Capturing Hispanic Customers

Offering quality customer service with bilingual employees and traditional foods can drive retail loyalty among the growing Hispanic population.

By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.

Today, Hispanic food is mainstream and attractive to a wide array of demographics seeking spicier flavors, but the secret to keeping your Hispanic customers’ repeat business lies in more than just your foodservice options.

This demographic regularly visits convenience stores not just for food, but for fill-in grocery items, especially in urban areas where they might not have access to a car.

The Hispanic customer is projected to remain an important one to convenience stores. Research firm Technomic Inc. found that the heaviest c-store users are Hispanic males aged 18-24, making less than $25,000 annually. But this demographic was also greatly impacted by the recession.

The unemployment range for Latinos and Hispanics has moved toward the 11% mark compared to a national rate of 8%, which has affected their buying power, said Tim Powell, director, research and consulting for Technomic.

“What is starting to happen, especially among those who have become unemployed, is that there has been a drop in c-store usage,” Powell said. “About a quarter of this demographic visits a c-store 2-3 times a week, but prior to 2008 it was probably double of that—once or twice a day for a week.”

Focusing on Hispanic Needs
Like any consumer group, Hispanic customers have their own unique needs. Understanding what they are and catering to them can help generate repeated business. Here are some issues to consider:

Authentic Cuisine. Not surprisingly, the Hispanic demographic looks for Hispanic foods, something mainstream customers are seeking as well.

“For Hispanics, a lot of foods we grew up with, whether it be from Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico or South America, are becoming so trendy in the main market that they are much easier to acquire, so that taste for the Hispanic/Latin flavors that are bold and colorful is something a lot of Hispanics are embracing even more now,” said Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, founder of Hispanic Food Communications Inc., and a nutrition and culinary consultant.

“It’s hard to find a Hispanic food that is not already in the mainstream,” Powell agreed. “The spicier flavors and crunchier textures associated with Hispanic fare are very popular, and you’ll see that continued to be offered on the roller grill, so it will continue to be a trend and spicier food will continue to become more mainstream.”

Healthier Options. Health is also top of mind for many Hispanics today. Melendez-Klinger noted heart diseases and diabetes are becoming more prominent among this demographic, prompting a demand for more healthful food options. “The leading cause of death among Latinos is heart disease, and then we have the highest rates of obesity among adults. Three-quarters of Hispanics are overweight or obese, but in children we see the highest rates especially among Latina girls. Hispanics are looking for ways to eat healthier without sacrificing taste,” she said.

Melendez-Klinger added that in 2012 we’ll see more manufacturers offering healthier Hispanic products. Considering this demographic often buys all their groceries at convenience stores due to convenience and proximity, offering not only the products they want, but some more healthful options, could give you a leg up over the competition.

Price Point Power. To continue attracting this demographic, Powell noted the key is to offer affordable items and portable foods, such as roller grill items. As more operators upscale, they should be careful to continue to woo this consumer by keeping price points attractive, especially on beverages.

“Flavored drinks are a huge draw, including offers on frozen dispensed beverages and syrups that can be added to carbonated soft drinks, so make sure you’re not taking the focus away from that. You can grow and expand without alienating that group,” Powell said.  

Convenience Counts. Overall, convenience remains the No. 1 major draw for Hispanics, and many are willing to pay a little more—even in this weakened economy—for that luxury.

More and more Hispanics are changing their routine, Melendez-Klinger noted. In the past, moms stayed home and grandmas and aunts were involved in managing the kids—the entire family was involved, but today there are more dual-income and single households among Hispanics.

“The mom is no longer at home, and grandma is not necessarily in the same house or even in the same state anymore,” Melendez-Klinger said. As a result, families are time-strapped and looking for ways to cut down on food preparation time, but still want to put something on the table that is authentic. “This is where manufacturers and stores are becoming savvy about providing convenient things for the family.”

Many grocery and convenience stores, for example, are meeting this demand head on, offering prepared foods to go that can be purchased by the pound, including traditional Hispanic foods. Publix, Dominick’s and Jewel are just some of the stores now catering to this trend. “It started with the rotisserie chicken, but now it is whole dinners you can pick up,” Melendez-Klinger said.

Stripes Convenience Stores, which operates more than 380 stores in Texas, is one c-store chain doing an exceptional job offering traditional Hispanic cuisine prepared onsite. But c-stores not already known for foodservice often struggle against perceptions that their food may have been sitting a while and may not be as fresh.

Melendez-Klinger pointed out that if your store is in an area with a high Hispanic demographic, this could be an opportunity to change those perceptions and draw them in with prepared, traditional Hispanic fare.

Hispanic customers often patron the stores closest to them because they might not have cars, “so if you can deliver good food that is fresh produced at a great price right there at their finger tips, you’ll have lines at your store,” Melendez-Klinger said. “This is a trend I’m seeing due to dual income families in general, and it’s becoming more important with Hispanic families. The difference is mainstream

Americans are willing to pick up a rotisserie chicken and some potatoes, but Hispanics are looking for their rice and beans, so you need to see who your customers are and deliver to them.”

Customer Service. Customer service is essential to convincing Hispanic customers to become repeat loyal customers. If they are treated well, news of your store and its products will spread among this demographic. By contrast, “if they feel you have taken advantage of them, you’ll never see them again,” Melendez-Klinger warned.

“These little convenience stores are very attractive to the Hispanic consumer because they speak both languages, greet customers and remember their name and this reminds them of their country of origin,” she said. “When you have the customer service, they don’t care if they have to pay a little more. If they know you are genuine and providing this service from the bottom of your heart and you value them as a customer, you will have them for life.”

Go Beyond Food. Hispanic customers, like all customers, head to their local c-store for more than just a bite to eat. Extras tailored to this demographic can drive increased shopping trips. Bilingual employees, magazines and newspapers, candles (many Hispanics are Catholic), and also school supplies—such as notebooks, pencils and poster board for school projects—can keep Hispanics from walking the extra block to the local Walgreens and doing all their shopping there instead.

But most importantly, ask your Hispanic customers what products they want to see at your store, Melendez-Klinger advised. “They’ll tell you.”

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