experience on how friendly and knowledgeable the reps were, how well they could solve an issue, and in the “informational” inquiry we also tested for their dedication, and tried to get a feel for their own feelings of the product.
Service was all over the board because we assumed every company was either a medium sized business or a large sized business. It never occurred to us that some may be running things from a rented office, or from home, using outsourced support teams, or people answering phones for several companies. For some reason we felt that the companies would almost certainly have their own free-standing buildings with their logo on the signs and the side of the building, that their would be people coming and going constantly, and that the warehouse in the back was loading and unloading all day long. We have news for you; that is not the case for most brands. Most companies are just a few very hard working individuals competing in a tough market.
So, we came to the conclusion that the only thing that should matter when it came to Service is whether or not the customer’s problem was addressed well, and that the information we received was accurate without overselling it. Most brands did well, only one had some glitches… calling the support line and not getting any answers, or worse, allowing it to ring a dozen times only to then have an auto-forward to someone’s cell phone, where the person at the other end was outside, in public. That does not bode well for the service offered by that company. But, it should not discount the company either.
Lastly, there is Value.
Value should be easy to judge, very easy… but it took a while to see the forest for the trees. In the end, Value is both personal and non-personal at the same time.
The problem with Value is that the pricing for Starter Kits and cartomizers, even disposables, are all over the board. And as hard as we worked to determine why this was so, we failed. We failed miserably. In the end some companies angered us, some confused us, and one was, well, just weird.
The biggest bugaboo about Value is “What is it worth to you?”… If you were a rich person and the cost did not matter, would you buy the most expensive product thinking it obviously had to be the best? If you were poor and simply wanted to save money over buying regular cigarettes do you buy the least expensive?
Or, do you buy the one that tastes the best?
You may think that the above is easy to answer, but its not. Think about this;
This information came from our own interviews with eCig users that we culled from Twitter, Facebook, man-on-the-street interviews, nightclubs in south Florida and Boston, and so forth.
An average Vaper has tasted no more than 3 or 4 brands, usually only 1 or 2.
Very few continue to purchase starter kits until they find the one that they really like, usually its “one and done”. Most decide from information available on the Internet, and then they either like it and stay with it, or dislike and go back to cigarettes. This is probably 85-90% of the current customers. It is also, in our opinion, the strongest negative to overcome for this industry.
New experiences in brands and flavor come mostly from a friend that uses a brand other than your own and he or she asks you to give it a try. If that brand tastes better than the one he or she is currently using, then a new customer is gained, usually within a month, or as soon as that person needs to buy new cartomizers.
Sadly, like cigarettes, many people, the majority actually, simply learn to like the one they bought because pumping $125-$200 into the initial setup forces people to use what they have, despite their being superior tasting and less expensive alternatives. Having dropped $150 or so blinders are worn so as not to think about the money that has been wasted.
Value, for us, was based on the “best bang for the buck” in physical product; battery, charges, accessories, cartomizers, and the like. This part leaves “taste” out of the equation.
Value was also based on our own personal choices. For instance, if you love the taste of a tobacco blend offered by Brand X, yet brand X charges twice as much for their cartomizers than Brand Y, and you’ve tried Brand Y and you don’t like it, then Brand X’s value to you goes up. If you don’t like the taste of the product they could give to you free and you still wouldn’t use it, so there is no value to you.
Having said that, there are obvious over charging going on with some brands, brands that we have eliminated early on, and maybe one or two on our current list that are charging too much based on what others are charging.
In the early days of our trials one of the brands offered refill cartomizers for a whopping $79.99 for FIVE (5) cartomizers. Not 5 packs, 5 individual cartomizers. That was outrageous to us, and in addition it was one of the more horrible tasting, least vapor producing, cheaply made crap we’ve seen.
We strongly believe that the electronic cigarettes market has a long way to go before it settles down and figures itself out. Prices need to stabilize across the board; standards need to be set, but not price fixing, a similar range in cost for a similar quality product sounds right to us. Right now there is way too much of a spread. For most brands the least expensive is about $10 for a 5-pack, and the most expensive ran $19.99 for 5 cartomizers.
The companies that scored well in Value were able to supply their customers with a good starter kit that did not feel cheap and overpriced. Their cartomizers were less than half the cost of a pack of cigarettes, and the taste and vapor, as well as consistency, were above the average level.
We think we know the “sweet spot” pricing for eCigarettes, but we are not close to disclosing what we think. We haven’t been in the market long enough. When we gain more experience, learn how things are really done, we’ll let you know what we think about true Value. In the meantime, Value was given extra weight based on our own personal feelings about the products we used and our results with service, the taste, the vapor, and so forth. Complicated like you wouldn’t believe.
Electronic Cigarettes Industry – The Bottom Line
So, we’re making waves already. That’s fine. We expect it because it happened in the other markets we’ve worked in. Maybe its because we are honest with ourselves, and you, our readers, about what we think. We’d like to be even more honest and disclose even more, but we need to make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “T” is crossed. We’ll get there.
We suspect there will be many changes this year in the electronic cigarettes industry, most for the better. eCigs are getting better all the time, and making the switch from cigarettes to eCigarettes is getting to be an easier, and more satisfying ordeal.
We hope you’ll hang with us as we journey down this road. We look forward to trying as many different eCig brands as we can. We want to learn how the decisions are made, how a brand’s line comes about, and more. And we plan to share that with you as we learn.
Lastly, what we really want to do is to convince as many smokers as we can to make the switch, and when we find a company that provides excellence taste, vapor, consistency, and value we want to shout their names from our rooftops… and we will.