Nowhere is the supermarket's response to ethnic diversity more apparent than in the increasing number of Hispanic grocery items on Center Store shelves.
Moreover, savvy retailers are stepping up their efforts to woo this growing consumer base with culturally specific marketing strategies.
"About 80% of our customers are Hispanic," said George Matics, assistant director of purchasing and merchandising at K.V. Mart Co., Carson, Calif., who added that his stores have separate sections for imported Mexican and Caribbean products, with some items double-merchandised in-line.
On the East Coast, A&P, Montvale, N.J.; and Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J., carry a large selection of Hispanic grocery products in stores where the demographics warrant it.
"We primarily sell Hispanic grocery products in-aisle," said Michael Rourke, spokesman for A&P, "Although we will have some stores with special sections.
"In selected stores, we use bilingual signs and also do bilingual advertising and promotion," he continued. Rourke said that A&P sometimes advertises in Hispanic-language newspapers as well. The chain also demos specialty Hispanic products in selected stores and popular Hispanic items in all stores.
In California, many of the large chains, like Food 4 Less Warehouse Stores, a division of Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., have tapped into the Hispanic market and are remerchandising their stores to better fit neighborhood demographics.
"Food 4 Less has done an outstanding job," said Mike Trueblood, marketing director of Bradshaw International, a brokerage in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. "To get to Center Store you have to walk through a wall of values, where there are huge displays of products."
Items commonly found in large displays on the wall of values are Knorr soup mixes and condiments, Best Foods mayonnaise, spices, tortillas, Colgate toothpaste and Mazola corn oil (which are very popular in Mexico), paper towels, baby food, diapers, Coke and Pepsi. "You feel like you are walking into a warehouse store, with cases and cases of hot products at good prices," said Trueblood.
This appeals to Hispanics, who perceive a warehouse as offering better values. The name of the chain is also attractive to customers on a budget, Trueblood noted.
Produce is featured prominently at Food 4 Less, and it's the first department shoppers encounter as they walk in the door. This is a strong enticement for Hispanics of Mexican heritage, since fresh fruits and vegetables traditionally play a large role in their diet.
Other large chains that have remerchandised stores in Hispanic neighborhoods are Arcadia, Calif.-based Vons Cos., a division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; and Lucky Stores, a division of American Stores Co., Salt Lake City, said Trueblood.
While Vons is concentrating culturally specific marketing efforts in about a dozen stores in east Los Angeles, there are more than 200 Vons units, many of them in neighborhoods with a substantial Hispanic population, said Trueblood. Lucky, also a large chain, has targeted about 30 units that have strong Hispanic demographics.
"All the chains are beginning to appoint one key marketing-and-merchandising person to be responsible for Hispanic marketing," Trueblood said.
Each week, Lucky's southern California division in Buena Park, Calif., distributes a separate mailer featuring ethnic items, along with national-brand mainstream items. Vons also makes use of bilingual circulars, according to Tony Flores of Vargas Flores & Amigos, Atlanta, a Hispanic advertising and marketing firm.
Trueblood noted that independent chains like El Tapatio Markets, Maywood, Calif., are also featuring good prices and imported products from Mexico, as well as using merchandising practices that appeal to Hispanics. For example, El Tapatio will display pinto beans in large bins.
The chain also provides bus service to customers. A minibus picks up shoppers at home and then drops them off, a tremendous convenience for families with just one car or none at all.
Major independents in the Los Angeles area that cater to Hispanics -- like El Tapatio, 32nd St. Market, Top Valley, Big Saver, North Gate Markets, Jax, Tresierras and Jimenez Markets -- have integrated imported Mexican products with mainstream items in Center Store, according to Steven Soto, president of the Mexican American Grocers Association, Los Angeles.
"You'll find ketchup with salsa and Mexican shampoo and vitamins with Tylenol and Head & Shoulders," he said. Soto observed that although ethnic choices are important, it's also true that Hispanics buy about 80% of the same items in the supermarket as non-Hispanics.
According to Soto, where larger competitors have remained in Hispanic neighborhoods in southern California, they are holding their own. But in many inner-city areas, both in California and other parts of the country where big chains have pulled out, independents have filled the void with thriving businesses.
Unlike the independents, K.V. Mart merchandises imported items, primarily from Mexico, in separate 8- to 16-foot sections, near the meat department. Still, many ethnic items are integrated in the regular set, according to Matics.
"We are not bashful about putting Hispanic items on endcaps, or using waterfalls, sidestacks or diamond stacks," he said.
Goya items get a separate set, as do products imported from Puerto Rico. Mainstream items like Pace or Ortega products are not sold in K.V. Marts.
K.V. Mart stocks such imported items as whole jalapeno peppers, rice, beans, canned seafood, laundry products, cookies, crackers and even canned salsa, which is not popular with Mexicans.
Matics uses bilingual signs and ads, which he says are de rigueur in Hispanic neighborhoods, as well as massive displays in primary traffic spots and Mexican items as features and subfeatures every week in circulars and newspapers.
He also noted: "If you are going to get to first base in any Hispanic market, you have to start with the produce." Like Food 4 Less, K.V. Marts lead with produce, which is usually on the right as soon as a customer enters the store.
But not everyone agrees that it is best to differentiate the Hispanic shopper.
For example, Morrie Notrica, president of the independent 32nd St. Market in Los Angeles, is against the use of bilingual signs or separate sections out of aisle. His stores have ethnic sections in line, including Japanese, Filipino, Hispanic, Central American, Italian and Middle Eastern foods.
"We advertise heavily and try to provide big families with everything they need," Notrica said. "With merchandising, we try to stay as generic as possible and don't believe in segregating the marketplace."
Like many independents in Los Angeles, Eladio Corral, manager of Casa del Pueblo in Chicago, integrates imported Mexican items with mainstream products. Some of the imported items include hot sauces, a variety of peppers, cactus, pastas, oils, salsa, coffee, condensed milk, canned fruits, nectars, bar soaps and laundry powders.
Casa del Pueblo uses bilingual shelf signs, banners and ads. The store has a customer base that is about 90% Hispanic, mostly of Mexican heritage.
Handy Andy Supermarkets, a southwestern chain based in San Antonio, with a large Hispanic customer base, devotes an entire aisle to Hispanic products, most of them imported items from Mexico.
The aisle is signed "ethnic," according to Lupe Anguiano, grocery buyer. Handy Andy also uses bilingual signs and advertising materials from vendors, but does not do bilingual ads. The ethnic aisle has all the Center Store categories, said Anguiano, from nectars and jalapenos to soap and salsa. In the same aisle there's a section called "Tex/Mex," where mainstream products like fajita dinner kits and taco shells from such companies as Pace, Old El Paso, Ortega and Fiesta can be found.
Most of Anguiano's demos are of imported products from Mexico. "This month we had 120 demos scheduled, which is heavy, but there's been an influx of items from Mexico." Anguiano plans to step up demos the week of Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16.
Some demoed items have included mineral water, Mexican soda water, boullion cubes and seasoning packets, laundry softeners and powdered soaps and even drinking water from Mexico.
Handy Andy also merchandises Mexican products, as well as mainstream products, on endcaps for 30 days.
"Endcaps are mandatory for 30 days in all our stores," he said. That's how you pull the cases. It works because you tie in all your stores and get a better deal."
As reported in SN, Southwest Supermarkets, headquartered in Phoenix, has distinguished itself as a chain catering mainly to Hispanics and is now poised to expand into additional Southwestern states.
Southwest uses culturally specific merchandising strategies, such as increasing the space devoted to perishables in new units and using massive displays and a prominent wall of values. In addition, the chain integrates Hispanic brands in-aisle and makes use of bilingual signs, print, radio and TV advertising as well as store circulars.
On the East Coast, Hispanic product mix reflects a demographic that is more heavily Caribbean -- especially Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican -- than Mexican.
According A&P's Rourke, "The makeup of Hispanic foods is tailored to the neighborhood. So if there's a Caribbean population, for example, we will carry Caribbean foods and maybe South American products. We carry Mexican foods in all stores."
As reported in SN, Food Emporium, a division of A&P, and Tops Friendly Markets, Buffalo, N.Y., recently teamed up with a West Indian export agency for a weeklong promotion that featured imported Caribbean items along with cooking demonstrations and product sampling.
Caribbean food is also prominent in a Pathmark unit located in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Brentwood, N.Y. Goya products, which appeal to Caribbean Hispanics, command four doors in the frozens department and 36 feet in Center Store.
The Brentwood unit devotes the first aisle of Center Store to Hispanic grocery items. The aisle is not signed, however, and there is no bilingual signage evident anywhere.
The Hispanic grocery aisle comes right after produce in the store layout. Produce is the first area the customer encounters upon entering the store.
Goya products are at the front of the aisle and include pork rinds, crackers, banana chips, fruit nectars in three sizes, coconut milk, pudding and flan mix, seasonings, condiments, soup mixes, rice and bean box mixes, , rice canned and packaged beans, canned fish, hot sauces, olives and olive oil and tomato paste. Goya items are also featured on endcaps at the front and back of the aisle.
Also at the beginning of the aisle, on the opposite side, are various brands of coffees, malt drinks, soda, crackers, hot sauces and conventional bread-crumb coating and stuffing mixes from companies like Progresso, Stove Top and Shake 'n Bake. Some of the coffees, drinks and crackers are from Puerto Rico.
Additional items in the aisle include Jumex nectars and other brands of canned beans, jalapeno peppers, canned fish (including sardines, cuttlefish, octopus, calamari, conch, salmon and mussels), rices, condiments, condensed milk, corn meal, oils and Hispanic spaghetti sauces and pastas.
In addition to brands like Iberia, Vitarroz and La Cena, there were imported products from Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. About 8 feet are devoted to mainstream Mexican foods.
Brentwood's Pathmark also had some services not usually found in supermarkets lacking a significant Hispanic customer base. For example, customers could cash checks, fax, get prepaid envelopes or money orders, pay utility bills and buy MetroCards and tokens for the subway, as well as prepaid calling cards.