16 stores in 60 days

Avail Vapor owners are rapidly expanding their chain of shops

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Print this page by Gary Robertson
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Donovan Phillips (left), Cole Smith and James Xu are the
co-founders of the Avail Vapor chain. Photo by Mark Rhodes

The traffic is brisk at Avail Vapor, an e-vapor store on West Cary Street in Richmond.

It’s a scene repeated across Virginia and the nation, where e-vapor stores are springing up as a new retail model.

James Xu, an Avail founder, is trying to develop Avail Vapor into a multimillion dollar business. The Cary Street store, which opened last August, was his first location.

By March, he had seven stores across the state, from Virginia Beach to Blacksburg. But he says that’s just the beginning. “We’re going to 16 more within the next 60 days. Then, have at least 60 stores by the end of the year,” Xu says.

He says investors who want to get into the e-vapor business are showing up daily but adds the company can go a long way on the capital it has.

Xu comes from an entrepreneurial background. His family’s business, Richmond-based Evergreen Enterprises, employs 800 people in Virginia. Evergreen makes and distributes a wide variety of products and accessories for gift shops and national chains.  It bought Virginia-based Plow & Hearth in 2010.

So far, most of Xu’s Avail Vapor customers are smokers looking to quit. He says some will dispose of cigarette packs when they come in the store, and others will even stomp on them as a gesture of disgust.

“Almost every single one of our customers is a smoker looking for an alternative,” he says. “We do have every once in a while some young college kids who come here, because they want to look cool.”

Xu says the company has a policy to not sell e-vapor products to anyone under the age of 18. That policy is in line with proposed Food and Drug Administration regulation that would ban sales of electronic cigarettes to minors.

The store sells e-vapor products in a wide range of flavorings ranging from “Belgian Waffles” to “Crispy Pops,” as well as traditional tobacco flavors.

The nicotine content ranges from zero to 2.4 percent of the vapor liquid, and customers can choose from e-vapor models ranging in size from 3 inches to 18 inches. There are even e-vapor pipes.

Like Altria, Xu says his company would embrace FDA regulation. The agency announced its first proposed regulations in late April.

“You might think it’s funny that we welcome regulation,” Xu says. “But without regulation, you’re without a rulebook. And certain bad seeds could ruin the whole industry.”

With more entrepreneurs entering the e-cigarette industry every day, Xu believes that the big players will be the ones that survive.

“So, it is a race — with ourselves — to become a national brand,” Xu says.

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