JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Foodmart International here is betting that its global assortment of fresh foods -- from bok choy to tanks brimming with live fish -- is what it needs to build up a loyal cadre of ethnic customers, while also attracting mainstream shoppers by introducing them to a wealth of unfamiliar products.
The 138,000-square-foot Foodmart offers shoppers a broad range of ethnically oriented fresh foods, especially produce, seafood and meat items.
In an interview with SN, president Lewis Wu said the assortment could be roughly segmented into Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian categories. However, the crucial positioning of International Foodmart is as a store that can meet authentic ethnic needs in fresh foods, without being exclusionary or inaccessible.
To make its global orientation clear to passersby, Foodmart's name is touted in big letters, on a blue and red banner, aptly wrapped around the image of a globe and placed prominently in the store's ample parking lot.
But inside is where the cultural diversity really kicks in.
"If you go to any other supermarket, you won't see a mixture this good," noted Wu. While his background is in Asian groceries, Wu said Foodmart is broader in scope.
Indeed, he said he does not believe an all-Asian store is supportable in the Jersey City market and, besides, the multicultural aspect of Foodmart is what he hopes will set it apart.
"There aren't a lot of stores that cater to all three ethnic groups," said Wu. He added that while many retailers try to do it, they don't realize the importance of merchandising the products by ethnicity. With fresh food, the challenge can come down to terms as literal as the fact that the smells are different from culture to culture.
Wu estimated that half of Foodmart's customers are Hispanic, a quarter are Caucasian and the remainder Asian. Since Jersey City has a large Filipino community, Wu estimates that close to half of the Asian shoppers are Filipinos.
In hopes of covering all these bases for his operation, Wu said that Foodmart is advertising in Asian newspapers, on Hispanic radio and in local mainstream newspapers.
His merchandising philosophy is also broad enough to allow for crossover. While Foodmart aims to meet the distinct culinary needs of the area's main ethnic communities, "There is also a lot of cross shopping between those communities," he noted.
Wu said the formula must be working for the store, which opened last December. Many of Foodmart's shoppers are driving long distances to sample the store's enticing and original product mix.
"Close to half the license plates in the parking lot are from New York. Jersey City is easy to reach from Manhattan and it's easy parking," he said.
It's three-pronged cultural orientation in product selection is unified by a great leveller -- price discounts. Wu said heavily discounted prices on much of the store's merchandise are proving to be a strong selling point with everyone.
"I am easily 25% lower than average prices," he told SN.
As shoppers enter the store, more than 200 different kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables greet them. The produce selection is stretched out below a faux blue sky dotted with clouds. Green and white stripped awnings running the length of the produce department give the department the feel of a small-town country fair.
Wu said the multi-ethnic 450-linear-foot produce section is as impressive a sales contributor as it is a visual attraction. He estimated the department brings in somewhere between $85,000 and $125,000 a week in sales, and accounts for 15% to 18% of the store's total dollar sales.
Rows of shiny eggplant are displayed next to piles of peppers and celery. Long island cases in the center of the aisle hold wood baskets overflowing with packs of sun-dried tomatoes, tomatillos and garlic.
One side of the produce island is dedicated to items largely targeted to the Hispanic community, like bags of green bananas, sticks of sugar cane and sliced halves of calabaza.
At the far end of the produce aisle is an all-Asian section, jutting out under the window of the prep area, where Wu estimates that between 50 and 60 different kinds of Asian produce are sold.
Wu said he initially chose to put the Asian produce by the prep area, because it is generally higher labor to prepare than other types of produce. That positioning also makes the section more accessible for customers who are not Asian. "We have Asian people preparing the produce so people can ask questions," he explained.
Bunches of long beans share the shelf with green stalks of lemongrass and piles of bean sprouts. An island case beside the wall case is packed with slender Chinese eggplant and bumpy green bittermelon.
In addition to making personnel available on the floor for questions, Foodmart uses sampling heavily as a method of introducing customers to new products.
At the dumpling kiosk, located near the produce section, for example, "We have demos on dumplings, prepare them and let customers try them." The kiosk also makes and merchandises buns and egg rolls.
Beyond produce, toward the back of the store, the circular two-level seafood department is ringed by a white-and-blue striped awning, a visual effect reminiscent of the big top at a circus. Blue fish-shaped signs on the awning announce the types of fish that can be found below.
A circle of glass fish tanks forms the bottom of the case. Rows of whole pompano, sea bass and snapper fillets line a bed of ice set up above the tanks. Hunks of squid and cuttlefish share space with metal buckets full of tiny silver smelts and mussels out of the shell.
"We currently carry eight to 10 different kinds of fish in the tanks, and in July or August will carry close to 20," said Wu.
"Anything that they raise locally, I try to carry in the tanks."
Much of the live seafood selection is micromarketed for the Asian palate. "Asians want live eels, catfish and mullet," Wu explained. All the fish carried in the tanks can also be cleaned and filleted on the spot, he said.
Meanwhile, many non-Asian shoppers have shown interest in purchasing live seafood from the tanks. "For Caucasians and Hispanics it's new; they have never bought it live, and they can't get it fresher."
Both the live and filleted seafood offerings represent an international mix.
"Just the chilled seafood is local; the rest is either farm-raised or sourced from out of the country," Wu noted. Some of the imported specialties, he said, include "tilapia, dogfish from Thailand, New Zealand green mussels and crabs from Hong Kong."
The seafood department nets $45,000 to $85,000 a week in sales, Wu added, explaining that "it has a large swing due to the holidays." He estimated that seafood accounted for 12% of store sales.
The meat department also offers a variety of selections micromarketed to various sections of the Asian community. For example, Wu noted, the top row of the long self-service case holds a selection of imported Dominican and Colombian salamis, of different sizes. Other meat selections catering to ethnic subgroups include packs of beef neck bones, ox tails and containers of pigs' ears.
The self-service meat case runs along the wall, jutting into a triangular-shaped full-service area. Wu said the two sections do about the same amount of business. "It's close to 50/50 full/self-service in the meat department."
The wall case is lined with a wide variety of steaks, from boneless sirloin to beef flank. Many of the cuts are thin, as is often favored by both the Hispanic and Asian communities.
The full-service meat department offers rows of veal chops and bowls filled with a variety of sausages. Pinwheels of steak wrapped around cheese and chicken cordon bleu are among the other selections. Bottles of Peter Luger steak sauce line the top of the shelf.
Wu told SN he has "just brought in a new meat manager, who is rearranging the section." Among the recently implemented meat-department changes is that it is "starting to carry goat, for the Hispanic community."
Foodmart is also beginning to micromarket to other communities at the meat case, noted Wu. "The meat manager is bringing in ox feet for the black community," he explained. "Filipinos eat many types of cured and frozen meats. There are over 50 types and we carry them all, like sweet sausages and lumpia."
Wu said the meat department accounts for 15% to 18% of store sales and makes $75,000 to $135,000 a week.
The triangular dairy department also plays to cultural diversity, separating many of its cheeses by ethnicity. Chunks of Edam and Colby sit in black baskets alongside rectangular blocks of pate with green pepper corns. Huge rounds of pecorino and Brie line the counter.
Bags of tortilla chips on the end of the cheese display segue into some of the Hispanic offerings on the other side of the case, where rounds of queso blanco share space with cans of chiles. Rows of dried peppers hang down around the whole case.
Foodmart is also planning to open a multi-ethnic food court. Wu said that it was "currently under construction and will have seating for 150." The food operations within the court are slated to offer a range of food including Chinese, Filipino and Japanese cuisine, in what Wu said would be "a real international food court."
To add some Americana, he said, he also "had a broker talking to major chains like Nathan's and some of the pizza shops."
Wu said he hoped it would be open sometime in May, with an initial grouping of 10 to 12 concepts in operation.
Meanwhile, Foodmart is poised to expand its ethnic merchandising strategy into other parts of the globe as well. Wu said his operation has already made places for Polish and German foods, which he expects to arrive shortly.
"I am looking at Russian food. I have many customers asking for it," said Wu. "Within a month we'll add other nationalities, and possibly even more down the road."
He said that when the new ethnic foods arrive, he intends to "place them on the flier and use key items as weekly sale items."