PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- Suppliers need to pay more attention to the independent retail sector serving Hispanics as demographics shift and the number of chains shrink.
That was the message from retailers at the 15th annual Mexican American Grocers Association National Hispanic Marketing Sales and Promotions Conference here.
"Some brokers still don't understand the power of the Hispanic consumer," Jay Milner, vice president for grocery, dairy and frozen operations at Superior Super Warehouse, an eight-store operation based in Lynwood, Calif., said during a panel discussion. "But when they do decide to partner with us and they see the results, things will snowball."
Milner issued a challenge to the brokers and other vendors in the MAGA audience. "Contact us, and I guarantee you our sales trends will make you a hero in your company."
Milner said independents as a group represent a sizable chunk of the southern California marketplace in the wake of industry consolidation. "In a very short time there will be three major players in town -- Albertson's. Kroger and Safeway -- and that means someone will follow those three as the No. 4 customer in the market, and it's going to be the combined membership of Certified Grocers [of California, the Los Angeles-based member-owned cooperative] in the big picture, [which supplies] little independents like us," he said.
Mike Provenzano, president of Pro & Sons, Ontario, Calif., a four-store operator, urged vendors to call on Certified to give its members the opportunity to qualify for promotions or to arrange for in-store product demonstrations. Both Provenzano and Milner are Certified members.
Provenzano said the problem for independents may be a lack of understanding and respect on the part of vendors. "Many vendors just don't know who's doing the business in a given marketplace, and they don't recognize the force of independents. And they don't have a real lock on who their people are calling on."
He told SN after the meeting about a vendor representative who used to call on his stores and who told him he was one of the rep's top customers. But after the rep died, the company stopped calling, Provenzano said.
However, he said he had run into the new rep at the MAGA meeting and told him how much business he actually did, "and he said he was very surprised and he'd be out to call on me soon."
"We need you [vendors] to look in the mirror and really analyze what your companies do and how you can market better to the independent," Provenzano said. "Look at your budgets, and you'll see how little you give the independents, then give us an opportunity to perform. We need you to help us move forward.
"We'll survive without you by giving our customers what they want -- tortillerias, scratch bakeries, scratch delis, service meat and live fish -- but life would be easier if you gave us some of the tools. Be creative and energetic, and give us a little bit of the promotional dollars you give the chains."
Speaking from the audience, Joe Lopez, of Roman's Market, a one-store operation in Pacoima, Calif., also expressed the potential of independent operators.
"Independents may not have beautiful stores like Ralphs or Lucky, but we compete with concrete floors and presentable fixtures just like Costco or Sam's Club," he said, "and if you [vendors] give us the prices we need so we can make a profit and give our Hispanic customers your products at a reasonable price, we could sell as much as anyone else."
Another panelist, Jeff Byrne -- director of sales and merchandising for Food 4 Less Supermarkets, Compton, Calif. -- said his company is interested in "hearing all offers, but we have contractual obligations as part of Ralphs." Food 4 Less is a unit of Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, which is part of Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore.
Asked whether Hispanic consumers prefer bilingual labels, Byrne said they do not. "We believe bilingual signage is very necessary, and we're looking to embrace that. But it's less necessary on product labels."