Ethnic supermarkets are attracting consumers of all cultures in droves. US consumers are increasingly turning to ethnic supermarkets to get away from the typical mass-produced offerings of convenience stores and major supermarket chains. This shift in consumer behaviour towards a higher acceptance of exotic flavours signals the need for traditional grocers and manufacturers to spice up their own product portfolios.

Super H Mart, a 54,000 square-foot ethnic supermarket in Virginia, is proving to be a successful case study of a store attracting consumers at a time when Americans are trimming down on their shopping trips. A more adventurous consumer group and disillusionment with standard mass-produced goods have turned ethnic supermarkets into a chic destination.

Increased exposure towards international cuisine, through a higher level of international travel and the increased profile of immigrants in the US, has spiced up the American food and drink landscape. Manufacturers are introducing exotically flavoured products that run the gamut from jalapeno-flavoured potato chips to tropical mix soda. Retailers are allocating greater shelf space for Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern products.

As consumers become more gastronomically adventurous and find traditional American fare too bland, sales of specialty foods, which include ethnic foods, have rocketed. In 2002, the US specialty food and drink market was valued at US$53bn, compared to $37bn in 1997.

Accordingly, ethnic supermarkets are springing up all over America. Consumers enjoy shopping at such supermarkets because they stock both hard-to-find specialty products and national brands. The language barriers are also slowly disintegrating, with many ethnic supermarkets now posting multilingual signs – from Spanish to Korean.

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This is a trend that no retailer or manufacturer can afford to ignore. However, retailers and manufacturers must ensure they do not adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to any umbrella culture. For example, Vietnamese cuisine is very different to Indonesian cuisine, and Mexican food may not be popular among other Central Americans. Of course, greater product assortment and consumer education are vital in bringing specialty foods to the mass market.

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