February 11, 2014 at 11:11 am

Years before CVS stubbed out cigarettes, Hiller's grocery chain did the same

Jim Hiller says cigarettes were worth $250,000 a year to Hiller's, his chain of mostly mid-sized grocery stores in suburban Detroit. He still wishes he'd taken them off shelves sooner than he did in 2008. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Jim Hiller is pointing to the racks that used to hold cigarettes until he booted them out of his supermarkets.

Business-wise, he says now, “It was one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever made.”

He just wishes he’d done it sooner — and he’s never regretted it for a second.

CVS Caremark, which operates more than 7,600 CVS drugstores, announced last week that it’s phasing out the sale of tobacco products. Among those publicly leading cheers was President Barack Obama.

When Hiller’s Markets swept cigarettes off the shelves in late 2008, Hiller got mostly nasty emails. Laughing, he says he even received one threat:

“My CFO threatened to have me killed.”

Cigarettes were worth $250,000 a year to Hiller’s, a chain of seven mostly mid-sized grocery stores in suburban Detroit. Beyond that, there was the money he lost from customers who opted to buy their carrots at the same place they bought their carcinogens.

“I didn’t even want to look at the impact,” he says. So he didn’t. Instead, he thought about the reasons he let that kind of money go up in smoke:

The three friends who died that year of cancer.

A right-wing, tobacco hater

A lot of the blowback involved people calling him a typical nanny-state liberal.

That amused him, because “I am a gun-carrying, right-wing, crazy conservative.”

One of his conservative compadres even told him, “You have deserted us. Next thing you know, you’ll stop selling bullets.” Which was also a joke: he doesn’t stock bullets, though he does sell bouillon.

But the reality, he concedes, is that dumping Dorals was philosophically incongruous. “My job is primarily to let the customers decide what they want.”

He made an exception for cigarettes because “if something does you no good at all, I have every right not to sell it.”

Yes, he sells alcohol and lottery tickets. As with CVS, he’s been accused of hypocrisy, or at least selective outrage.

As he points out, though, a little wine can be good for you, even if he’s not quite ready to stock it in the health food aisle. In moderation, beer is reasonably harmless.

“If I were to take the extreme view,” says Hiller, 66, he could cut his store down to about 100 feet of shelves. No cookies, no candy, no Coke. “I’d have a store that sells nothing but kale.”

He zeroed in on cigarettes because “there’s not one (darn) thing they do that’s positive.”

And he should know. Sometimes he dreams that he’s still a smoker.

Former fan turns a corner

Hiller grew up in a time when famous athletes endorsed cigarettes. He remembers tobacco companies sending attractive women to offer small sample packs outside his Detroit high school.

He was a Marlboro man when he graduated from University of Detroit law school, but he quit shortly afterward in a joint campaign with his cigar-smoking dad and cigarette-smoking mother.

His mom would bring him large suckers as a substitute, which couldn’t have filled his clients with confidence, but helped him make a bold statement decades later.

At his West Bloomfield store, sweets occupy the rack along a checkout aisle that used to hold Salems: clear plastic boxes of whole pitted dates, black licorice bites, Mango Tango Mix.

They’re less likely to prompt an impulse buy, and also less likely to kill his customers.

One note he remembers receiving in 2008 came from a woman whose mom, a dedicated smoker, had just lost a struggle with lung cancer. “I sure wish someone had done what you did 30 years ago,” she said.

That made more of an impact, Hiller says, than the $250,000 he has forfeited every year.

Maybe CVS Caremark will get some reassuring notes, too. It’s giving up $2 billion.

Or a bit less than that. Hiller says CVS just became his pharmacy.

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