Juul may open physical stores, despite growing backlash

Dry hitting, or trying to smoke an empty e-cig, can result in a burning sensation in the back of the...

America's largest vaping company is possibly opening up its own retail stores. According to an anonymous source in The Wall Street Journal, Juul has reportedly begun hiring employees for potential storefronts in Dallas and Houston, and a Juul store in South Korea is also expected to open eventually. No official time frame or plans have been announced.

The company, which MarketWatch says controls over 75% of the U.S. market share in its category, has not formally announced a decision to go the brick-and-mortar route, but the WSJ reported that the retail stores — similar to age-prohibitive liquor stores or marijuana dispensaries — would not allow anyone under 21 to enter, as customers must be that age to purchase Juul or any e-cigarette product. The company has also developed an ID-scanning vending machine that will prevent anyone without an age-appropriate ID from buying Juul products, and it may also put a monthly cap on the amount of product each customer can buy in one go.

Juul storefronts would certainly be unusual, as most higher-end cigarette manufacturers and alcohol producers typically vend their own brands not in exclusive retail stores, but in independently-owned and curated shops. Yet it makes sense, considering Juul's popularity. Currently, the company's products are sold in over 100,000 stores across the country, ranging from 7-Elevens to gas stations to specialty vape shops, and TechCrunch reports that Juul is valued at $38 billion.

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Yet despite its success, the brand has faced extensive criticism for its tactics in luring people — especially teens — into using tobacco via sweet flavors that mask the carcinogenic substance. Earlier in May, Walmart even announced that it will stop selling fruit- and dessert-flavored tobacco products and also increase the minimum age for tobacco sales in its stores to 21, starting July 1 of this year. The new rules surfaced after an April 2019 warning from the Food & Drug Administration to Walmart, Kroger, Family Dollar and several more megachains that they would face fines for illegally selling tobacco products to those under 18 years of age.

Now, with its own storefronts, Juul could more easily get its products straight to consumers. That said, Reuters reports (via an unnamed source) that any stores owned by the company won't carry the controversial flavors like mango and cucumber. Instead, only tobacco-, mint-, and menthol-flavored Juul pods would be sold in the shops. The flavored products will still be sold online in Juul's store, however.

The company has long tried to market itself as a healthier alternative to cigarette smoking, focusing on users who may not otherwise be tempted by tobacco products, like teenagers who've grown up knowing the dangers of traditional cigarettes but are interested in a safer-seeming, cool-looking new product. Thanks in part to its effective messaging, Juul's popularity has begun posing a threat to the traditional tobacco industry (in fact, Altria Group, which produces Marlboro cigarettes, purchased a 35% stake in Juul in December 2018, for $12.8 billion dollars).

Yet as tobacco — the main ingredient in both cigarettes and e-cigarettes — is still addictive and correlated with serious health concerns, no matter what form users consume it in, criticism over Juul's products and marketing has not gone away. And it'll likely only increase if the company does indeed open its own retail stores.