Richmond’s vaping heavyweight has thrown in the towel on brick-and-mortar retail.
Locally-based Avail Vapor, which peaked about a year ago with nearly 100 stores in a dozen states, recently completed its exit from the retail storefront market altogether by selling or shuttering all of its locations.
CEO James Xu said the decision was motivated by multiple factors over several years, including what he called unclear and convoluted federal regulatory processes. The company unsuccessfully sought approval to continue to sell its nicotine-containing e-liquids after years of operating in what was then an unregulated market. The economic impacts of COVID-19 also created challenges for the company.
“It’s completely just a mess with FDA policy making and policy strategy. It just did not make any sense from day one,” Xu said. “Everything is really in this gray area. It was totally different from what our mission was and COVID is not helping any retailer.”
The company’s downsizing began in August with the sale of about 30 of its stores to North Carolina-based competitor MadVapes. It then shuttered or sold its remaining 20 stores, including about five in the Richmond region, by late October, Xu said.
Its last local holdouts included the Carytown store at 3039 W. Cary St., its Short Pump outpost at 11440 W. Broad St. and a location outside Chesterfield Towne Center. The shuttered Carytown shop still had grow tents from its recent foray into marijuana cultivation supplies on display in the store Thursday.
Avail was founded in Richmond in 2013, when vaping regulations were scant. It opened its original store in Carytown and quickly became a fast-growing chain of vaping shops that also manufactured its own in-house flavors of e-liquid, also known as juice.
In 2015 it christened a 37,000-square-foot office and manufacturing building at 820 Southlake Blvd. in Midlothian. That facility has since served as its home base as the company navigated the vaping scene while delving into CBD products, contract manufacturing, and marijuana growing supplies.
Xu said Avail spent more than $10 million in its bid to get regulatory approval since 2016, when the FDA set forth new compliance standards for vaping products. But the FDA rejected Avail’s applications in September and the company sued the government agency in federal appeals court. The case is expected to be heard early next year.
As the FDA process played out, the company last year split into three parts: retailer Avail Vapor LLC, Blackbriar Regulatory Services LLC (contract manufacturing, laboratory services and FDA compliance consulting) and Blackship Technologies LLC (research and development). Xu assumed chairmanship over all three companies.
Xu said Thursday a deal to sell Blackbriar was pending and expected to close soon.
Avail’s website had been taken down by Wednesday. The website of the company’s marijuana cultivation supplies brand read in part:
“We’re sorry to announce that Avail is ceasing all vape retail online or in-store. Our brand of liquids will still be available at select online and in-store retailers.”
The company also no longer owns Giant Vapes, an online retailer it merged with in 2020. Giant Vapes is now owned by Vape Like A Sir and continues to sell Avail-branded liquids for now.
Xu didn’t say how many, if any, employees Avail has. The company had 350 employees in April 2020.
Xu declined to comment on what Avail’s next move might be, but said he wasn’t getting out of the business.
“James Xu is not exiting the vaping industry,” Xu said.