Demand for fresh produce enormous in multicultural retailers.
Shoppers flock from all over the Midwest, and world, to shop at Jungle Jim’s International Market. The specialty supermarket, in Fairfield, OH, a half hour drive north of Cincinnati, is famous for each of its departments. This includes its 1.6 acre produce department, where nearly 50 employees representing 19 nationalities cultivate fresh displays with some 9,000 SKUs of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Founded as a produce market in the 1970s, catering to multicultural consumers is in the retailer’s DNA.
“We cater to the buying needs of all our customers, but we do find that the percent basket size represented by produce dollars is much higher for our multicultural shoppers,” says Andrew Reist, executive produce buyer and manager for Jungle Jim’s.
“Produce department sales tend to parallel our international department: When our sales are up, so is theirs, and vice versa.”
On making decisions about what to carry, Reist says having a multinational staff helps, because of their knowledge. “Collectively, they bring a melting pot of experience, and they invite their family and friends to shop with us. Because of this, mainstream shoppers look forward to coming in and finding new and different fruits and vegetables.”
“Because we are a small independent,” he adds, “we can take out a produce knife and sample with them on the floor and answer questions about what it is and how to use it. It’s a win-win.”
A TRUE MELTING POT
Since its founding, America has been made up of an ever-changing melting pot of shoppers.
Hispanic or Latino (19.1%), Asian (6.3%), and Black (13.6%) consumers represented over one-quarter of the U.S. population as of July 1, 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Even more interesting is looking at America’s population distribution by generation and race/ethnicity. Among Baby Boomers, Hispanic (10.4%), Black (10.2%) and Asian (5.3%) consumers make up only 25.9% of this group. However, approaching half (44%) of Millennials are Hispanic (23.4%), Black (13.3%) or Asian (7.3%), according to 2020 data by Claritas, headquartered in Coral Gables, FL.
Looking at the multicultural consumer another way, Hispanic, Black, and Asian shoppers combined wield $3.9 trillion in buying power, according to the 2021-released report, The Why? Behind The Buy: Multicultural Shopper Insights, according to Jacksonville, FL-based Acosta.
“The U.S. population looks vastly different now than it did 40 years ago and will once more look vastly different if we regard the racial makeup of Gen Alpha (born 2010-2024) — the ones following Gen Z,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of 210 Analytics, LLC, in San Antonio, TX.
“Food, including produce, is highly related to our cultural backgrounds. Many cultures have a traditionally produce-rich diet and favor fresh over other forms of produce. Leaning into those can be a great pocket of growth for the fresh produce industry for years to come.”
A good example of this is avocados.
“Our Hispanic market segments represent an important priority for the brand because they over-contribute to volume, meaning their share of consumption is bigger than their segment size,” says Alfonso Delgado, director of trade marketing for Irving, TX-based Avocados from Mexico (AFM).
On a per-household basis, Hispanic shoppers were more likely to purchase avocados and spent 45% more per year on avocados compared to non-Hispanic shoppers, according to a 2018-published Hispanic Avocado Shopper Trends study by the Hass Avocado Board (HAB), in Mission Viejo, CA.
Here are five ways to cater to the multicultural customer to grow produce sales:
1. KNOW YOUR SHOPPER
It is extremely important to understand exactly who lives in that crucial 3-mile radius from the store, as the nuances matter when looking to capture the business of multicultural shoppers, says Roerink.
“It’s the type of item, the season, the nuances in varietals, flavors and sizes. For instance, if you go to an H-Mart, their selection and availability of mushrooms is astounding. It’s not just whites, cremini, and ports and maybe some oysters or shiitake, it is 20-plus distinct types, mixed packages, etc., catering to the Asian shopper who is very mushroom-forward.”
In many small, multicultural retailers served by Philadelphia, PA-based wholesaler, John Vena Inc., the demand for fresh produce is enormous. A big reason, like in most major metropolitan areas, is the diversity of residents. In Philadelphia, there are significant Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Ethiopian and West African communities, in addition to a major Eastern European enclave.
“Even small stores can move through a huge volume of product and, importantly, a wide variety of products,” says Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing, John Vena Inc.
“I think a lot of this is driven by first-generation immigrants,” she explains. “Data suggests that once you start getting into the second and third generation, diets are almost entirely transitioned to the typical American eating culture. People stop cooking and that means produce is just a supporting player on a shopping list dominated by processed foods.”
However, even as the family grows, people often stay connected to their heritage through food and may take a lot of comfort and pride in preparing their family’s traditional cuisines, Kohlhas adds.
In general, first-generation immigrants prefer to shop where they feel comfortable, and can have all their shopping needs met in one place, Kohl’s says. “There is trust the comes from shopping at a retailer owned and operated from within your cultural community that just can’t be replicated.”
But there might be opportunities for mainstream retailers to appeal to folks from the second and third generation, she adds. “These consumers have grown up in the U.S. and are comfortable in a typical American supermarket but may also have cultural ties to some of the key produce items from their community.”
Indeed, many of today’s ethnic consumers are very different from their parents, adds Megan Ichimoto, director of marketing and product development for San Miguel Produce, in Oxnard, CA.
“They know what they want, have more diverse tastes, and have more disposable income. These consumers value convenience and look to mainstream grocery to purchase some of their favorite traditional items.”
2. STOCK WHAT THEY WANT
Multicultural consumers are often shopping for a taste of home, says Denise Gomez, marketing manager for J&C Tropicals, in Doral, FL, and they want to find specific items to replicate a staple dish found only in their country.
J&C Tropicals’ customer demographics are typically Hispanic, Caribbean and Asian, and Gomez says most important to them are Latin staples, such as tropical roots like yuca, calabaza, malanga and boniatos, or tropical fruits like mamey, dragon fruit, rambutan, golden berries, guavas and mangos. Specialties such as yellow yams, turmeric, dasheen, tamarind, and coconuts are also popular in the Caribbean and Asian demographics.
“Overall, our top-selling products are dragon fruit, rambutan, avocado, guavas, calabaza, yuca and aloe. These items are must-have staples if you want to reach multicultural consumers.”
Asian cultures consume more mushrooms than any other group in the U.S., says Jack Guan, national sales and marketing manager for Guan’s Mushroom Co., in Commerce, CA, and the company sees retailers expanding their mushroom section to include more diverse mushrooms.
“Shiitake and oyster can be found in most grocery stores, and more adventurous retailers bring in more exotics such as maitake and king oyster,” Guan says. “The addition of specialty mushrooms helps bring in a whole new customer base that could only previously find those mushrooms in small specialty markets.”
Consistency and flexibility are two of the best ways mainstream retailers can cater to multicultural shoppers.
“You can’t carry yuca one week and not the next and expect to gain loyalty from a Hispanic shopper. You have to carry it day in and day out,” says Daniel Hooker, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, in Ithaca, NY.
“Smart produce executives will give their produce buyers and produce managers leeway to carry certain items in a particular store even if the whole chain doesn’t carry it.”
Another crucial point for mainstream retailers is to think ‘whole store’ in their strategy, Hooker emphasizes. “Cater to multicultural shoppers outside of the produce department as well, in departments like the bakery, meat and seafood, and grocery.”
A good example of this is at Metropolitan Markets, a nine-store chain headquartered in Bellevue, WA.
One of their stores is in a neighborhood with a large East Indian clientele. According to Jason Kazmirski, retail specialist for Charlie’s Produce, in Seattle, WA, the chain caters to these shoppers “with a weekly order that we supply and it includes items such as banana flowers, Chinese long beans, Indian eggplant, dosakai, opo squash, and bitter melon.”
Charlie’s Produce supplies several independent retailers in the Pacific Northwest, as well as larger chains such as Fred Meyer and Sprouts. Kazmirski says another chain it supplies is Saars Super Saver, with six stores, headquartered in Tacoma, WA. “They also make a point of catering to the community where their stores are located. For their Hispanic customers, we supply lychees, jackfruit, guava, passionfruit, rambutan, star fruit, okra, and hot peppers like habaneros, fresnos and Thai chilies.”
Every community has its own distinct set of preferences, and some communities tend to be brand conscious, but most of those groups are constantly balancing their need for quality and certain product attributes with an often-passionate commitment to getting the best value possible, says John Vena’s Kohlhas.
“At the end of the day, product without flavor, color or texture just will not last in these channels, because this consumer is produce literate and knows what they want and need.”
3. SELL IT THEIR WAY
Packaging, pricing and presentation attributes can be as important to the multicultural shopper as the produce itself.
For example, bok choy has traditionally been sold in bulk. “In recent years, we have seen growth in our value-added, washed and wok ready Jade Shanghai Bok Choy. It’s a staple in Asian cuisine, but with added convenience for today’s consumer,” says San Miguel’s Ichimoto.
Hispanic shoppers are also more likely to fall under the “Ultra” avocado shopper segment, says Alejandro Gavito, HAB’s senior business insights and data services manager. “Ultra shoppers are more likely to purchase bagged avocados. This is a wonderful opportunity for retailers to offer value with bagged avocados to Hispanic shoppers, who are making the greatest impact on category sales.”
Pricing by the pound is most common for multicultural shoppers, according to Kohlhas. “You’ll often even see whole-case sales for peak season products, particularly fruit. Many multicultural consumers want to select their own items and they may be attracted to a bountiful pile of produce from which to choose.”
Make displays big, but easily shoppable.
“Instead of picking up a tomato, the multicultural customer picks out a tomato. They are shopping to build a meal,” says Jungle Jim’s Reist.
Language is another crucial component.
“Stores that successfully service multicultural consumers often will make circulars or in-store signage available in Spanish, Korean, etc. Familiarity is centric to success: iIt’s the base of the meal, the ingredients and brands, the way it’s merchandised, etc.,” says 210 Analytics’ Roerink.
4. USE HOLIDAYS AS A GATEWAY
It took 16 hours for one of the produce staff members at Jungle Jim’s International Market to build a huge dragon out of fresh fruits and vegetables, complete with big garlic clove teeth, to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The holiday display attracted so many customers, traffic control was needed outside the store.
“Lunar New Year is one of our biggest holidays,” says Reist. “Whole seedless watermelon is culturally important for gifting for the table. To source these, at this time of year, we either have to reach out to the Asian markets in California or go with a company in Los Angeles that imports Sweet Gems from a grower in Mexico that specifically grows these for the Lunar New Year.”
The holiday starts anytime from mid-January to mid-February, depending on the year.
Another key holiday is Tihar, a Hindu festival in late fall, and in-shell walnuts are important to the celebration, Reist adds. “Since new crop walnuts don’t harvest until October, we have to buy the in-shell nuts in 50-pound bags a season in advance to have these for our customers in September.”
Religious and cultural holidays are an excellent time to bring in a greater volume and variety of ethnic fruits and vegetables. Examples are dates; potatoes and apples, like baby Dutch yellow potatoes and Hidden Rose apples; and bitter melon, dried figs and bunched cilantro, according to retail suggestive sell sheets from Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, in Vernon, CA.
As for cultural holidays, the company’s Latin category sales are up more than 8% year-to-date, with a substantial sales life of more than 34% between the dates of Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, during Hispanic Heritage Month. Melissa’s top 10 selling items, currently, in descending order, are aloe vera leaves, piloncillo, tamarindo, cactus leaves, corn husk, guava paste, malanga, canela/cinnamon sticks, sapote and tamale kits.
“The key point is that our holiday product lists are starting points. The holiday gives retailers a reason to bring these products in,” says Robert Schueller, Melissa’s director of public relations. “Then, tracking sales is an effective way to evaluate what items might be something to stock more regularly beyond the holiday.”
“By doing this, retailers may discover a population of shoppers they didn’t know they had, and in turn, both serve this customer and grow produce sales.”