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Bilingual messaging can be an attractive sales driver.

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Retailers should pay close attention to the needs of multicultural customers

A rapidly expanding multicultural population within the U.S. is having a powerful impact on merchandising in supermarket fresh departments.

Retailers must understand, and rapidly respond to, the interests of evolving multicultural shopper bases, analysts said. Operators that provide attractive fresh global options —including the meats, seafood and other fresh foods integral to many recipes favored by Hispanics, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other demographic groups — will benefit from the segments’ more potent buying power. 

“The U.S. has changed dramatically in the last 20 years and is becoming a multicultural country,” said David Morse, director of research for OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based market research firm, and author of the book “Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-Or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation.” 

“If a marketer, merchandiser or retailer does not have their eye on the multicultural market, they do it at their own peril, as they are going to lose big time,” Morse said. 

Retailers can also boost activity from mainstream shoppers by marketing the appropriate fresh global foods, said Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing LLC, a Gurnee, Ill.-based retail consultancy, who has experience managing ethnic merchandising in supermarkets. 

With more consumers becoming familiar with global foods from their travels and by watching television cooking shows, there is a greater demand for ethnic selections from the population at large, he said.

“Hispanic and Mexican foods have been embraced as part of the mainstream and individuals are looking for a more authentic eating experience,” Wisner said. 

It is essential, he says, that retailers learn the demographics of the nearby neighborhoods and the needs of shoppers if they are to offer selections that resonate.  

One way of doing this? Operators can obtain data on consumer preferences from their suppliers, distributors, and meat purveyors, while also studying purchase scan data.

“Supermarket companies should not make a centralized decision on the global foods they will offer based on generalities about their stores,” Wisner said. “Food interests have become widely diversified.”

Talking regularly with shoppers is vital as well, and such conversations should be ongoing, said Morse. 

“Immigrant populations are very dynamic and change very quickly,” he said. “What worked five years ago may not work now.”

Global food preferences, meanwhile, can vary by the shopper’s home country, Wisner said. “People from Mexico have different interests from those in Central America, Puerto Rico, Venezuela or Peru,” he said.

Jose DeJesus, senior director of multicultural marketing for the Des Moines-based National Pork Board, agrees. 

“If you deploy strategies that you think will appeal to Hispanics or Asians, you’ll likely fail,” he said. “These aren’t one-size-fits-all categories.” 

For instance, he says, within the deli — the needs of a Vietnamese shopper can differ from those of a Thai customer.

“They want the pig cut differently and [they want] different produce to go with the protein,” DeJesus said. “Identifying the specific ethnic groups within your store’s radius will help you make better store-level decisions and attract these consumers.”

Strong customer service is critical too, and that includes having bilingual butchers and other fresh department associates who can be trained on shopper preferences. 

“It creates a personalized experience that makes them feel at home,” DeJesus said. “Customers will reward you with both their dollars and loyalty if you can give shoppers from different cultures the products they’re looking for; staff they can relate to and trust; and a welcoming environment for their entire family.”

Bilingual signage also can be an effective sales driver, as it demonstrates to second- or third-generation consumers that the retailer cares about the community and is taking steps to cater to their parents and others whose first language might not be English, Morse said. 

In addition, because authenticity is “hugely important” with multicultural shoppers, Wisner said retailers should spotlight a product’s country of origin while also situating global foods, such as specific types of pork and beef, beside traditional alternatives in the case.

“You will get a lot more people trading up for the imported selections if they don’t have to visit a different area for the products,” he said.

Yet, despite the strong revenue opportunities from focusing on multicultural merchandising, rampant inflation remains a major obstacle to enhancing global food sales, Morse said. 

“Anything fresh is expensive and many multicultural communities are struggling financially,” he said, adding that merchandisers should seek out more economical alternatives. “Retailers want to make sure they are sourcing effectively, which might require working with new suppliers.”

Among the active retailers is PCC Community Markets, a Seattle-based chain of 16 area stores, which offers fresh global deli alternatives like Banh Mi sandwiches, hot and ready coconut rice, Thai steak salad, and curried coconut lentil soup, said Justine Johnson, senior director of merchandising. 

While the retailer also works to carry fresh proteins for every cuisine in its meat and seafood departments, including the appropriate beef, pork, lamb, chicken, salmon, halibut, crab, and shrimp, she indicated that satisfying all tastes can be difficult. 

“PCC focuses on fresh and local to the Pacific Northwest, which sometimes makes it tough to balance with global foods sought by multicultural shoppers,” Johnson said.

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