- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

Hallmark Cards Inc. is marketing 2,500 greeting cards for Hispanics, close to double the number marketed a year ago, and Blockbuster Inc. has posted bilingual signs and has stocked video rentals in Spanish in nearly a quarter of its stores.

Kmart has a fashion line named for Mexican pop star Thalia, a bid to woo young consumers. And Sears, Roebuck and Co. plans to introduce Lucy Pereda, a line of dressy women’s clothing bearing the name of the Cuban-born TV lifestyle personality.

With overall retail sales languishing, store owners are hoping to give their business a boost by pursuing the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population — Hispanics.

Many merchants have sought out the Hispanic customer for years. But the industry found after the release of the 2000 Census that it had underestimated the size of the Hispanic population, which had surged 58 percent to 35.3 million during the 1990s. The nation’s Hispanics represented an opportunity for retail sales growth.

“The Census [2000] was very key,” said Hallmark spokeswoman Deidre Parkes. “We knew we needed to increase our efforts.”

But which strategies will work with Hispanics remain to be seen.

David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, a buying office in New York, says most fashion trends this spring — including the explosion of bright colors and lots of ruffles — are the result of the Latino influence on the American mainstream.

“It is colorful and flamboyant and sexy … exactly the opposite of the minimalist fashion that killed fashion in the 1990s,” Mr. Wolfe said.

In a testament to Latino power, the fashion line JLo by entertainer Jennifer Lopez is among the standouts in teen departments of major stores.

“This was never geared toward Hispanics, but the fact that J.Lo is of Hispanic descent has helped,” said Denise Seegal, chief executive and president of Sweetface Fashion Co., which produces the line.

Some experts in Hispanic marketing are still wary of retailers’ efforts, saying they need to pay attention to the differences within this population, including their nations of origin and the parts of the United States where they live.

“Some of [the retailers] get it, and some don’t,” said Aida Levitan, president of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, which works with U.S. companies to help promote products to Hispanics.

Cathy Areu Jones, a 32-year-old Vienna, Va., resident and publisher of Catalina, a lifestyle magazine geared to Hispanic women, says “companies are just throwing spaghetti to the wall. They think that one size fits all.”

She said the new fashions need to take into account Hispanic consumers’ different body shapes, and the designs and advertising shouldn’t perpetuate the stereotype of a sultry-looking Latina.

“I have a hard time finding clothes for myself,” said Ms. Jones, who said she has to have her clothes tailored at the waist, but needs clothes that are more forgiving at the hips. All she sees in the stores is “the American cut.”

And she doesn’t go by latest trends like the ruffles and the bright colors because, she says, they perpetuate the Hispanic stereotype.

Cindy Pino, 28, from New York, agrees, noting that retailers should realize that “we are different physically.”

“I have a hard time buying jeans,” she said. She also gets turned off by what she says is marketers’ focus on Spanish-speaking Hispanics. She says companies should pay closer attention to someone like her, a first-generation Chilean-American.

Major retailers, including Kmart, said they are working hard to get the fit right. Retailers also noted they have done extensive research to figure out the preferences of Hispanic consumers.

For example, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. is the dominant retailer for an apparel line called Havanera that is aimed at Hispanic men. The line, produced by Perry Ellis, offers relaxed clothing featuring drawstring pants and embroidered detail. The product reflects research showing that segment is keen on rich details in their apparel, said Penney spokeswoman Christi Byrd Smith.

Blockbuster has studied its Hispanic customers in different parts of the country and tailored its stores to meet their tastes.

Pete Wei, vice president of field marketing and customer segments at the video rental company, said that at its San Antonio stores, for example, Hispanic consumers prefer communicating in English, so there are fewer videos and signs in Spanish.

“They behave like Americans and Texans,” Mr. Wei said. But in its Southern California stores, Blockbuster is bringing in more films in Spanish from Mexico.

At stake for retailers is Hispanics’ immense buying power, expected to balloon to $926.1 billion in 2007 from about $580 billion last year, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. That far exceeds the growth rate in buying power of overall non-Hispanic consumers.

According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor report, Hispanics spent more on such categories as groceries, furniture, children’s clothing and footwear than non-Hispanics in 2001 because they have larger families on average.

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