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Wegmans Phasing Out Tobacco

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 8, 2008

Speaking of Social Responsibility, Wegmans, which is so often a leader in the food industry, issued an announcement that it will no longer sell cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Wegmans to Stop Selling Cigarettes

Rochester, NY — It was announced today that beginning Sunday, February 10, cigarettes and other tobacco products will no longer be sold at Wegmans. Until February 10, only remaining inventory will be available for sale; no new product will be ordered.

Explaining the decision CEO Danny Wegman said simply, “As a company, we respect a person’s right to smoke, but we also understand the destructive role smoking plays in health.” Signs posted in stores notifying customers of the decision express a similar sentiment.

Jo Natale, Wegmans’ director of media relations, acknowledged that tobacco is a ‘very profitable category’ for the company but did not share specific numbers.

It is a somewhat problematic issue. Cigarettes are legal, and one function of a retailer is to serve its customers.

Wegmans may well lose a lot of business. Not so much the tobacco sales themselves which, though profitable, probably aren’t that large a share of sales, but customers who use tobacco products may choose to do all their food shopping elsewhere.

They may do this for reasons of convenience or they may take umbrage at Wegmans being a “Nanny Retailer” and, in a sense, criticizing their activity.

Maybe not, though. Smoking is so universally recognized as bad today that many smokers would like to quit and may see the new policy as helping nudge them in that direction.

Perhaps some families, liking the idea of their children not seeing cigarettes — although Wegmans moved them from the checkout to behind the service counter a long time ago — will prefer to shop at Wegmans, considering it a better place for the kids.

Of course, supermarkets sell many items that can be harmful — beer, wine, Twinkies, etc.

Cigarettes and tobacco are unique though in that they are the only product sold in the supermarket that — when used as intended — are harmful.

Nutritionists struggle with programs that rank food with stars that are all the rage now. Hannaford kicked this off as we pointed out here.

Nutritionists struggle with these kinds of programs because they violate the Prime Directive of Nutrition — there and no good or bad foods, only excessive consumption.

So an occasional beer or an occasional Twinkie will do no harm.

Is this simply the Wegmans family expressing its personal beliefs about what products they want to be a part of selling? What they want to have on their hands?

Is it an assertion of social responsibility? Of saying these products shouldn’t be sold?

Is it a clever business strategy, to make consumers think better of Wegmans as it takes moves that are uncommon in retailing?

We are not sure and wonder, intellectually, how the decision can cohere.

Does it mean that if the Wegmans think that organic meat is healthier — the store should stop selling non-organic?

The notion that a retailer will sell all legal items in its categories has a kind of intellectual coherence. Selecting out products not to sell based on value judgments, seems less cohesive as an idea.

Perhaps tobacco, uniquely harmful when used as intended, is a special case.

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