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Retailers are courting Hispanic shoppers with in-store demonstrations, parking lot parties, charitable events and even religious shrines. Whether conducted by bilingual store associates or third-party merchandisers, the events are being hosted by conventional chains and their Hispanic-format counterparts to attract members of the fastest-growing U.S. minority group. When we do an in-store event, we

Retailers are courting Hispanic shoppers with in-store demonstrations, parking lot parties, charitable events and even religious shrines.

Whether conducted by bilingual store associates or third-party merchandisers, the events are being hosted by conventional chains and their Hispanic-format counterparts to attract members of the fastest-growing U.S. minority group.

“When we do an in-store event, we want [Hispanic] shoppers to see that we carry the products they want and that we have store associates who are just like them who can answer any of their questions in Spanish,” said Bill MacAloney, chairman and chief executive officer at three-store Jax Markets, Anaheim, Calif. “We want to show them that if they aren't already shopping our stores every day, they should be.”

Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets also holds Latino-themed events at its two Sabor Hispanic-format stores, located in Hialeah and Kissimmee, Fla., as well as in most of the chain's traditional stores, said spokeswoman Maria Brous. Its in-store events are customized locally by division or store managers who understand their local customer base, she noted.

“Retailers see the power of integrating themselves into local communities and being go-to locations for community needs and participating in community events,” said Jon Hauptman, vice president of Barrington, Ill.-based Willard Bishop.

With that goal in mind, many chains are raising money for local ethnic charities.

Publix, which has plans to open two more Sabor supermarkets in south Florida, raises money for various Hispanic-oriented charities, including the La Liga cancer treatment center. Many of the company's bilingual store associates also volunteer to answer phones during fund-raising telethons.

Last fall, Carlos Camacho, owner of Littleton, Colo.-based Camacho Brokerage & Consulting, helped Nash Finch's three Denver-based Hispanic-format Avanza stores and one Nash Finch Wholesale Food Outlet to partner with selected vendors to donate $32,000 worth of food items to Catholic Charities.

The donation ceremony was staged in the front of an Avanza Supermarket and included an open market and live entertainment. Several thousand people participated in the celebration.

Avanza received a mural of the Virgin Mary signed by the late Pope John Paul II as an unexpected token of appreciation for its efforts. The mural is the centerpiece of a shrine erected in one Avanza store, according to Camacho, who said it draws quite a bit of traffic.

“People come in to see it and light candles. It's quite emotional,” he said. “The stores don't attempt to capitalize on or exploit the religious attachment of these customers. The customers bring the emotional attachment with them and shop the stores when they feel comfortable.”

Although most retailers partner with their vendors to subsidize in-store events, some also foot the bill themselves.

On Feb. 17, Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores will help enroll low-income Hispanic families in a state-sponsored insurance program in 14 of its 23 Latino-themed Carnival stores. These stores accept food stamps.

“We're reaching out to the needs and wants of customers in our neighborhood,” said Poul Heilmann, Minyard's senior vice president of marketing and strategic planning.

In addition to community service events, some of the biggest in-store events targeting Hispanics focus on dramatic giveaways.

In partnership with Pepsi last year, Carnival heavily promoted its “win a house” sweepstakes, which targeted Latino shoppers.

Among its many events, Jax Markets most recently gave away a $250 shopping spree in partnership with Nestlé, and a washer and dryer in partnership with Guerrero, a leading tortilla brand produced by Denver-based Mission Foods.

“As customers come in to sign up for a sweepstakes, we are able to give them the benefits of a nice variety of products at good prices,” MacAloney said. “It works out very well for us.”

Dee Harriman, senior business development manager for Cerritos, Calif.-based Mass Connections, which specializes in managing retail events, has helped Stater Bros., Colton, Calif., coordinate a variety of special events, including an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration in the parking lot of its Rialto, Calif., store, which serves a large population of Latino consumers.

Mass Connections will bring in Mexican bands and folk dancers, and helps coordinate a variety of games and prizes.

“The goal is to reward existing customers that constantly shop the store and to draw in new clients,” Harriman said. “We make it a family event so parents can bring their kids.”

In-store events wouldn't be nearly as effective if store associates couldn't speak Spanish and if signage and fliers weren't printed in both languages.

At Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, management strives to hire bilingual employees and to carry an appropriate product mix for each neighborhood, according to spokesman Jeff Lowrance.

Food Lion distributes Spanish as well as English-language fliers to approximately 300 stores that serve neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Latino shoppers.

“Our Hispanic customers tell us that they like having both fliers to refer to,” Lowrance said.

Kroger is responding to the needs of Hispanic shoppers by recruiting more Latinos to work as store associates.

“Having associates that look like [and can speak with] our customers may make the difference for them,” Della Wall, Kroger's group vice president of human resources, said at the Grocery Manufacturers Association's Merchandising, Sales and Marketing conference in September. “Hispanic employees can also provide product insights overlooked by the retailer.”

Publix Sabor staffs its stores with bilingual associates, uses bilingual signage and frequently hosts in-store demonstrations featuring assorted coffees, crackers and Publix private-label products. A few dozen of its company-brand products are Hispanic items. Publix also distributes its Aprons Simple meal recipe cards in both English and Spanish.

Geri Duran, owner of Aurora, Colo.-based Duran's Demo Works, which provides merchandising and bilingual demonstrations and event services to retailers in Denver and northern Colorado, said there is a growing trend toward staging more events in the parking lots of retail supermarkets, particularly around holidays, store anniversaries and grand openings.

Most of these events feature Latino-focused items such as Goya canned and packaged goods, Guerrero and Mission Foods tortillas, Gamesa Mexican cookies, Jarritos Mexican soda, Parade condiments and paper goods, and El Dorado coffee, as well as international brands like Nestlé's La Lechera sweetened condensed milk and Nestlé's Abuelita Mexican chocolates. American brands that are popular with Hispanic consumers, such as Nescafé, Frito-Lay, Pepsi, Mazola, Dial, Palmolive, Lipton, Tide and Mott's Clamato, are also featured.

Demonstrations also provide opportunities for introducing Hispanic shoppers who are not yet familiar with American foods to products not often used in their native countries. During some events, for instance, demonstrators have shown Hispanic shoppers how to cook potatoes, said Veronica Kraushaar, president and founder of Nogales, Ariz.-based Viva Marketing Strategies.

“We've given them recipes and information on potato varieties that they might not be familiar with, and we've given coloring books to kids about the potato,” Kraushaar said. “It depends on the chain and the event, but we can get anywhere from 200 to 1,000 people to come out to a store and have a fiesta.”

Marcela Gomez, founder of Nashville, Tenn.-based Diversity Brands, cautions, however, that a store-level event “always needs to be backed up by the store being able to stock the products that consumers in that market want.

“If the product is not there to back up that event, consumers will probably not come back,” she said. “An event is never just about the decoration or the sampling, but about the substance and the context of the store. The consumer needs to know that every day the products and prices that she wants will be there for her.”

Even as they focus on Latino shoppers in their stores, supermarket chain operators are careful to balance their product mix, advertising in-store services that appeal to all ethnic groups.

“We try to ensure that we are merchandising, promoting and offering the products and services that satisfy all the ethnic cultures that make up a neighborhood,” said Heilmann. “Our focus is to be representative of the neighborhood with each store, and to have store associates who come from the neighborhood and who can speak Spanish as well as English.”

In the end, one of the greatest benefits of staging in-store events, particularly those built around community-service programs, MacAloney stressed, “is making friends in the neighborhood, because they know that you're trying to give back to them.”