Virus forces local vape shop chain to pull back on expansion, try new retail strategies

Avail Vapor is headquartered at 820 Southlake Blvd. (BizSense file photo)

One of the few national retail chains based in the Richmond area has thought up a few new strategies in response to the coronavirus, which has disrupted its plans to expand its footprint with new stores this year.

Avail Vapor, which from its Southside home base operates nearly 100 e-cigarette stores nationwide, has cooked up a deferred payment program, a penny program and curbside pickup to keep business flowing.

Products from Avail Vapor’s Leafana Wellness line. (Courtesy Avail)

It also has shelved plans to open new stores in Virginia, North Carolina and potentially Maryland this year.

“I don’t think anyone can downplay this,” said Justin Murphy, Avail’s vice president of retail and marketing. “We have been disrupted.”

Expansion capital has instead been banked to provide funds for employee payroll, rent and other expenses that need to be covered to ensure Avail comes out on the other side of the pandemic, Murphy said.

“We have to be very careful with cash,” he said. “This is an unprecedented event.”

The company has in turn laid off 17 percent of its employees in states with strict executive orders that have forced the company to temporarily close stores. It has 350 employees, including a team devoted to coordinating the company’s compliance with different states’ guidelines and orders.

The deferred payment program allows customers to buy a minimum of 10 Avail brand e-liquid bottles with a 25 percent initial payment. In the penny program, “financially burdened” customers and customers employed in health care or public safety can buy e-liquid bottles for 1 cent each,

Curbside pickup currently constitutes 100 percent of transactions in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The deferred payment and curbside pickup programs are intended to be responsive to recent customer trends, as people come into stores less frequently and buy in bulk. The penny program is intended to toss a lifeline to customers facing financial difficulties or responding to the pandemic, Murphy said.

He said while response to the new programs has been positive, the revenue and sales they generate doesn’t compare with what the stores made six months ago.

Avail was founded in Richmond in 2013. In January of this year, Avail split into three companies 一 Avail Vapor LLC (retail), Blackbriar Regulatory Services LLC (contract manufacturing, laboratory services and FDA compliance consulting) and Blackship Technologies LLC (research and development). Avail founder James Xu is chairman of all three companies. Each company is based in Richmond and has its own management team.

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