Ethnic Retailers: Enhancing Their Value in the Marketplace

A nice, simple set-up for a candy store that customers like to see - photo by Lorna Dietz

The ethnic retail market is a reality in the United States. It’s a vibrant component of a truly diverse community. I don’t want to be stereotypical in my observations but here’s what I’ve noticed in my travels around the San Francisco Bay Area:

1. Many Chinese Americans own dry cleaning services.
2. Many Asian Indians own liquor stores or taxicab companies. I have a friend who owns 13 liquor stores in Santa Clara County and I have special cab service (whenever I need it) in San Jose (Thank you, Mr. Rimpy!).
3. Many Koreans and Filipinos own grocery stores and restaurants. I’m expanding my Pinoy Food guide into a separate category because I need easy access to a list of Filipino-owned restaurants to recommend.
4. Many Vietnamese own nail salons or beauty parlors. In fact, Lyn at Beach Beauty Salon at Fisherman’s Wharf is my colorist.
5. There are many Chinese and Thai-owned restaurants.
6. There is a huge Chinatown in San Francisco that makes my food shopping worth the shoves I get in the crowded streets.

It’s possible that family connections and strong friendly ties encourage people of the same ethnic group to concentrate their monetary success in one industry. Remember, this is not a general observation — simply strictly my own. It is a reality that minority-owned businesses are a major work force in the United States. I’m very proud when I say that I work with ethnic communities in terms of public relations and marketing.

A few months ago, in my networking site, Ryan Turner asked a question: Are “Ethnic Retailers” Still Serving A Niche Market?

There’s an assumption that “ethnic” markets, convenience stores, etc. which once thrived upon dedicated clientele and hard-to-find items face tough times, ironically, as larger ethnic and mainstream retailers adopt their product mix at cheaper prices to broader cross-cultural audiences. Noted with particular interest:

Cecilia Kang’s 9/3/07 Washington Post article:
“Ethnic Grocers Losing Their Niche”

If Kang’s article points to larger truths outside the Washington DC area, and smaller ethnic retailers in general face marketing challenges, what strategies should they consider to

(1) raise their profile/visbility within their communities
(2) adjust their perceptions against larger competitors

Or is the threat/challenge simply a matter of changing times? I know I’d hate to see some great cultural neighborhood meeting spots disappear in the Bay Area, but know the ability to effectively market, as well as compete on price and quality must count for something as well?

Thanks for sharing…

You can see the answers to Ryan’s question here.

I’m reprinting my answers to this question.

My family owned a home bake shop since 1965 in the Philippines — and I grew up working in a family-owned business atmosphere, which is the case of most ethnic retailers. Thus, I’m aware of some challenges ethnic-focused retailers face anywhere.

My suggestions include:

1. Acceptance that their retail stores now serve a diverse marketplace – I’ve seen a South Asian-owned convenience store recently display a lot of Indian groceries in a predominantly-white neighborhood in a Chicago suburb. I will use this establishment, Larry’s Store (not the real store’s name) as an example of how he can better serve his neighborhood.

2. Educating the customers – Since many neighborhoods are interested in understanding the uses of ethnic products, I suggested to Larry the following:

a. A sampling tray of his ethnic food snacks close to the register, inviting his regular customers to try them out. They need to check their city’s health requirements about food sampling in their type of store because I haven’t done my homework about this aspect. This is an opportunity for conversation. I realize that some store owners are quite shy speaking in English (since it is a second language) but if they don’t try to communicate with their English-speaking customers, I don’t think it makes for a very welcoming atmosphere, shy or not. Many store owners ask their children’s help with their English. Instead of staying at home, the kids learn business skills while hanging out at the retail store.

b. Recipe Cards or Fliers for ethnic products – This is a natural. I had to ask Larry what the uses were for some of the Indian products he carried. Although he gave me some good explanations, I realized that I wanted to go home with “something” tangible, like recipes to try out. The companies that Larry deals with have some of these recipes and can certainly help underwrite the cost of these promotional items if they want their products to move inside Larry’s Store.

c. Internet Presence – Ethnic retailers need to be more technologically-savvy. Directories on the internet need to have their store’s name. Even a free blogger’s account like allows these store owners to communicate with their clients.

d. Give each new client a reason to come back – Give each customer a “coupon-type” card where you can punch a hole for every visit (purchase) to his store (with a year’s expiration date, of course). For example, after the 10th visit, the customer is entitled to choosing a bag of groceries among several choices. There are many other suggestions!

e. Partnerships with community-based organizations – If the store owner has an internet presence, it is a simple matter of having their ethnic associations and ethnic retail stores support each other. The store’s directory listing and link are found in an ethnic community-based organization’s website. Whether the store gives these organizations a small discount for their purchases or regularly makes in-kind donations, they can find ways to support each other. There are infinite possibilities!

f. Support Ethnic Media – Advertise!

3. Image – Let’s face it. Many ethnic stores don’t spend the time to have their signage done professionally or at least from a software program like Broderbund’s Printshop from their computer. This is my experience. Just a little more effort to improve the way the store looks shows that the store owner cares about the customer. Examples: Good lighting and dust-free, orderly product displays.

There are many ethnic store owners who believe that it’s enough for them to open their doors for business and customers will just come in. They sometimes cannot network with associations because they are “tied” to their store hours. So, these store owners need to be more creative in letting these groups network with them inside their stores. Find ways for their own communities to “socialize” inside their stores, however small the space is.




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