After spending some time working in corporate America, the owner of what is now known as Smokin Js, Jay Fratt, found himself unhappy and wanting more out of life. Soon after he decided to leave his corporate job behind, Jay opened a hemp clothing retail store in Washington in 1997.
After a slow first six months, Jay began to look more seriously into something the majority of his customers were asking for every day. And that was pipes.
“Once I started carrying pipes, that was the last time I struggled with paying for heating oil and electricity and things like that. Ever since then, it has just been onwards and upwards,” explains Jay.
However the journey to success didn’t come free of bumps in the road for Jay and his shop. After officially founding the oldest alternative pipe and tobacco shop in Southwest Washington in 1997, Jay was nearly shut down.
“Naturally I ran into police and political pressures that tried to close me down because there weren’t any other stores that were like mine in the region,” he recalls.
Jay managed to keep the doors open and a few years later made the decision to expand and open a second location. At this same time, Jay decided to change the name from Vancouver Pipe and Tobacco to the name his shops are known by today: Smokin Js. With both locations operating successfully, Smokin Js made the decision to open up a third location a few years later and in 2013 opened a fourth location in Washington as well. Then in 2014, Jay opened up his fifth shop – the first outside of Washington – in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The decision to open a location in Michigan wasn’t spontaneous for Jay and his staff.
“We researched Grand Rapids and thought that it was a growing, interesting, untapped market and we had the right people in that region to get it going,” he explains.
“With Smokin Js, it has always been about the people more so than it is about the concept. We really focus on hiring individuals with great personalities and their own cultural interests, and then integrating them into our store and its atmosphere. We are very customer service orientated, so it’s the people who work at Smokin Js that make it great,” says Jay.
Throughout the years Jay has always held each of his locations to very high standards when it comes to customer service as well as the quality of the products carried.
“I really seek value in products. We don’t just sell whatever comes in off the back the truck. We like to research and select our products with quality and value in mind. We avoid overpriced and expensive products and we really value high quality products,” mentions Jay, “From personally trying things out, to using magazines like Smoke and Vape Business Solutions that we trust, to using mass media to cross reference our many sources of information and to read between the lines – we are very thorough when it comes to our products,” he continues.
In addition to requiring high quality inventory, Jay credits much of Smokin Js success to exceptional customer service.
“The important thing is not just the customer service, but it is also listening to your customers. Often the customers are on the cutting edge of the industry and if you listen to them you can find a lot of great products,” says Jay.
All of the employees go through training upon being hired as well.
“It’s honestly a very difficult and arduous process. We sell over two thousand items, and the knowledge of our customer service representatives on every product is often what sets us apart from our competition. The training is a very important process that our employees go through to learn all about our products so they can give the customer not only educated opinions on products, but also accurate information on every single product we carry. We sell everything from tie-dye and puzzles to electronic cigarettes and vaporizers, so there’s a lot of product knowledge that goes into the job. Working at Smokin Js is more than just a cool job where you can hang out with your fellow smokers, it’s a real job where you will learn skills that will advance you in society and in the culture” he explains.
After being in the business for 18 years, Jay has developed really great relationships with glass artists and is proud of the selection of hand pipes that can be found in each location. All the pipes are reasonably priced and made in America.
“We really love the fact that we don’t just buy glass off of traveling vendors, we develop amazing relationships with our glass blowers. We don’t just sell random glass from random people, we really get to know the guys and girls we buy from – and that is really important to us,” says Jay.
“One of the hardest parts about the business is that it would be a full time job for one person just to answer all of the calls and meeting requests we get from glass blowers. We have procedures in place to filter out the best of the best when it comes to glass blowing. Our customers can know we take our search for quality very seriously,” he continues.
When it comes to marketing, Smokin Js uses programs developed by Jay over the years that he calls guerrilla marketing.
“The process consist of person to person contact and we’ve recently developed a street team. We find people that are fans of Smokin Js or loyal customers of ours and we give them the marketing tools to go out and promote for us. We’ve also had prizes and competitions among our street team members, which has been fun and really worked for us,” explains Jay.
Another major contributing factor to Smokin Js success is the work they put into their website, www.smokinjs.com. It is fully equipped with ecommerce capabilities and customers can find all products available there. Having a site where customers can browse your products from anywhere is key in today’s world, but having a site that allows purchases to be made will really set your business apart from your competition.
“I consider my online store to be another location. I give it the attention and care that we put in to our physical retail stores,” mentions Jay.
It’s easy to see that after 18 years in the business, Jay and the staff of Smokin Js have truly found success. With the experience Jay has acquired, his attention to detail and quality, as well the importance he places on the shop’s customer service standards, there really is nowhere to go but up for Smokin Js.
“My advice to any smoke shops that may be struggling right now is to listen to your customers. They are they are in the area already and they are interested. Sell what they are asking for, it’s that simple,” says Jay. SVBS