No Man Is an Aisle: Why We Should Stop Separating Hispanic Foods at Grocery Stores

What: For years, large chains have targeted Hispanics by adding a special aisle with select items from their home countries. These days, this approach can be a bit outdated; diversity and globalization demand a more integrated approach.
Why it matters: Marketers are well aware that Hispanics are a huge consuming force that will only grow in time. It's important to come up with ways to really cater to the community's needs.


Anyone who’s ever had a meal at a Hispanic household knows something for certain: us Latinos love our food. We love preparing it, we love planning it, we love buying fresh ingredients. Cooking and sharing is the ultimate family-bonding experience. Homemade meals are the first thing we miss when we’re away, and the first thing we do to feel at home anywhere. All these cultural traits not only make us great cooks, but also great produce and grocery shoppers. According to The State of the Plate, a 2015 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruits & Vegetables published by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Hispanics rank highest in produce consumption amongst 3 other ethnic groups (White/Non-Hispanics, Asians, and Black/Non-Hispanics).

So, in order to cater to their Hispanic customers, all food marketers in the U.S. have to understand that, from the moment the menu for a Hispanic table is conceived, every step of its preparation matters. Just by being aware of the particularly ritualistic nature of Hispanic kitchens, supermarkets appealing to the target can confidently assert everything they must do to satisfy an ever-growing consumer base who loves hand picking their food, buying enough ingredients to last for several meals, and trying out new ingredients on a permanent effort to enrich and expand their gastronomic experiences. The thing is, marketers are well aware that Hispanics are a consuming force, and for years some have chosen to separate Hispanic foods and products (as they often do with other ethnic groups). Here, I will argue that such an idea is counterintuitive, obsolete, and, well, not a good idea.

Finding the Balance Between Diversity and Globalization

In spite of sharing a nomenclature, Hispanics are widely diverse. Every single Hispanic country has different ancestral dishes that require specific ingredients for their preparation. And in addition to this diversity of traditions, Millennials have been exposed to the options of a globalized economy, even if Latino families have a specific and deep-rooted meal preparation routine. Nearly six in ten Hispanics are Millennials or younger, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 report, The Nations Latino Population is Defined by its Youth. 40% of American Millennials are multicultural, and more than half of this group are Latinos. As a global society would have it, we want to be able to make corn flour tortillas, but we want them filled with swiss cheese. According to The Why? Behind the Buy a study conducted by Acosta Marketing and Univision in 2015, 57% of Hispanic Millennial Shoppers ages 25-34 say they often try new flavors/products.

 For years, the larger chains have catered to the Hispanic consumer (primarily) by adding an ‘Hispanic’ or ‘International’ aisle and placing select merchandise from Latin America. […] It is unclear if this format is deemed a success.

As we have said before in other articles, foods that used to be foreign at some point, like pizza, sushi, and tacos, are such a big part of a global food culture that no one hardly ever questions their place in American households. These days, being able to find a wide variety of products from around the world is expected, and in some cases a given, precisely because we live in a connected world in which boundaries are more blurry each day. As Rishad Tobaccowala, Chief Growth Officer at Publicis Groupe, said to Portada in a recent interview, "An idea that is not aligned with the unstoppable trends of diversity and globalization is doomed from the start."

The fact that it's been this way so far doesn't mean it shouldn't change

For a minority seeking inclusion, all manifestations of inclusion are welcome; even if it’s just a matter of dropping the label “Hispanic groceries” to call them just groceries. In fact, many supermarkets have tried to cater to the Hispanic audience by adding “exclusive” sections with the products Latino audiences may find at home: “For years, the larger chains have catered to the Hispanic consumer (primarily) by adding an ‘Hispanic’ or ‘International’ aisle and placing select merchandise from Latin America […] Some of the largest, such as HEB in Texas, developed their Mi Tienda (My Store) format which is located in a high dense Hispanic neighborhood. A larger store than a neighborhood store. It is unclear if this format is deemed a success,” says Randy Stockdale, director of Solex Marketing Solutions.

But although this effort may appear inclusive at a first glance, for a huge population of Latinos that already comprises 17% of the total American population, attempting to insert a Hispanic neighborhood store surrounded by aisles of  “unrelated” or “non-Hispanic” products by association might end up feeling like a reductionist effort that takes their much more diverse needs for granted. “I don’t subscribe to a Hispanic aisle”, says Stockdale. “I would rather see the stores, particularly the larger chains, place like-items together and provide a greater convenience. Have you ever found Goya Olives in the general Olives section? Likely not.”

Limiting their space to one freezer or shelf is also limiting their consumption to one tiny section of an entire store.

In July 2017, a tweet got viral because one man saw the mockery potential of a supermarket freezer labeled “Frozen Hispanic” and decided to pose as just that… a frozen Hispanic. The tweet got 152,278 retweets of people that didn't see the need to separate frozen tamales from frozen chicken wings. One user identified the same case of differentiation on the signage of a beverage aisle offering “bulk water” and “Hispanic soda”. “I'm sincerely curious what Hispanic soda is!”, replies one user. “It’s soda… but better”, replies another. Supermarkets would greatly profit from including Hispanic products without differentiation, as it’s been proven that Hispanic consumers are generally willing to try different things and are open to new options. Limiting their space to one freezer or shelf is also limiting their consumption to one tiny section of an entire store full of necessary products for the general audience.

The Hispanics-General Market relationship isn't one-sided, inclusion works both ways

To quote our latest article on Hispanic retailers, marketers need to focus not only on Hispanic consumers, but they also have to look at how they influence the general market in order to really understand growth opportunities for their products. Nielsen’s numbers on Intercultural Affinity (ICA) for Hispanic-oriented products indicate that ambiculturals in general spend more on beans, tortillas, and refried beans than monoculturals. Then, retailers are not only addressing Hispanics, but also consumers from other cultures capable of boosting the growth of culturally Hispanic products.

One of my fondest grocery-shopping memories while living in Montreal was when, during a trip to the supermarket, I was cruising the beverage aisle and amongst the expected sodas and sparkling waters, I spotted a selection of Jarritos, a brand of soft drinks as Mexican as Miguelito chili powder. It was there, just like any other local soda, for anyone to reach out and try without making any fuss of the fact that it’s an imported drink with exotic flavors. The surge of nostalgia I felt led me to immediately purchase it, and I’m not even a regular Jarritos consumer in my own country. This personal example speaks not only of the joy of feeling represented and identified while being abroad, but of the great importance of having a supermarket experience that appeals not only to your needs, but to your emotions, comfort zone, and memories of home.

And just like it would at home (if that's the case), the store needs to feel just like any other supermarket with staple sections. Moreover, the great part about shopping at that supermarket in Canada was that diversity was tangible all around: a variety of multicultural shoppers were having natural shopping experiences, all foods available to everyone. Forget about labeling aisles, anyone can choose to have some tzatziki next to a bag of udon noodles and jasmine-infused rice pudding on their shopping basket. Newsflash: it's not a big deal. Just as the world's boundaries are thinner, the gaps between demographic segments are narrower. In this time, and mostly with young generations, we do want to connect to our heritage, but we don't want to feel isolated by it. We all want to feel human.

What should supermarkets do, then?

So, if including a separate Hispanic section on the supermarket stock is no longer a viable option, what is? What are some of the things that could be done to attract Hispanics and make them feel welcome and included while strongly driving purchase intention? The answer lies in the power of emotions, in “enhancing their joy of shopping”, as Acosta and Univision conclude on The Why? Behind the Buy. Perhaps general retailers could learn a thing or two from Hispanic concept supermarkets like Northgate González Markets, a chain that not only features an in-store tortillería, carnicería, and cocina, but that also offers children cooking classes and a gift certificate upon completing six lessons.

Or Fiesta Mart in Texas, offering a variety of fresh, organic, locally sourced produce with a side of social community programs to educate children and help feed the hungry. “There are many that are doing a good job [like González and Fiesta]”, says Randy Stockdale. “I would not say that anyone is not doing a good job. They are trying at least. But, I would state that the larger chains should provide a friendlier-Hispanic atmosphere and improved merchandise. I am a strong proponent of bilingual in-store signage where the store is high-Hispanic density”. Therefore, the wisest move is to be inclusive and open-minded in both directions. Both Fiesta Mart and Northgate Gonzalez are on the other side of the spectrum: just as there are Hispanic aisles, there are entire stores focused on the Hispanic community. This doesn't mean the general market is segregated there; everyone is welcome because everyone around is from everywhere. There's no reason to separate minorities, communities are not isolated anymore, or said in other words, no man is an aisle.


Janet Grynberg @grynberg_janet

Janet has worked as editor and translator since 2013. After graduating with honors when receiving her Bachelor's Degree in English literature, she began working as a book reviewer for Expansión, the leading business magazine in Mexico. She has also worked as editor of young adult literature for publishing houses like Planeta and Penguin, and she's the author of a book of short stories. She's in the process of getting her MA in English at McGill University. Her interests include arts, good food, and her 8 pets.


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