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What obstacles hinder shoppers buying cigarettes online?

By Chris Elliott

On 6 April 2015 the display of tobacco products in all stores across the UK was banned, expanding upon the initial ban in large retailers and supermarkets which was put into place in 2012. The new expansive ban now also applies to pubs and clubs and those found to be uncompliant could face fines of up to £5,000 and six months in prison.

The UK Government’s recent enforcement of the countrywide ban is just one of many obstacles that cigarette brands face in terms of increasing sales and marketshare. Further disruption is on the horizon too as the government plans to introduce plain packaging laws.

The proposed plans, set to become compulsory in the UK from 2017, dictate that all cigarette packaging must be plain. Unsurprisingly, many cigarette manufacturers are challenging this proposal; both Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco have already appealed the decision. Both manufacturers argue that the new measures deprive them of property in the form of trademarks, and are seeking compensation that could extend to billions of pounds if they succeed (The Independent).

If the plain packaging proposals are enforced in two year’s time, it will become more challenging than ever for cigarette brands to capture shoppers’ attention in-store. With two years to prepare, cigarette brands need to consider a myriad of options to mitigate the likely negative impact, including the optimisation of their presence online.

Cigarette manufacturers can work with retailers to ensure that their product information is accurate and complete and that they are easily discoverable to shoppers online. If executed well, the ecommerce channel provides an opportunity for cigarette brands to maintain and potentially even improve sales.

Cigarette category shelf overview

Brand View has reviewed the cigarette category in the six major UK grocery retailers Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.

When reviewing the placement of cigarette products we found that the path to purchase differred considerably in each retailer. For example, some stores offered the shopper a much more direct route than others.

Shoppers in Morrisons were able to navigate straight to the ‘Cigarettes and Tobacco’ category shelf from the homepage; this was the most straightforward path to purchase of all the retailers.

On the Ocado website shoppers had to select the main category ‘Newsagent and Stationery’ on the homepage and then navigate to the ‘Cigarettes & Tobacco’ sub-category, adding an extra step in the path to purchase, compared to Morrisons.

Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose all listed cigarettes in the ‘Household’ category – this may have hindered shoppers that attempted a category search, as arguably many would not think of cigarettes as a ‘household’ item.

Similarly, shoppers on the Asda site may have been frustrated in their search for cigarettes as the retailer listed cigarettes in the ‘Tobacconist’ sub-category within the ‘Entertainment and Outdoor’ category.

asda cigarettes category
Asda website 12 August 2015


Cigarette category shelf organisation

Once the shopper successfully navigated to the cigarette category in Asda, Morrisons, Ocado and Waitrose they were presented with ‘favourite’ products first. However, it is unclear how the retailers have identified the ‘favourite’ products as, for example, 19 of the items on the first page of results in Morrisons were ‘new’ listings.

Tesco sorts its cigarette listings by A-Z; brands such as Benson & Hedges and Berkeley were therefore presented to shoppers before brands such as Richmond.

Similarly, Sainsbury’s listed products by alphabetically organised brand groups; ‘Cigarettes by brand A-E’, and so on. Generally, smokers tend to be loyal to a particular brand; by enabling the shopper to search alphabetically by brand clusters, Sainsbury’s best accommodate the needs of the cigarette shopper.

sainsbury's cigarette shelf
Sainsbury’s website 12 August 2015


Cigarette search term analysis

Ensuring a product returns for all search terms that a shopper is likely to use is crucial for successful product placement. Brand View has reviewed the difference in search results for the terms ‘cigarettes’ and ‘cigarette’ and discovered a dramatic variance in results.

When searching for ‘cigarettes’ on the Asda and Tesco websites both standard and menthol products returned. However, when the search term ‘cigarette’ was used the majority of results were e-cigarettes and accessories, as well as items such as rolling papers.

Search results on the Waitrose site included one e-cigarette product for the term ‘cigarette’ and no e-cigarette products for ‘cigarettes’.

Ocado returned the same selection of products for both search terms. However, if a shopper searched for the term ‘cigarette’, Marlboro products placed higher than they did for the term ‘cigarettes’. This had a detrimental impact for Silk Cut items which fell down the product listings.

Asda was the only retailer to return cigarette products when shoppers searched for the colloquial search term ‘fags’. The other five retailers assumed that this search term was a typing error and instead directed shoppers to ‘figs’ and ‘fats’.

Sainsbury’s was removed from the search placement analysis as when shoppers searched for either term ‘cigarettes’ or ‘cigarette’ they were directed to the cigarette category page, as above.

Cigarette  vs cigarettes in retailers

Cigarette brand search term analysis

As noted, the majority of smokers are loyal to a particular brand and as such it is likely they will search for their brand directly.

Often, when a shopper searches by brand, they will abbreviate the brand name, for example ‘B&H’ instead of ‘Benson & Hedges’. To remove potential barriers in the path to purchase brands should ensure that their products are visible for all possible search terms.

Brand View has reviewed the variance in search results for the full brand name and abbreviated brand names for Benson & Hedges, John Player Special and Lambert & Butler in the six retailers.

In some cases the search for the abbreviated brand name returned more results than a search for the full brand name. The greatest variance was in Asda – 5 out of 20 of the John Player Special products listed returned for the term ‘John Player Special’, whereas 15 out of 20 returned for the acronym ‘JPS’.

products returning by brand cigarettes

Conversely, Benson & Hedges and Lambert & Butler both witnessed large declines in the number of listings placed when a shopper searched for their abbreviated brand names.

Sainsbury’s returned the largest number of products for the abbreviated brand names whereas Morrisons, Ocado and Waitrose all returned no cigarette products when abbreviated brand names were used.

Interestingly, Waitrose returned Oral B products for the search term ‘B&H’ and mostly L’Oreal products for the search term ‘L&B’. Asda returned Benson & Hedges products for the search term ‘B&H’, but returned only Oral B, L’Oreal and own label products for ‘L&B’.

l&bAsda website 18 August 2015


How can cigarette brands win online?

With growing restrictions on the sale of cigarettes, shoppers face numerous obstacles in their path to purchase.

To counteract the potential negative impact of legislation on sales, cigarette manufacturers must ensure their brands are represented accurately online and are easily discoverable.

Brands need to be familiar with the language used by their customers, and in turn optimise their online presence, ensuring that their products return for all commonly-used search terms, including acronyms and abbreviations.

While the majority of shoppers are loyal to their brand many navigate to the product through the retailer category shelf structure or by using generic search terms such as ‘cigarettes’. There is an opportunity for brands to become more visible than their competitors by working with retailers to achieve high placement on the category shelf page and for generic search terms.

Last month Public Health England recognised for the first time that e-cigarettes are less damaging to health than tobacco smoking. The announcement follows advice from public health specialists which suggests that in the future e-cigarettes should be offered by the NHS as a smoking cessation tool. This will be welcome news to the big tobacco manufacturers who have recently acquired e-cigarettes brands as an additional revenue stream in their product portfolio. Japan Tobacco International (JTI) bought e-cigarette brand E-Lites in June 2014 and British American Tobacco launched Vype in August 2013 (Tobaccotactics.org). If introduced to the NHS this would give the green light to smokers and no doubt drive increased consideration and sales. As such, tobacco manufacturers should look to improve their online product placement for both their e-cigarette and tobacco brands to drive sales across their full product portfolios.

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