When Winn-Dixie noticed a large number of Brazilian customers at its Miami-area stores, it responded by offering Brazilian foods. In Orlando and Jacksonville, it's begun adding British foods to several stores to cater to burgeoning British expat communities there. Lately, it's been monitoring growing demand by refugees from Yugoslavia who have settled in Florida in the past several years.
Other conventional supermarkets have discovered there's more to ethnic food than salsa and soy sauce. As a result, ethnic aisles are getting more authentic and country-specific, with British, Thai, Middle Eastern and Indian sets, to name a few. There's even a new industry term for the practice: "Deep ethnic."
Stop & Shop's Asian offerings used to consist of a few mainstream Chinese items like soy sauce, hoisin sauce and chow mein. Today, it's incorporating separate imported Asian, Thai and Indian sections. A suburban New York location boasts Eastern European and British sections with teas, soups, canned fish, cookies, and jarred fruits and vegetables.
"Ten years ago, it used to be one Asian section," said Praful Mehta, category director of multicultural for specialty foods distributor Tree of Life, St. Augustine, Fla. "Now, it's an Indian section, Thai section, Korean."
Mehta estimated that he's put in 100 country-specific sets in stores in the past year. In a recent interview, he said he was working with a major retailer in the Southwest that was in the process of putting four- to eight-foot British sections in 100 or more stores.
Not surprisingly, the Hispanic aisle has been an active area for this diversification. Latin America comprises more than two dozen countries, and the migration of Hispanics from Central and South America has shifted share away from Hispanics of Mexican origin, said Terry J. Soto, a Hispanic-marketing
consultant and author of the newly published "Marketing to Hispanics: A Strategic Approach to Assessing and Planning Your Initiative."
As the Hispanic population has diversified, so too has the food. Authentic foods are gaining interest, as are pan-Latin or Latin fusion dishes that combine flavors of different Latin American countries.
Non-ethnics, of course, also are driving the growth of ethnic food sections. Traveling and dining out have made them more open to trying different flavors and dishes, and, as a result, once-exotic dishes are now commonplace on the menus of mainstream restaurants. "Who knew what chicken satay was 10 years ago?" said David Morse, president of New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles-based marketing and consulting firm. "Chinese food is becoming Szechuan and Hunan food."
Orlando, Fla., whose heavy Puerto Rican population is now mixing with recent arrivals from Cuba and South America, is an example of this population shift. Alvin Urena, part-owner of two Hispanic-themed Bravo stores in Orlando and Kissimmee, said he's especially noticed a pickup in sales of Colombian products, suggesting a growing Colombian customer base.
Observers see the country-specific marketing strongest among nimble-footed independents. Allen Lydick, president of Mexigrocers, a Raleigh, N.C.-based Hispanic marketing consulting firm, said he's seen Jamaican, Venezuelan and Salvadoran selections cropping up in independent retailers in the Southeast. On a larger scale, Soto said, Texas supermarkets such as Carnival and Fiesta Foods are good examples of retailers that have diversified their once Mexican-dominated Hispanic sets.
Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., also has been active in marketing to the diversifying Hispanic population, through conventional and Hispanic-themed stores. Buying decisions are centralized, but divisional operators can customize their offerings within their territory, spokeswoman Maria Brous said. "We are always consistently looking at opportunities to expand our line of products," she said.
In highly diverse areas such as Florida, retailers tend to integrate country-specific products. That's the case with Publix, in its conventional and Hispanic-format stores alike. "We used to have an ethnic section," Brous said. "As most of the market areas where we are, there are so many different cultures. In most stores, you'll find products right in line with other items." Publix tries to encourage purchase of ethnic products through its Aprons meal program, which has been translating its recipe cards into Spanish. One of the three recipes Publix produces each week has been available in a bilingual version since March 1, and a second bilingual recipe card is set to come out in August.
Bravo also integrates its products; Urena feels it encourages people to shop the entire store. To make it easy for them to locate the brands they know from home, though, the retailer organizes some categories by brand, such as beans, coffees, bottled juices and beers. "Each ethnic group could recognize their brand," Urena said. "They see a familiar product, so they'll buy two or three things instead of just buying one."
Catering to these increasingly specific tastes requires an understanding of different food histories and cultures, said Soto, who noted that one supplier markets 34 different varieties of dried and canned beans for different Hispanic segments.
Once Caribbean-centric, Goya Foods' sets have evolved to include items like posole, a Mexican stew; Mexican mole sauces; and Peruvian dried beans and chiles, said Conrad Colon, vice president of sales and marketing for Goya, Secaucus, N.J. Items introduced last year included Colombian corn patties; Argentine-style tortillas; and papusas, cheese-filled patties that are popular in El Salvador.
Chain retailers are seeking more understanding and counseling to determine the proper mix and in some cases, adding footage to accommodate greater variety, said Joseph Perez, Goya's vice president of purchasing. "They realize it's more varied and complex," he said. "It's not tortilla chips and salsa for everybody."
Translating that realization into action is another matter. Category managers need to determine which ethnic groups to target. That's not easy to do when Census data don't go deep enough, said Rick Moller, senior vice president of category management at Tree of Life.
The population is changing at a fast pace, and a centralized approach to creating sets, while efficient, isn't the best way to match assortments to local tastes. And not all items will move as quickly as core items, pointed out Harold Lee, national director of marketing for Asian foods at specialty food marketer Distribution Plus, Wilmette, Ill.
Publix is challenged to keep up with the diverse Hispanic populations in its markets. The retailer uses marketing studies, customer surveys, vendor sales data and its own food testers to determine which products to add, and when.
Creating international sets demands a "significant investment," said Jim Carrado, senior director for neighborhood merchandising at Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla. "We have to be very careful not to cut our space too short for faster-moving items, while at the same time offering the widest assortment available."
Chain and independent retailers agreed that while sourcing authentic products remains a challenge, availability is improving.
As the U.S. demand for products increases, manufacturers are developing more efficient ways of shipping and selling here, said Nancy J. Kubilus, category manager for specialty and natural foods for Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass.
Whereas a few years ago, there may have been one or two sources of South American and Central American foods, today there are many, Carrado said. As international foods grow in popularity, more items become available, he said.
Urena of Bravo said he's getting more help from vendors now that they see the potential for growth in his market. "We have more companies willing to come to South Florida and deal with independents," he said.
Here, independents like Bravo may have an size advantage. For Publix, it's difficult to find suppliers that can supply similar authentic products to its entire footprint of stores, Brous said. "Not every supplier is going to keep up with 876 store locations in five states," she said.
As retailers scout for authentic ethnic products, they may find many of the products they want don't meet federal standards - and may even be unsafe.
Products with expired sell-by dates, unfamiliar ingredient names, incomplete nutrition facts labels, and banned dyes or other ingredients are some of the common occurrences in ethnic products found on many supermarket shelves, according to distributors and marketers of specialty foods.
At the least, such products may confuse shoppers. At the worst, they may be unsafe if they fail to list allergens or contain ingredients that have been linked to disease.
Praful Mehta, category director of multicultural for specialty foods distributor Tree of Life, St. Augustine, Fla., estimated at least 20% of imported products found in supermarkets fail to meet federal standards in one way or another.
Independent retailers face greater risk of carrying such products than do chains, said Allen Lydick, president of Mexigrocers, a Raleigh, N.C.-based Hispanic marketing consulting firm, explaining that independents are often served by small distributors that police imports less closely than major ones.
Others said the problem is more widespread. "People like Kroger and Albertsons and Safeway see [international foods] as a way of differentiating their Center Stores," said Steve Dawson, managing director of London-based Food From Britain, Britain's official promoter of British foods. "The problem is, a lot of the products on the shelves is not fully FDA compliant."
A recent visit to a major Northeast retailer by SN confirmed this. Plenty of international foods lacked trans fat or allergens content information on the label or had nutrition labels that covered the ingredients listing. Some had no ingredients listing on the package at all.
Improperly labeled products come from all over the world, but imports from developing countries where food safety standards are lower are more likely to pose health risks, observers said.
Retailers either don't realize they're selling noncompliant foods, or don't care, observers said.
"Every single time I have told this to a customer, they have pulled it out," Mehta said. "That tells me they just don't know it."
Dawson suspects retailers are turning a blind eye, though. "I think they think if it's passed FDA inspection and it's here in the U.S., it's OK," he said. In fact, he said, "It's evaded inspection."
Since most food imports aren't inspected upon entering U.S. ports, retailers should check products' legitimacy with their distributor or the trade division of the consulate of the country of origin, Mehta said.