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Retail View: When marketing to Hispanics, one size does not fit all

At a recent produce event, Alfonso Cano, a produce executive with the mid-sized Southern California-based Northgate Markets chain, said his firm has to walk a fine line between “being too white for their Mexican customers and too Mexican for their white customers.”

Contacted after the Fresh Produce & Floral Council luncheon at which he spoke as part of a retail panel, Cano clarified the comment as largely being a battle between appealing to first-generation Hispanics and their second- and third-generation children and grandchildren who were born in the United Sates and are as Americanized as their second- and third-generation neighbors of European or Asian descent.

Cano said that in the Southern California market in which Northgate operates and excels, the main Hispanic customers are Mexican and include several generations with the elders being born in Mexico and their offspring products of a California upbringing, for the most part.

“My parents’ generation likes the loud store that smells like the mercados they are used to in Mexico, but the younger generation — my generation — wants the store to look like any grocery store they would go into, whether it be Safeway, Whole Foods or Northgate.”

He said Northgate started as an ethnic market more than 30 years ago, and at the time its appeal was that it was different than the conventional supermarket. The stores appealed to first-generation Mexicans looking for something that reminded them of home.

“We were loud and it smelled and it was less structured than a regular supermarket,” he said. “Our customers wanted to shop at an ethnic market.”

Today, for Northgate to continue to grow and gain market share, the appeal has to be broader than that first-generation Mexican. Cano said, “We are trying to attract both generations and we do worry about being ‘too ethnic.’”

In addition, Northgate has positioned itself in neighborhoods with broader demographics, and it also wants to appeal to a wide variety of ethnicities, including Anglos and Asians.

“It’s a paradigm shift, and for us to gain market share we have to offer all of the ethnic items as well as coconuts and Sprite and anything else a customer would find in a regular market,” he said.

Cano said Northgate is also changing the look and feel of its stores to attract multi-ethnic shoppers. “We always are going to remain true to our roots, but I told my produce guys that when they see an Anglo or an Asian in the store pay special attention. Go ask them if they need help. The Mexican shopper knows what they want and will be able to find it.”

In the beginning, Northgate was unabashed about putting all its signage in Spanish to appeal to these Mexican shoppers. Today, the signage and employees have to be bilingual. In fact, Cano said the firm is actually getting away from Spanish signage and using just English in some instances.

“When commodity groups offer me point-of-sale material, they assume I want it in Spanish, but I want it in English,” he said.

However, he noted that the chain still wants those Hispanic customers to feel comfortable and be able to get what they are looking for. For example, the piñata is still a mainstay at virtually all Hispanic supermarkets and Cano doesn’t expect that to change.

As a second-generation Mexican, Cano believes he is well-suited to understand the needs of that group. He said as immigrants and their children and grandchildren assimilate into U.S. culture, the first thing they lose is the language but the last thing they lose is the food traditions. Northgate seems to be striving to be the store where they can get those traditions, but presented in their native tongue, which is English.

Stephanie Bazan, market development director of Avocados From Mexico, the organization and commodity group largely credited with quadrupling the sales of avocados in the United States over the past 15 years, noted that “without a doubt Hispanics are fueling the population growth in the United States and are also affecting the economy as their spending power will increase from $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion by 2017,” she said. “As a group, Hispanics are gaining more education and earning more, and that will have implications in terms of purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to food decisions.”

The Mexican avocado is an interesting case study. Avocados are consumed in great numbers by Hispanics, which is the fastest-growing demographic in the United States.

“Whether they are from Mexico or another Latin American country, we know that as a whole [Hispanics] are all becoming more acculturated and consequently live in two worlds, thus they are more bicultural,” said Bazan. “This has implications for the avocado category as the consumer who acculturates tends to consume fewer avocados vs. the highly unacculturated consumers.”

She said marketing to a bi-cultural consumer has its challenges because you need to reach this group of second- and third-generation Hispanics across a broad spectrum of vehicles in both Spanish and English.

But over all, Hispanics remain the heaviest users of avocados. While AFM does tailor its marketing to various consumer sub-groups, Bazan said, “With Hispanics we try to connect with them emotionally especially the female head of household, or the Nueva Latina, who is more bi-cultural and represents the biggest opportunity among the Hispanic consumer base. We need to ensure she continues to infuse avocados into her cuisine and pass that tradition along to her family.”

When dealing with the general market, AFM has a more generic appeal. “It is more of a functional approach where we message on how avocados can help her lead to living a more full life,” she said.

Though Bazan understands Northgate’s dilemma about being “too white” or “too Mexican,” she does not believe this is an issue for Avocados From Mexico.

“Our appeal is extremely targeted so that it is more about knowing how to make what we call ‘Mexicanity’ relevant to each segment,” said Bazan. “With non-Hispanics, this Mexicanity is conveyed in a way that inspires our target to add a little extra flavor to the everyday and get the most out of her moments. Among Hispanics, ‘Mexicanity’ has a different angle and we tie it back to heritage and traditions in a way that allow her to connect to her kids and pass traditions along through Avocados from Mexico.”

Still another opinion on the subject came from Gustavo Arellano, a Southern California publisher and writer who pens a syndicated column called “Ask a Mexican.”

Arellano agreed that there are many different nationalities under the Hispanic umbrella, but for the most part what “we’re really talking about is Mexican and Mexican-American. With the exceptions of New York, New Jersey, Florida and select other markets, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make up the vast majority of the ‘Latino’ market across the United States. That said, it’s up to the vendor to know those differences because if you don’t, you can be burned easily.”

Even then, he said there are some themes that cut across almost all Hispanic groups: importance of family, importance of fresh produce and the enjoyment of cooking.

“As for generational differences,” he said, “the first generation is cooking the food of their homelands; the third generation only cooks ‘Latino’ for key dishes and for holidays; in almost all other ways, they’re like the typical American consumer. They’re American. You market hamburger and carne asada specials.”

Cano said that is where most conventional supermarkets miss the boat with their Mexican and Hispanic customers. They don’t know the holidays and they don’t understand that Mexicans celebrate a lot of them — and each one is an opportunity for more produce sales, which is the mainstay of most Mexican meals.

Arellano put it this way: “Any celebration, whether a holiday or familial party, is going to be 100 percent ethnic — and given all the people in our families, that’s at least every weekend.”