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Show Me a Sign! Retailers Connect with Latinos through Bilingual Signage

Show Me a Sign! Retailers Connect with Latinos through Bilingual Signage


Responding to demographic realities that have Hispanic populations swelling in economic centers nationwide, most major retailers are developing ethnic outreach strategies that include bilingual signage in store locations with largely Hispanic clientele. Wal-mart, Target, Home Depot and Sears are among the most prominent retailers to implement bilingual signage. But bilingual signage is not an isolated development in these stores, but rather one element among many designed to make ethnic shoppers feel more at ease, such as having bilingual staff who can help with individual issues and bilingual call-centers to aid with customer service.

According to a GfK NOP Hispanic OmniTel Retail Study published in 2005, the top three reasons among Hispanics for shopping at big-box retailers are the same reasons cited by the general market. For instance 77% of Hispanics polled cited low prices as the reason for shopping at these stores; 72% cited convenient location; 71% cited the wide-range of merchandise and once-stop shopping potential that these retailers offer.

The same study revealed an important “second-tier of priorities” that also influenced Hispanics to shop at these stores: 54% said that the presence of bilingual staff was a factor; and 47% cited bilingual signage as important.

“Of course there are two types of signage,” says Carlos Oliva, a principal at, a company offering turn-key marketing solutions to retailers and CPG manufacturers. “There are signs that are meant to convey very basic information such as what products are in the different aisles, and there are signs that are meant to engage and resonate with the consumer on an emotional level.” Oliva stresses that this second type of signage is particularly important to Latino shoppers, because shopping is more of an emotional and pleasurable experience for them. “For many Latinos, shopping is an enjoyable experience. For the most part, we are working our tails off in this wonderful country that has embraced us, and when we go to shop, it is when we are in power. We like to shop, and we like our peers to see us shopping. For much of the general market, however, shopping is a chore that has to be taken care of.”

Because of these distinct attitudes toward shopping, the messaging of such signage needs to be different to appeal to each group. Since shopping is often seen as a hassle for general market consumers, much of the emphasis is on the value of the product, and how inexpensive it is, incentivizing the consumer to make the purchase.

However, says Oliva, with Hispanics it is often more effective to stress the quality of the product along with its value: When we shop, it is very much about providing for our families. So what we want to hear is, ‘Hey this is Nestle, a great brand that’s been around forever, come and try it out!’ That way we feel we are providing the best-in-class for our families, and our neighbors see that as well, which is important to us.” Conversely, if all that the signage emphasizes is how cheap the product is, the Latino consumer may feel that he is cheating his family or will be viewed as doing so by his neighbors.

Oliva cites a recent campaign that his company did for Nestle’s Chocolate Milk. They wanted to convey the health benefits of the product to appeal to Hispanic parents while wanting to emphasize the fun to appeal to the kids. So they developed a growth chart to track the child’s healthy development for the parents, and used the Nestle mascot bunny rabbit to appeal to the kids. Then they placed these promotional materials right at the point of sale to maximize response. Oliva says the program met with great success.

Store of the community…

By all accounts, the degree to which bilingual signage is present depends on the ethnic make-up of the surrounding area. An outlet with just a small Hispanic consumer base will likely have bilingual signage in the Hispanic section only if at all, whereas an outlet that is heavily frequented by Hispanics will likely have all of its signs in both English and Spanish.

Part of Home Depot’s strategy, besides conducting a marketing analysis for each new store location, is to have executives actually walk the streets of a new site and get a feel for the neighborhood’s composition. And while it may seem funny – a team of retail executives wandering around the barrio with their cultural sensors fully deployed – it is indeed part of how these decisions are made.

Wal-Mart, whose Spanish-language signage has been in place for just over three years now, approaches bi-lingual signage with its all-encompassing “Store of the Community” approach. As it pertains to product buying, this approach dictates that the store will buy the products that suit the needs of the community in which it is located. For example, a Wal-Mart in Miami will stock many items that Cuban Hispanics would prefer, whereas a store in Brooklyn might have products geared toward its large Jewish community. This approach also dictates that, wherever needed, Hispanic signage will be present.

While Wal-Mart is currently reviewing its Hispanic agency options, spokesperson Shannon Frederick notes of its longtime agency, “Lopez-Negrete has been an important part of our efforts to understand this segment of our customer base. Their work allows us to invite Hispanic customers to visit Wal-Mart for the products and services that they need and want and know that when they do come into our stores, they’ll find a welcoming environment.” Shannon adds that Lopez-Negrete assists the retailer with everything from developing appropriate creative messaging for Wal-Mart’s advertising efforts, to doing staff workshops on Hispanic-specific needs.

Most retailers in Hispanic areas understand that connecting with Latino clientele requires much more than translating their signs into Spanish. Bilingual signage is a part of a larger program to make Hispanics feel not just accommodated, but welcomed in store locations. Other outreach initiatives involve hiring bilingual sales staff who hail from the same communities as the clientele, and are therefore better able to understand their needs and concerns. And it is not just retailers that are embracing bilingual messaging. Continental Airlines recently implemented a “Latinization” program whereby adding bilingual signage in-flight and at the concourse was part of a larger initiative to make the flying experience easier on Spanish speakers.

In terms of whether to use dialects to pinpoint specific ethnicities, Miconexxion’s Carlos Oliva assumes Wal-mart’s store of the community approach. “If you are in southern L.A. where the Hispanic population is 98% Mexican, I say go Mexican. If you are in New York, where the Hispanic ethnicities are more mixed, I would say go for some more inclusive messaging.”


      Top Five Reasons Hispanics shop at Big Box Retailers

  1. Low Prices
  2. Convenient location
  3. Range of Merchandise
  4. Bilingual Staff
  5. Bilingual Signage






 Source: GfK NOP Hispanic OmniTel Retail Study

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