MINNEAPOLIS -- Imagine walking into a store where the world revolves around tobacco.
In addition to domestic, imported, natural and herbal cigarettes, the store has a humidor filled with fine cigars, an assortment of pipes and bags of tobacco. It sells cigar magazines and a wide selection of smoking accessories -- from lighters and ashtrays to poker chips and playing cards. For smokers who want to kick the habit, nicotine patches are offered.
Customers can relax on couches and wing-back chairs, sipping gourmet coffees. It's a smoker's fantasyland -- and it's all inside a conventional supermarket. Welcome to Nash Finch Co.'s Tobacco Row.
The self-contained smoke shops are one of the most creative and profitable retail responses to the government's crackdown on tobacco sales in an attempt to discourage underage smoking.
Since opening its first Tobacco Row one year ago, Nash Finch here, the third-largest wholesaler in the country, has quickly expanded the program. At present, the company has 10 departments, including two freestanding stores.
Each Tobacco Row is profitable, said Randy Jaeger, director of corporate retail merchandising for Nash Finch, which owns 102 stores under the names Econo Foods, Sun Mart Foods, Easter's and Wholesale Food Outlet.
"Response has been positive from both smokers and nonsmokers," Jaeger said.
The company plans to add a number of Tobacco Row stores by the end of the year and is looking at opening additional freestanding smoke shops.
Nash Finch came up with the idea for Tobacco Row with the help of retail consultant Howard Laughter of Hickory, N.C. In many cases, the smoke shops replace 400- to 600-square-foot video departments, which had been underperforming. They are separated from the rest of the store by walls.
At Tobacco Row, customers must be 18 years old or older to enter. Once inside, the store caters to all of the smokers' needs.
"We provide an environment that shows we care about people who smoke," Jaeger said. "A quarter of all people do smoke and we should be able to take care of them in a way that doesn't offend the other people within the store. By having it segregated, we've been able to accomplish that."
Laughter estimates that smoke shops will control 50% of the retail market within the next five years.
At Tobacco Row, customers are greeted at the door and informed about that day's promotions. The salespeople are experts on tobacco products.
The company's freestanding Tobacco Row store in Minot, N.D., sells hand-rolled Brazilian and Honduran cigars for as much as $15 each. The store, one of three Tobacco Row stores in Minot, features a 9-foot by 16-foot humidor.