December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Virtual smoke signals

Lit up by a reputation for customer service, Famous Smoke Shop maintains strong links with its online clientele.

Among its personalization features, the Web site allows smokers to set up virtual humidors, says Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group in Stamford, Conn., noting that certain cigars are hard to come by. The site then e-mails customers when their favorites are in stock.

A family cigar business, Famous Smoke traces its roots back to 1939, but until four years ago, the only surfing that owner Arthur Zaretsky did was at the beach. Yet Zaretsky’s first online encounter made him an instant convert, leading him to launch the Web site and devote several staffers to its operation.

No flashy graphics here. Famous-Smoke.com is spare by design: “A cigar doesn’t come across very well on a Web site,” says Zaretsky, who prefers to focus on function rather than form, integrating the Web store into back-office operations. Other sites may sell single cigars, but not necessarily on a real-time inventory basis.

The retailer takes pride in staying close to customers. A weekly e-mail-combination newsletter and promotion-is available to those who want it. And a single phone call may generate a change to the Web site, such as adding a search button to the bottom of the home page. Customers are encouraged to rate cigars they’ve smoked and post comments. Cigar smokers like to talk about the products they’re putting in their mouths, says Zaretsky.

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