Natural Foods Merchandiser

Marketing to Asian-Americans

Kelly Chaplow has a cuisine quandary. As a second-generation Chinese-American, she likes to cook traditional meals for her family. But the only grocery stores near her suburban Denver home that carry authentic Chinese ingredients are in a seedy section of town. What’s more, the stores are “smelly and dark, the meat doesn’t look fresh and the staff isn’t very helpful,” Chaplow says. So she shops at a local Whole Foods that doesn’t carry Thai chiles, offal or other Asian cooking staples. It’s a tradeoff she’s willing to make for a pleasant shopping experience. “I wish there were Asian supermarkets as nice as Whole Foods,” Chaplow says.

She’s not alone. According to “The Future of Food Retailing in the U.S.,” a 2008 report compiled by Rockville, Md.-based market research firm Packaged Facts, Asian-Americans are twice as likely to shop at naturals supermarkets than in other grocery stores. The reason? Like Chaplow, many Asian-Americans are affluent and well educated—in fact, Packaged Facts reports that Asian-Americans had the highest median household income in the U.S. in 2006. And yet, “relatively few conventional retailers have reached out to tap this group’s buying power,” Packaged Facts reports.

How do you get Asian-Americans to your store, or keep existing shoppers like Chaplow happy? Try these tips.

Honor their ancestors. Just as not all whites like hot dogs and not all Hispanics are fans of burritos, not all Asians eat sweet and sour pork. Cooking and shopping habits vary by ethnicity. “You have to know specifically which Asian group your customers belong to,” says Michael Soon Lee, president of EthnoConnect, a Dublin, Calif.-based multicultural marketing firm. “It helps you build a relationship much quicker and allow you to more accurately focus on your customer’s needs.” But how do you determine a shopper’s ethnicity without being politically incorrect? “Ask your customer where their ancestors are from,” Lee says. “Asians are happy to talk about their cultures.”

Know the cultural differences. While you don’t want to stereotype, Lee says that in general, Japanese eat much more raw food than Chinese. Koreans are more inclined to like spicy foods and drink more alcohol than other Asians. Filipinos tend to be the most Americanized in terms of food choices, while the Vietnamese eat most like their ancestors because they’re often newer to the U.S., he says.

Understand the generation gap. There’s a big difference between immigrant Asians and those who have been in the country for generations, says Mary Olvera, director of client services for Cultural Marketing Public Relations in Chicago. “Don’t focus on foreign, immigrant Asians only. It would be like trying to reach a third- or fourth-generation German-American by assuming they are the same as a German national,” she says. “Immigrants, by definition, hold more cultural predispositions toward food from their homeland versus Asian-Americans, who usually eat a combination of Asian and other ethnic foods.”

Emphasize quantity of life rather than quality. Asians are very interested in longevity, Lee says, but aren’t overly concerned with disease because their diets are traditionally very healthy. Any mention of death is considered bad luck, so focus your food and supplements marketing on the positives of living a long life rather than the negatives of poor health.

Channel your inner herbalist. “Asians are used to thinking of food as having healing powers, so you don’t have to do too much selling about that,” Lee says. But when Asians have a health problem, they tend to go to an herbalist rather than a natural foods store. “You have to educate them about what kinds of health foods and supplements you offer,” he says.

Bone up on Asian health issues. Lee says many Asians tend to be lactose intolerant because their ancestors didn’t eat much dairy, and industrialized and commercial dairy products are still relatively rare in Asia. They also believe good digestion is important to overall health, so they tend to buy a lot of digestive teas and supplements. Environmental allergies can be a problem, particularly for new immigrants who are bombarded by plants and pollutants that don’t exist in their home countries. Steer these shoppers toward your supplements aisle.

School your shoppers. Asians value education more than much of the population and are very technology oriented, so use sophisticated, intelligent marketing materials like e-newsletters, Olvera says. “Most Asian-Americans also are family oriented, so reaching one person can pay off greatly; like Latinos, sharing knowledge or awareness of products, services and the like extends to the family and the extended family.” Because their languages are very visual, Asians respond to graphic information such as charts, pictures or signs with statistics, Lee says. “I can’t overemphasize the importance of education to Asians. If you can teach them—maybe explain something like organic to them—they will be your customers for life.”

Sell value rather than price. Your Asian customers might have high incomes, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to blow their entire paycheck
at your store. “Asians are very cost-conscious,” Lee says. “They’ll go for a lower-priced item if they feel it has comparable ingredients.” Chaplow points out that new immigrants in particular tend to suffer from sticker shock because most traditional Asian ingredients aren’t expensive in their home countries.

Don’t focus on Fido. Asians are very concerned about nature and passing on a clean environment to future generations, but they don’t necessarily care that much about animal welfare, Lee says. “Animals are food—don’t forget that some people in Asia include dogs and cats on their menus.” Focus your marketing materials on saving the planet rather than banning caged chickens.

Shopping List
Chinese-American Kelly Chaplow wishes her favorite natural foods stores stocked these Asian cooking staples:

  • Thai jasmine rice
  • Banana leaves
  • Dried seafood
  • Frozen duck
  • Squab
  • Pigeon
  • Pork belly and gels
  • Thinly sliced Japanese-style beef
  • Offal
  • Gallon-sized soy sauce
  • Okra
  • Thai chiles
  • Bok choy

Chaplow avoids frozen or prepackaged Asian foods ('way too Americanized") and ingredients made in China ("they have a bad health reputation so I look for things from Taiwan or indonesia instead')

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