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Asians constitute one of the fastest-growing ethnic segments in the United States today, and retailers with strong produce programs are finding a whole new category to promote. Merchandised correctly, items used in the diets of the Far East can not only provide a taste of home for members of this group, but also attract mainstream American shoppers looking for the exotic.Population concentrations

Asians constitute one of the fastest-growing ethnic segments in the United States today, and retailers with strong produce programs are finding a whole new category to promote. Merchandised correctly, items used in the diets of the Far East can not only provide a taste of home for members of this group, but also attract mainstream American shoppers looking for the exotic.

Population concentrations position the East and West coasts as regions with the strongest effects. However, mid-American operators are preparing to incorporate Asian items into the produce racks, retailers told SN.

Despite this growth, retailers report that sweeping ethnic marketing programs in the produce departments chainwide may not be the right answer. Instead they suggested that these special items be incorporated into the product mix in the units where the population can support sales.

Food Emporium, a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J., operates a unit in predominantly Asian Fort Lee, N.J. There, the produce department includes a 12-foot specialty section boasting more than 20 varieties of Asian items. It is part of the chain's conventional produce department format, in an effort to reduce the consumer's need to shop in alternative outlets.

"We want to be the one-stop shopping store," said Jeff Piering, director of produce merchandising. "We want to have all the items available for our customers to buy. That is important to us. The Asian population is growing and it is an uncaptured market."

Salvaggio Fruit & Vegetable has also seen a shift in population that has affected the three-unit, Detroit-area operator's merchandising style. With over one-third of the customer base Asian, a separate section was created that now occupies 30 to 40 feet within the operator's produce department, said Dave Careu, produce manager.

"The key is that you have to handle these [Asian specialties] just like any other produce item," he said. "They have the same handling characteristics, availability and seasonality issues as other produce items. The difference is with operator commitment. Some [retailers] put them in the back seat and that just won't work."

Tops Friendly Markets, Buffalo, N.Y., is another operator that has felt the effect of shifting population trends creating a need to remerchandise the produce department.

"We have a lot of Asians and Indians in our customer base," said Earl Rosenquist, manager of store No. 60 in Erie, Pa. "We have made changes to the assortment and mix of products, not only in our produce department, but throughout the store to meet the customer's needs."

Retailers interviewed by SN agreed that the product mix should include items beyond Chinese and Japanese cuisine. Meals from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and the Philippines rely on fresh fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs that can all contribute to the bottom line.

But, this is where retailers can get bogged down, industry experts caution. Population analysts say that there are upwards of 29 distinct groups and subgroups that make up the Asian market, with no common language or culture.

Filipinos are perhaps the largest and arguably the best-assimilated Asian-American groups, they said. Chinese are divided into two groups -- American-born who are quite assimilated, and recent immigrants who tend to be conservative. American-born Japanese consumers tend to live in California, while foreign-born populations are clustered in the New York area. Korean population clusters are generally found in large metro areas.

Vietnamese are perhaps the fastest-growing Asian group, with one-third of that population living in California, according to the experts. Asian Indians, often highly educated professionals, are not as geographically clustered as other groups, proving to be a moving target for marketers.

Asians, not unlike other ethnic populations, are not comfortable with obtaining information from English-only sources. Asian communities can be very insulated. Employing the local Asian-language newspapers, radio or a community official is sometimes needed to penetrate the ethnic barriers and to develop word-of-mouth recommendations. Group acceptance of a product or service will often be an essential forerunner of acceptance by the marketplace, said observers.

While Asians do the majority of business with other Asian businesses, making an effort to appeal to their needs is welcomed. Advertising in Asian media, having a good hiring record of Asians, serving in the Asian community or having an influential contact to promote the stores are all good ways to penetrate the complex market.

Produce executives agree that a display of Asian vegetables does not an Asian-marketed store make. Most units with strong sales of Asian produce specialties include a total complement of Asian grocery items, including rice, noodles and spices in addition to ethnic specialty items in an effort to cater to the needs of targeted demographic groups.

Some chains use their Asian vegetable section as a springboard to cross merchandise bulk rice and other staples. This can be accomplished by merchandising dry grocery items in the produce department.

Food Emporium has realized the overall potential of the Asian market, by intermixing Asian items across all departments including dry grocery and frozens, according to Piering.

The Asian-produce section at Food Emporium's Fort Lee unit is located adjacent to displays of value-added items and mushrooms to spur cross-cultural purchases. Piering said this helps American shoppers sample Asian-produce items.

"We hope to introduce all our customers to Asian foods and to try them," he said. This cross-ethnic marketing focus is being deepened as Food Emporium presents smaller sections of the Asian set in the chain's Westchester County and Manhattan units.

During the recent Chinese New Year, Tops created a display to draw the attention of non-Asian customers to its already extensive Asian offerings. Asian products were grouped in a 6-foot section with a ceramic Buddha, a teapot and other festive elements that added an unusual eye break to the display.

"The display was up for two weeks," said Rosenquist. "During that time we did see good lift of our Asian-produce items."

Green IGA Supercenter, Green, Ohio, also sought to take advantage of the Americanized Chinese New Year celebration by creating a central display to draw non-Asian customers' attention to the availability of products. The operator used a portable rack with an ice inset to create the display in the center of the produce department.

"The display did do well," said Pam Nicholas, produce manager. Packaged carrots and tofu items along with bulk snow peas and ginger root were included on the display. "The display brought our customers' attention to the fact that we do offer Asian food. Sales did increase."

During non-promotion times, Green IGA groups most of the Asian produce items -- including stir-fry items and won ton wrappers -- in a separate section. Other Asian ingredients that require wet rack display, such as Napa cabbage and celery, are positioned with more traditional items.