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Cigarette stores provide a sanctuary for smokers

June 13, 1997

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ The sign on the door of Aggie Cavender’s store says it all: ``Smoking permitted. Enjoy!″

The windows of her shop _ The Cigarette Store _ are covered with posters for Marlboro, Kool and Camels. The walls inside are lined with display cases stacked high with neat piles of cigarette cartons. A bin near the counter contains a glistening heap of green packs of Newports.

Ms. Cavender’s store is one of the newest and fastest growing trends in cigarette retailing _ shops that stock virtually nothing but tobacco products. The stores cater to the often shunned 24 percent of Americans who smoke, offering them low prices and a friendly shopping atmosphere.

``They feel much more at ease here, especially since there’s so much going on with the tobacco industry,″ said Ms. Cavender, who quit smoking a few years ago but still enjoys occasionally puffing on a cigar. ``It’s like a little support store I guess.″

Low prices are the biggest draw. The Cigarette Store sells a carton of Marlboros for $11.15. The supermarket three doors down sells the same carton for $13.75. Instead of charging high prices, the store has razor-thin margins with high volume.

``I like the prices,″ said Aida Gregory of Richmond as she waited in line at the store. ``My husband works for (tobacco giant) Philip Morris so we don’t go anywhere they’re anti-smoking.″

Stores such as The Cigarette Store are becoming more common. Richmond, a historic center of the tobacco industry where Philip Morris operates the world’s largest cigarette plant, has had cigarette stores for the last couple of years.

``We have been in business for 15 to 16 months now and it’s constantly growing,″ said Farooq Anwar, owner of Cigarettes and More.

Some of the of the earliest examples of cigarette-only retailers sprang up in California.

The Cigarette Store Inc., a Modesto, Calif.-based chain of 25 stores that is not linked to Ms. Cavender’s store, opened its first cigarette store 16 years ago.

``Price gets them in the door and selection and smoker friendliness keeps them,″ said Dave Pope, the company’s vice president. ``Otherwise in grocery stores the cigarettes are locked up and the bag boy has to get them and everyone knows you’re a smoker. In our store they know they’re not going to be judged.″

Most of the market is fragmented into small chains of five or six stores or single shops like Ms. Cavender’s. The exception is Benicia, Calif.-based Cigarettes Cheaper!, which owns 395 stores.

The company got into the business in 1994. It is opening three to four new stores a week and hopes to have 2,000 stores by 2000. The chain has spread as far east as Indiana and is taking aim at the East Coast. Its first beachhead will be in tobacco-friendly Winston-Salem, N.C.

``We’re going to go where people need cigarettes, where there’s an adverse environment for smokers _ which I think is all the major metropolitan areas,″ said Ned Roscoe, son of the company’s owner.

Most analysts studying the tobacco industry don’t know much about the fast-growing market niche, but Roscoe estimated that there were about 1,300 stores such as his around the country as of last year.

Many of the people jumping into the market are spurred on by the increasing pressure by anti-smokers and regulators on the tobacco industry.

``We figured there would be a day when it’s going to be regulated and the people who are going to be hurting are the grocery stores,″ said Mike Negron, manager at Cigarettes Unlimited, a chain with three stores in Richmond and Ashland.

If the government ever clamps down on tobacco marketing and sales, cigarette stores would be in a very good position. The only reason to go into a cigarette store is to buy cigarettes, which makes it is easier to screen out minors. The stores also remove cigarettes from the sight of nonsmokers.

``We think our growth prospects are excellent,″ said John Roscoe, owner of Cigarettes Cheaper. ``We think we’re going to play a big part in the way cigarettes are sold. ... We accomplish everything the anti-tobacco forces would want. We don’t sell to minors, we don’t advertise to minors, we sell to adults.″

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