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Going ethnic takes effort

Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, May 10, 2004

Well, it looks like ethnic marketing is rearing its head once again.

It tends to happen every decade or so, with great pronouncements and poor execution. The results, as one can see with the latest flurry of activity in this regard, have been minimal — and certainly not long lived.

Early on, both Sears and Penney were leaders in marketing to specific ethnic groups — African-Americans and Asian-Americans were specifically identified with merchandise in stores, as well as catalogs targeted to each group. Those efforts were short-lived, primarily because each of the companies went through so much corporate upheaval and change over the years that a project as focused as this could not hold the attention of management.

One of the few to maintain its efforts and energies in this arena over the long term is Anna's Linens, which has had ethnic marketing as its foundation from day one.

In this latest go-round, we've seen the marketing and media communities energizing towards specific ethnic groups. Retailing, and its consumer products suppliers, have been well behind.

Along the way, retailers such as Burdines and Target have moved into the ethnic marketing arena with signage in stores in Spanish as well as English. But typically, the efforts overall have been perfunctory at best.

We're beginning to see some glimmers of movement. Sears has a corporate program — albeit in its infancy; Penney has just taken on a new agency to handle its Hispanic marketing efforts across the board. Kmart has aligned itself with Thalia for both apparel and home.

Kohl's new fashion designer, Daisy Fuentes, expressed her desire to move into home, as well as any other product categories carried by Kohl's.

For these programs to succeed, it is critical that the players understand that it must be more than language or stereotypes of preferences. It extends to everything from individual sizes in apparel, to specific traditions in buying for a new home or marriage, to the way kids are dressed and taught and entertained, as well as the foods and cooking techniques involved in everyday living.

This time around, ethnic marketing might just work. The numbers are in its favor. More than money, however, it will take commitment.

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