Writer | Ghostwriter

A Dangerous Display

May 5, 2014

Tags: cigarettes, tobacco products, corporate responsibility, Wawa, mini-marts, public health, tobacco marketing

I love Wawa. If you live outside the Mid-Atlantic region or a few towns in Florida, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Wawa is a chain of mini-marts, not the usual candidate for strong, positive feelings. Over 50 years, the company has built customer devotion in the Philadelphia area and is expanding beyond. Yet it is taking a marketing step that's disturbing from a public health standpoint and at odds with the image it built over decades. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Many things set Wawa apart from its grim counterparts like 7-Eleven. Wawa, which started life on a country dairy farm, specializes in freshness: built-to-order hoagies and sandwiches, hot foods including breakfast, an array of coffees always ready, milk and other things I would never in a million years buy at, or consume from, a 7-Eleven or gas station mini-mart. Philadelphians, who have a wide choice of places to find great hoagies, often grab a Wawa hoagie to take to a ballgame or on a road trip. You can also get fresh fruit, yogurt and salads. The stores are clean, the staff is friendly and the food is decent, fresh and affordable.

Wawa also sells cigarettes and other tobacco products. This is not surprising; most stores have signs promoting brands. But when you walk into a Wawa, the cigarettes usually are not visible—they are kept above the cashiers’ stations in display overhangs. Customers wanting cigarettes ask for them and the cashier reaches up to get what’s needed. It would be great if Wawa stopped selling tobacco products entirely, as CVS did, but that is unlikely anytime soon.

Now it appears that Wawa is taking a giant step backwards – for its corporate image as well as customers’ well-being. New Wawa stores, often built with gas pump bays, have an interior design that includes a huge, open display of hundreds of brightly-colored cigarette packs stacked on a large wall, visually commanding the entire check-out area.

The wall of cigarettes is mesmerizing. Research has proven the power of visual messages about tobacco products in causing children to start smoking at a young age and encouraging adults to continue – that’s why in the U.S. we no longer have TV ads for cigarettes. It’s inexplicable why Wawa would add such a design element. This is 2014, not 1964, and we know that promoting cigarettes causes more deaths.

A very pleasant Wawa customer service rep responded to my inquiry by saying that the new layout is part of an effort to “stay competitive so that we can continue to serve our loyal customers for years to come.”

Competitive with…truck stops, maybe? Using a powerful marketing technique to sell products that =only= cause health destruction does not support Wawa’s corporate culture and its avowed commitment to its communities.

Of course, the company will gain more revenue from cigarette sales in stores with the new displays, but the question for corporate management from a loyal customer is simple: “Is this the right thing for Wawa to do?”


  1. May 6, 2014 12:26 PM EDT
    It is good to see you using this platform to promote your ideals. You say what many think but don't take the time, or have the courage, to say. Smoking kills. Unlike the research on salt, fat, and wheat, the research on smoking is uncontested. Keep it up. We need people like you to remind the rest of us, including the businesses that serve us, about these important health issues.

    - Peggy Salvatore
  2. May 6, 2014 6:36 PM EDT
    Powerful and eloquent. So, the rep.stated the display was to stay competitive and with the loyal customers. Unfortunately, many of the loyal customers are dead or dying and the colorful display geared towards children is to garner and addict new "loyal" customers. Are the pretty pictures because they don't read yet. Smoking is cool again?
    - Paula Koltnow
  3. May 8, 2014 11:01 AM EDT
    Thanks for your comments! Smoking is still being marketed as cool to kids and young adults (the new "Be Marlboro" campaign is evidence of that) and this visual display reinforces that appeal. Very discouraging that Wawa wants to go back to a time when increasing and keeping customers for tobacco products was the only corporate consideration.
    - Robin Warshaw
  4. November 11, 2015 1:09 AM EST
    thank you for trying! i would love to see wawa stop selling cigarettes. i just happened to come across this article and am happy someone else was trying to convince them..i know its a year later but don't give up!
    - g.o