My Vapez, a basement store that sells electronic cigarettes in Arlington, feels more like a college hangout than a million-dollar enterprise. The carpet is littered with potato chips, a Nerf basketball hoop hangs on a closet door and “Pokemon” plays on the big-screen TV.
Customers who enter are greeted with two questions: Which nicotine level are you on? And what flavors do you prefer — fruity, savory, tobacco?
The shop, which opened five months ago, is poised to bring in more than $1 million in sales this year. It is the company’s second store — the first opened in Herndon in August — and business has been so strong, owner Jonathan Elias says, that he plans to open a location in Rockville next month before expanding to Capitol Hill and Philadelphia.
“Our numbers just keep growing and growing,” Elias said, adding that he projects company-wide sales to hit more than $2 million this year.
But it is also a tenuous business model, one complicated by looming regulations and legal uncertainties.
The city of Los Angeles last week voted to ban e-cigarettes and vaporizers in bars, parks and other public areas. A study published March 6 found that adolescents who used e-cigarettes were more likely to smoke real cigarettes, reigniting a public debate about whether the devices are safe to be used in public spaces.
“There’s no telling if we will still be in business by the end of 2014,” said Christopher Bienlein, who handles My Vapez’s online sales. “It all depends on local regulations.”
Roughly 90 percent of the store’s customers are cigarette smokers looking to quit, Bienlein said. Patrons under 18 are not allowed.
“Most of the time, people who walk in have been smoking for at least a few years,” he said. “The first thing they say when they walk in is ‘I want to stop smoking.’”
E-cigarettes and vaporizers, proponents say, are an effective way for long-time smokers to quit smoking. The battery-powered devices turn “juices” — flavored additives with varying amounts of nicotine — into vapor.
My Vapez sells more than 100 varieties of juices, with names ranging from Billy the Kid (piña colada and coconut) and Sucker Punch (dragonfruit and cream) to Blister (cinnamon and Red Hots) and the Dude (peach, pineapple and mango).
All of the flavors are available with varying levels of nicotine, ranging from 0 milligrams to 24 milligrams. The idea, Bienlein said, is to help long-time smokers taper their nicotine use.
“We’re still battling with educating consumers on what exactly it is that we’re selling,” Bienlein said. “There is a big stigma around smoking, and we’re constantly trying to shake that image.”
Elias, who had a full-time job in IT, began selling the devices out of his Chantilly home about a year ago. He was inundated with customers.
“From 6 p.m. to 2 o’clock every morning, it’d just be one person after another,” he said.
Eventually, he pooled $15,000 of his savings, found a rental space and set up shop in Herndon. The store turned a profit its first month.
“I had low expectations about what I wanted to accomplish,” the 30-year-old said. “But business just blew up.”
Within weeks, Elias quit his day job to focus on My Vapez full-time. Two months later, he and his wife opened their second store, in Arlington.
“If it’s a busy night, we’ll have 14 or 15 people in here at once,” Bienlein said.
Last Thursday, there were three customers already waiting when the My Vapez in Herndon opened at 11 a.m. At the company’s Arlington location, a handful of shoppers tested different flavors of juices.
Patrice Bringley, 48, had driven in from her home in Glen Burnie.
“I read about this store online so I wanted to see what they had,” she said, adding that vaporizers had helped her kick her one-pack-a-day cigarette habit. “There aren’t a lot of vape stores around.”
Elias and Bienlein have relied on a circle of loyal customers to help drive sales. They have no formal marketing budget, but use Instagram and Facebook to reach their clientele. When new products arrive in the store, Bienlein sends out text messages to a network of more than 200 regulars.
“We blast a photo on social media, our followers see it, their friends see it,” Elias said. “It becomes a big chain reaction.”
Even so, there are a series of challenges. For one, landlords are wary about renting space to businesses that sell vaporizers. For the company’s upcoming location in Rockville, Elias says he met with nearly a dozen property owners before one of them agreed to a deal.
“Every single landlord, when it came time to sign the lease, would say no,” he said. “It’s an unregulated industry, so that leaves a lot to the imagination about what actually goes on in here.”
The big uncertainty for the coming year, the factor that will most determine whether My Vapez is successful, lies in upcoming regulations, Bienlein said, adding that a number of stores — ranging from gas stations to nail salons — have begun selling e-cigarettes and juices.
“Everybody in this industry is waiting for some kind of ruling,” he said. “That’s what we’re all waiting on, whether we’re consumers or retailers.”