Ronson International Ltd – The Interview

ronson-logo.jpgA byword for lighters for over a century, Ronson continues to set the pace in 2008. Ronson International was recently at the forefront in the move to child-resistant lighters both here and in Europe. It introduced Slyda, the first child-resistant lighter ever sold in Europe, as far back as 2001, and stopped supplying non-child resistant lighter stocks in May 2007, nearly a year ahead of the legal deadline. Ronson International Ltd is now about to launch some exciting new Ronson branded lighters in support of its sales development strategy in the market, the latest chapter in its history of sustained innovation and ‘firsts’ in lighters and smokers’ requisites. The Grocery Trader spoke to Perry Ingles, Ronson International Ltd’s UK & Ireland Sales Manager.

The Grocery Trader – If we can talk about the heritage story first, Perry, when was the Ronson business founded, and who by? What were its earliest innovations?
The Ronson story began in the USA in 1886, when Louis V. Aronson formed The Art Metal Company. The company patented the world’s first sulphur ignition ‘safety match’ in 1897 and the first lighter, a spark-producing device called the ‘Pist-o-liter,’ in 1910 and the ‘Wonderliter,’ the first lighter to sustain a flame, in 1913.

GT – When did the Ronson name start appearing on your products?
Mr Aronson dropped the ‘A’ in the 1920s, and used the Ronson branding from then on.

GT – When did Ronson first open a UK office?
The UK subsidiary, Ronson Products Ltd, opened its offices in Battersea, South London, in 1930.

GT – What have been Ronson’s innovations over the years?
The list includes the first mechanical cigarette lighter; the first refillable gas lighter; the first gas lighter with an adjustable flame; the first gas can to refill lighters; and the world’s first gas valve for a lighter.

GT – The Ronson Varaflame has become something of a style icon. When did you launch it?
Ronson launched the Ronson Varaflame in 1957. It combined two major innovations, the multi-fill cartridge and adjustable flame, and by the end of the 1950s Ronson were producing up to 15,000 a day. The Varaflame is still a key model in our range and we celebrated its 50th anniversary last year by producing a limited number of gold plated Varaflames.

GT – When did Ronson International in its present form come into being?
Ronson sold its international subsidiaries in 1980/81 and released all the international rights.

GT – Who owns Ronson International Ltd? Which countries does it cover?
Ronson Ltd is the holding company for the group and holds trademark rights to every country except North America, Australia and Japan. Ronson International Ltd is the operating branch of Ronson Ltd.

GT – What products are in your range now?
Our range covers disposable everyday lighters, refillable everyday lighters, home and lifestyle lighters, gift lighters,butane and petrol lighter refills and some smokers’ accessories.

mini-candle-lighters-grou.jpgGT – What different products are in each of these categories?
Disposables are the ‘throwaway’ entry point: we produce three different models, clear or opaque, available in flint or electronic. All models come in five colours. All our disposables are available as singles and multipacks. Our Refillables are for people who want to spend slightly more and are looking for lighters that are more design-led but still affordable. We’re increasingly moving into home and lifestyle models, with multi-purpose lighters for barbeques and gas cookers, and a stylish mini-candle lighter. This is a natural move because Ronson is renowned for its table lighters. In gift lighters, Ronson offers modern as well as retro-classic designs at various price points.

GT – What are the demographics for each of these products in the UK – who are they aimed at?
We aim to cater for all consumers, and look to fill the gaps in our range with new products. At the end of the day the market for lighters is not fully based on demographics but more on the type of lighter, which is a personal choice of each consumer.

GT – How are the home and lifestyle lighters doing?
Home and lifestyle lighters are a growing market, especially with barbeque lighters becoming more popular, and our mini-candle lighters are showing good growth too.

GT – In our health-conscious times, is there still a market for gift lighters in Britain?
There is still a market for premium lighters that are bought as gifts, but as people get more health-conscious we are moving more to positioning these models as self-purchases.

ronson-slyda-group.jpgGT – How is the Slyda child-resistant lighter doing?
Slyda is our best selling line overall and continues to grow.

GT – What lighter fuels and other smokers’ requisites do you produce?
We supply butane gas refills in different sizes, petrol fluid refill cans, flints, mini filters and pipe cleaners, all in our ‘yellow and red’ well-known distinctive packaging.

GT – How big is the Ronson brand worldwide?
Ronson was the seventh best-known and recognised brand name in the world in the 1960’s, and the recognition of the Ronson brand is still massive across the world. We sell over 60 million everyday lighters across the UK and in Europe alone.

GT – How big is the Ronson brand in the UK?
We are the third best-selling brand of everyday cigarette lighters in the UK, with 10% of the market in retail value. We also hold 33% of the lighter refill market. We have a very strong brand in gift lighters and a strong presence in almost every outlet selling quality lighters.

ronson-fuels.jpgGT – How does the UK compare as a marketplace for your products versus other European countries?
Our sales mix is different here – our UK sales are mainly everyday lighters and refill gas, petrol and accessories, but gift lighters, gas and petrol lighter refills are our best-sellers in Europe.

GT – Where are you based in the UK?
Our sales, marketing, customer services and data processing operations are located in Long Buckby, in a rural setting near Northampton. We have a distribution warehouse in Birmingham.

GT – Where are all your products manufactured? What EU or other industry standards do they comply with?
Our lighters are mainly manufactured in the Far East, to our approved designs. Our manufacturing partners are carefully selected to meet our demanding criteria. Fuels and fluids are produced in the UK, and the other smokers’ accessories both in the UK and Europe. All our products comply with the current, very strict legislation.

GT – How are your UK sales doing?
Following a thorough review of our organisational structure and our product offering, we have recorded a consistent increase in our sales over the last 12 months despite a reported decline in UK tobacco sales.

GT – How have you changed your organisational structure and offer?
We’re continually reviewing our operations, and looking to improve our service to customers. For example, we have integrated our purchasing function, which was outsourced, into the sales and marketing team. As a result, our delivery service levels are running very high.

GT – What prompted the move?
I believe every company should review its practices on a regular basis. We adjusted and improved management controls and reviewed our working practices capitalising on the team’s experience.

GT – Your increased sales of lighters and accessories is good news, but isn’t what I’d expect to happen, given the recent smoking ban! How have you been affected by the ban on smoking indoors in public places in the UK?
Our small sales decreases following the smoking ban have been balanced by our increased sales following the child-resistant lighter introduction. When the child-resistant lighter law came in, a lot of small suppliers pulled out and we picked up the business. At the same time, we’ve changed our packaging and revamped our lighters’ colours to make them more appealing, to women smokers in particular. As a result we’ve gained a significantly bigger share of the remaining market.

GT – You’re up against some tough competition in the UK for lighters and requisites sales. What’s your point of difference?
We’ve been selling lighters in the UK for over 70 years. Ronson’s brand awareness is very strong in lighters accessories and gas; we have a loyal customer base and a very strong brand name. We consistently offer good quality products at competitive prices.

GT – What sort of promotional and advertising activity are you doing in the UK?
We don’t advertise lighters to the public outside the point of purchase – it’s not illegal in the UK, however, as a responsible company, we choose not to do it, so as to reduce the exposure of under-age consumers to tobacco-related products. The only exception is that we advertise our gift lighters in specific retailers’ Christmas brochures.

We’re well into a major trade sales promotion programme, which is proving successful with our major customers, and we have an active new business programme targeting opportunities across the market in all channels, including supermarkets, Co-ops and C-store chains.

GT – Which UK supermarkets and C-store chains are your products stocked in?
We were very pleased recently to renew our contract with Tesco’s household department: we’re the only lighters there. We are also the sole supplier of Tesco’s tobacco kiosks, and we have a strong presence in most major cash & carry groups and a raft of delivered wholesalers who supply our customers in the independent convenience retailing business.

GT – Which are your best selling products in supermarkets, Co-ops and c-store chains?
Our top sellers in these outlets are Slyda, Clearlite, Electrolite, the mini candle lighter and the multi-purpose lighter.

GT – Where should your products be merchandised in store for best results?
The tobacco kiosk or sales counter are the main sales area for single unit lighters: household sections are better for multi-packs and home lighters. Fuels in general must be sold over the counter by law. I also think that multi-purpose lighters (MPLs) should be dual-sited with BBQ accessories and candle lighters in the candle section.

GT – Who handles your distribution to the trade?
We use a national logistics company to manage our warehousing and distribution. The legal requirements for delivering hazardous goods are very strict, and our distribution partner meets all the requirements.

GT – What are the opportunities for developing your business further?
Our main opportunity is to increase the range stocked by our existing customers, and gain new accounts. We’ve strengthened the manpower we dedicate to sales, and it’s paying off significantly. We’ve also improved the efficiency of our back office.

GT – How do you work with retailers to build their category sales? Do you work with the tobacco companies who own the gantries?
We have regular reviews with existing customers, and with new customers we review their current business in our initial discussions. Our conversations about range and space allocations are generally with the retailers rather than the tobacco companies.

ronson-plume.jpgGT – You’re about to launch some exciting new Ronson branded lighters in support of your sales development strategy. What’s the story there?
Following our range review, we’re introducing a new gift lighter in September – a compact ladies’ Varaflame in two finishes called “Plume”, aimed at more sophisticated female smokers. We’ve modernised a classic Ronson design and added 21st century technology to it. At 4.3 cm square it’s small enough to fit the smallest handbag, and at an RSP of around £45 it’s definitely in the mid to upper end of our range.
We’re planning to launch more new Ronson-branded lighters late this year or early 2009, addressing various gaps we’ve identified in the market.

GT – What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for your business, looking forward?
We’ll continue to capitalise on our reputation for quality and innovation, and build on our current business. We have very strong quality control: when people buy Ronson products they know they meet every quality requirement. Our internal challenge is to increase our customer base in a tough trading environment.

GT – Finally, where do you see Ronson International Ltd going from here in the UK and Ireland?
We have great products, great quality and a great name. Our service delivery levels are very high and we now offer outstanding customer service. The industry has been through a tough year, but Ronson has emerged in a strong position and we are confident of continued future growth, even in a difficult market. We are also looking forward to increasing our presence in Europe.

Ronson International Ltd
Tel: 01327 841 500
Email: sales@ronson.com
www.ronson.com