Friday 27 June 2014

Bury, Boxes, Beer and Bubblegum

I briefly mentioned two weeks ago that Mrs P and I had taken a couple of days off for a long weekend away. This was primarily to meet up with good friend of this blog and dedicated jewel robber, Steve W, and to take him up on his 2012 offer of a cuppa in his vape shop in Bury.

Here's Steve sitting pretty (if that's the word) in his domain.

After Mrs P had wandered behind the counter and chucked a load of cash his way for some flavours from the shelves, we were also afforded an interesting tour of the Totally Wicked operation just up the road in Blackburn.

We were met by Sales and Marketing Manager Alain Rowlands who explained a bit about the company and how it has expanded from an operation in the owner's bedroom in 2008 to the plush and profitable outfit it is now, currently employing 104 people. 

Obviously, while in his exquisitely air-conditioned office, the subject of the EU TPD came up but Rowlands was dismissive of its effect on Totally Wicked's business. "So they'll ban 20ml bottles, So what? We'll just sell two 10ml ones instead", he explained, along with other get-arounds for various aspects of the directive planned for 2016, "at worst, it will mean that we'll have to stop selling the mixing kits, but we've just invested in a new bottling plant down the road so we're still anticipating growth". 

The news of JTI buying out E-Lites had just been announced, so I had to ask if TW had received approaches from tobacco industry interests themselves. "We've bounced a couple of people out the front door, yes", claimed Rowlands, before noting that the firms being swallowed up are mostly those with large publicity and distribution networks whereas Totally Wicked - whose sales are almost exclusively conducted online - operate on a shoestring marketing budget. A boardroom with framed Burnley FC and St Helens rugby league shirts are the only evidence that the company's advertising reaches outside of the internet. 

We were then taken through to the warehouse which revealed a surprisingly machine-free business method. I wish I'd thought to get a picture (from behind glass) of the state-of-the-art sterile pharma-standard e-liquid preparation room - complete with scientific-looking types mixing batches of liquids in medical garb to the hum of air filtration equipment surrounding their isolated box - but the rest was good old-fashioned manufacturing procedures. 

Four rooms of kits, liquids and accessories piled on shelves waiting to be picked to satisfy 1,200 orders per day according to Rowlands. Considering TW offer free postage for orders of £50 plus, so I suspect an average order would be something shy of that, you can do the maths yourself to work out how much they are taking in such a short space of time since being established.

I had expected bottles being labelled by machinery but there was none of that; the fiddly labels are all applied by hand, while the boxes are made up manually and the bottles placed in those boxes by fingers and thumbs too. Labour intensive, yes, but the staff didn't seem bothered - "I'm really good at packing up boxes quickly" said one in a regional lilt as she displayed lightning dexterity in front of a whiteboard showing she'd made up around 4,500 since the Monday.

After the tour - and a quick look at a new TW product, the E-Shisha pipe which looks more like a bright red tomahawk and just as big - we were encouraged to go to see "Mitch", a man so mysterious many at TW have never seen him.

Mitch appears to be a throwback to the early days of the company when the image of the devilish Mr Wicked marketing tool was all important. Now, however, softly-spoken Mitch is left to his own devices to do, well, just about whatever takes his fancy. Squirrelled away in a nondescript small industrial unit with no indication that anything noteworthy is going on behind an anonymous door, Mitch just lets his imagination decide what to do on any particular day.

I kid you not, this is the entrance to his office.

Well, I say 'entrance', but it's more like the way in to a labyrinth really. Behind the curtain is a series of rooms containing things that move, twist, spin, dangle, wobble, and - in the case of the mad scientist waxwork in his lab - bubble and pump out clouds from a concealed smoke machine. 

All that just to lead into a windowless room where Mitch spends his day doodling and generally doing arty stuff.

Whether TW take up any of this depends on if they see anything they like, but we got the impression that this mostly amounts to Christmas cards, the odd website graphic and an upcoming calendar. Not that Mitch doesn't have big plans though, his surreal grotto - complete with mask moulds for just about every horror movie monster you can think of - is currently being, ahem, enhanced by a part-built graveyard which will comprise a ghoul rising up from the dead. Surprising, until you hear that in Mitch's spare time he likes to make up coffins for sale to the public and had four in his basement at the time of our visit ... he says his wife and children are very understanding.

All in all an interesting day, rounded off with a trip to a local pub. Steve, obviously recognising my transport geekiness, chose this place, which for someone of my tastes was a bit of a dream.

I mean, how could anyone not enjoy a pub beer garden (complete with nostalgia decor) like this?


It was a great trip, and I can heartily recommend Steve's shop if you're in the area, but I have to leave you with an occurrence while we were in there the next day just before returning which goes straight to the heart of the entire e-cig debate, and will resonate with any vaper who is irritated by tobacco controllers insisting that flavoured e-liquids are solely designed to entrap children into a lifetime of nicotine addiction. 

While sitting on one of those red sofas pictured above, a male customer of around 30-ish wandered in off the street wearing a Superman T-shirt and said he'd like to buy some e-liquid. "Sure", replied Steve, "what flavour and strength?". I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing when the guy replied "bubblegum please, 10mg". Unlike me though, Steve was unmoved because he reckons it's one of his biggest sellers. 

Tobacco control out of touch with real life? Surely not.


Ms. Waters said...

I bought my first cig-alike from TWs 'bedroom operation'! Have not been tempted back to tobacco from that moment; get my supplies from TW to this very day.

Bucko The Moose said...

You were ten minutes drive from me. You could have popped round for a beer. Bugger!.

Geoff Cliff said...

Thanks for this insight into the e-cigarette industry. Most helpful and informative!

SteveW said...

Glad you enjoyed the trip mate, although I knew you would :-)

JonathanBagley said...

As things stand, he will have a problem. Devices which cannot be refilled without the possibility of any leakage - an almost impossible constraint - will be banned. Always remember, the purpose of the ecig regulations is not to make vaping safer, it is to get rid of it by making it as unpleasant and expensive as possible.

Geoff said...

I really wish I'd known you'd be in the area. I'm a fifteen minute walk from the Trackside pub and regularly drink there ( real ales, real food and real steam trains thrown in for good measure). It would have been nice to put a face to a name.

SadButMadLad said...

Glad you enjoyed my end of the country.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Late reply as only just caught up. I said something about it on Twitter, so do consider following there. I'm sure I'll be there again at some point, I really enjoyed the Trackside and am envious that it's local to you.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Could have indeed, it was all done in a bit of a rush. I'll remember to drop you a line next time.