SAN DIEGO -- Ethnic produce is going mainstream, and retailers must be prepared to guide traditional customers right to the product, or face the consequences of a missed opportunity, said a panel of retailers and suppliers at the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association's annual convention here.
And there is still plenty of room in promoting consumption among ethnic consumers themselves, they added.
According to Ed Ferguson, urban administrator of merchandising and community relations for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, the primary method of accomplishing this is to dispel the notion that ethnic products are only for certain customers.
Instead, he advocated a strategy that markets products under their most appealing attributes. In the case of certain greens, for example, Schnuck uses the term "Southern-style cooking" to merchandise such items as collard greens and various types of cabbage. He believes that this type of approach helps erase the ethnic boundaries that may keep customers from trying the item.
"People who have traveled all over the country, and the world, want items like greens, fatback, skins -- things that they season with and cook with, but in some areas are afraid to ask for," explained Ferguson. "We want to be open with who we're marketing to."
Ferguson said that sales of ethnic produce have been especially good in Schnuck's recently opened superstore in St. Louis.
"What we've done is an extensive study on how [it] moves in our stores," said Ferguson, which he noted allows for better product distribution. "With the age of computers and the way things sell now, we are able to track how many sweet potatoes, how many greens, how many chitlins."
According to Karen Caplan, president of Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda's Inc., a specialty produce company, retailers can attract mainstream customers to ethnic produce by gearing advertisements toward all segments of the consumer base.
"When you're looking to develop a market for ethnic foods, or want to market an ethnic food, be sure you think outside the conventional box of just selling to that [ethnic] group," said Caplan. "Realize that cross-ethnic marketing is an excellent vehicle for increasing demand and consumption of ethnic foods."
She observed that people are becoming more adventurous in their willingness to experiment with food products, including produce.
"All consumers want to try new foods, or at least foods that are new to them," she said. For example, she cited her company's success in getting retailers to sell a tofu product that today reaches a diverse number of consumers.
At first, she said, tofu was looked at as traditional Japanese food and a "mainstay of Asia," and not a big hit among retailers. She said that retailers didn't believe they could market beyond the obvious ethnic parameters.
"It took us years to convince our retail customers that they could sell it in their stores for the non-Asian consumer shoppers, based on nutrition," said Caplan. "Never underestimate how much cross-ethnic marketing you can do, no matter where the food originated from, or who it is most popular with currently."
Even though there is a greater emphasis on bringing the average American consumer closer to the ethnic produce case, others believe that there's still plenty of opportunity left in increasing consumption among ethnic consumers themselves.
According to Enrique Figueroa, an administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, the buying power of Latino and African-American consumers will continue to mature in the coming years.
A supplier that has realized the growing demand for ethnic products is Glory Foods.
According to its president, C. A. Houston, his company is planning to add a number of new, fresh green products to its fresh line by this spring. He said that the rollout is due to the fact that the No. 1 selling item among ethnic consumers continues to be greens.