Should grocery stores retire the ethnic aisle?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Aug 18, 2021

A New York Times article recently explored the controversy surrounding ethnic aisles in supermarkets and the function they still serve.

Supermarkets first added ethnic aisles (sometimes called “international,” “Asian” or “Hispanic”) in the U.S. to cater to returning World War II soldiers who had discovered foods from Italy, Germany and Japan.

For some brands, however, placement in the niche aisle limits the potential growth that could be more accessible in heavily-trafficked category-based aisles. For instance, sriracha sauce now enjoys greater exposure in many grocers sitting alongside barbeque sauces and other hot sauces. Such placement also helps sriracha be increasingly seen as an ingredient beyond Asian cuisine.

Some charge the ethnic aisle basically features non-white foods and is out of step with the America’s increasingly diverse population.

David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, called the aisle “the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America.”

The celebrity chef told The Washington Post that, as a child of immigrants, shopping in the ethnic aisle signaled he was an outsider. He wondered why Italian foods, such as olive oil and vinegar, had been integrated in regular aisles but not foods of other ethnicities, such as Chinese, Japanese and Mexican. He asked, “All the foods in the ethnic food aisle are already accepted. So why do we even have them?”

Nonetheless, grocers cite convenience as the reason for maintaining ethnic aisles as shoppers have been trained to find tortillas, soy sauce and turmeric in those sections. For many consumers and brands, the aisles still support discovery.

The Times article noted how brands often face challenges being repositioned into more mainstream aisles and that it often takes an acquisition by a larger company with co-op dollars.

In an interview with Business Insider last year, Miguel Garza, CEO of Siete Family Foods, said ethnic aisles provide founders with opportunities to “authentically express their cultures,” but he also lamented that many of his products compete for limited shelf space.

“I don’t understand it,” said Mr. Garza. “If something like salsa is now the No. 1 condiment in the U.S., why would it be relegated to one aisle?”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you find the ethnic aisle antiquated or is it still playing a vital role in grocery discovery? Should products displayed in the ethnic aisle be integrated into the rest of the store?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"It comes down to making the customer experience easier, and may have less to do with specific ethnicities than grouping products that frequently get used together. "
"I favor retiring the ethnic aisles and the assigned ethnic product distributor. Not just due to abuses ... but because the country’s demographics have changed."
"At a minimum we should retire the word “ethnic” as soon as possible. In a multi-cultural society certain products naturally develop a broader audience."

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41 Comments on "Should grocery stores retire the ethnic aisle?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Every retailer will need to decide what merchandising strategy is best for their shoppers. I still believe there is a place for “new and unique” products, and I don’t see anything wrong with having one. That said, in the over-politicized world we live, even the food aisles have become controversial.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

For me, the ethnic aisle simplifies my shopping experience. And let’s be real – how many sriracha sauces have broken through? If I want soy or fish or oyster sauce, an Asian aisle simplifies that. My Kroger also has Italian, Hispanic, British, and Indian sections – and I’m happy to see that they periodically expand. For example, they’ve given ramen its own section.

Good retailing/merchandising can make this a positive for the retailer and the shopper – we don’t need political correctness dictating how to stock a store.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

My initial reaction is that we need ethnic sections, because shoppers are trained to know where to find ethnic products based on previous store organizations. However in a lot of ways it seems inefficient and may reduce the exposure of some ethnic ingredients. Why can’t all sauces be located together and the same for noodle, rice, vegetables an other ingredients – regardless of ethnic cuisine?

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

If retailers integrated ethnic sauces into aisles with general condiments then they’d probably be accused of cultural appropriation. So decisions can’t ever be made on the basis of trying to pander to what is seen as being politically correct. What matters is how consumers shop and what makes most sense to them in terms of creating a convenient and logical shopping experience. To me, it makes sense to have Asian ingredients in once place, and Mexican ingredients in another. To others it may not. But the retailer should look to understand customers in any given location and see what works best. The point about giving shelf space is important and retailers should certainly try and promote niche brands, especially from a diverse range of cultures and founder backgrounds. But this can be done using end-caps, promotional tables, and advertising in-store. The truth is, every niche brand struggles for shelf space regardless of whether they are an ethnic brand or otherwise.

Liza Amlani
BrainTrust

As a visible minority, this subject is very sensitive to anyone that is lead to shop in the “ethnic” aisle for non-white products. It’s almost as if we should be grateful that there is an “ethnic” aisle in the first place.

Although it is very important to have an inclusive and diverse product range, there is a way to showcase “ethnic” products in a way that doesn’t highlight that the customers who shop these aisles are “different.”

Marks & Spencer Grocery has been showcasing diverse product ranges for years and they partner with “ethnic” brands using authentic marketing with POC, expanding their own private label product assortment, and increasing product knowledge around the roots of these products.

There is a way to be inclusive without being completely clueless and calling customers out on their ethnicity or the fact they are different.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I have done this in the past, and it’s not as simple as what people think. We integrated the Hispanic and international aisles into the regular grocery sections. We left it this way for several months. Customers reacted negatively to the change – most thought we deleted the assortment, so they sought what they needed in other smaller ethnic neighborhood markets. We ended up moving everything back and our customers came back. This is the way customers shop – it’s not right or wrong, and I would not lose customers over political correctness.

Jennifer Bartashus
BrainTrust

It comes down to making the customer experience easier, and may have less to do with specific ethnicities than grouping products that frequently get used together. This happens across the store – parmesan cheese is typically in the pasta aisle, as well as sometimes in the cheese department, and salsa can be found in the snack aisle as well as a Hispanic section. Having products located together that might be needed to prepare a specific dish may be more efficient for customers than having to traverse the entire store to find needed ingredients.

Melissa Minkow
BrainTrust

If all other foods are categorized by how they’re used, previously deemed “ethnic” foods can be as well. Merchandising the whole store in a uniform way ensures everyone feels comfortable shopping there, and it’s also a more consistent way of organizing the store. Knowing to go to the “ethnic” aisle is a learned behavior taught to us by retailers, so they can help us unlearn this as well.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

“The last bastion of racism”? That’s pretty harsh, but there’s definitely merit to the idea of re-thinking the whole thing. I always thought “International” was OK, but, points well taken. I’d say test it broken out ASAP. Put sauces in sauces aisle, etc, and see how the numbers comp. One thing we learned from working with grocers though; consumers HATE when you switch aisles on them so, during the “re-thinking” stages, keep that in mind!

Rick Moss
Staff

Quite the conundrum. I’m sure grocers don’t want to be perceived as racial profilers. A recent experience I had, to me, points out the complication. I went to my local grocer to pick up some coconut oil. I typically find the coconut milk in the “International” section, so that was my first stop, but no coconut oil among the other coconut products (positioned along with the other Asian offerings). I found it instead in the conventional oils aisle on the other side of the store — three choices positioned on the top shelf, all labeled “Organic”. So apparently coconut oil transitioned from an ethnic product to a healthy product. This market had integrated its healthy/organic offerings throughout all categories years ago. Apparently finding all the organics in one place is no longer deemed convenient enough to warrant its own section. Decisions, decisions.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Rick, I don’t see it as racial at all – it is keeping it simple for the customer and unfortunately there is no standard in the industry. Fideo (Mexican vermicelli) is a Hispanic item but in 99 percent of the the stores I have been in the past 30+ years, it is merchandised with the dry pasta. Same goes for ghee. It used to be in the international aisle, but now I see it in the baking aisle with the oils. I don’t think retailers should be forced to change because a few see it as not PC.

Rick Moss
Staff

I agree, Richard — sort of. I am drawing a parallel to organics because, in a similar way, grocers need to figure out what’s most convenient for their shoppers. Then again, category managers are human and may have preconceptions of how a health-conscious shopper wants to shop, or where a shopper looking for soy sauce would go to find it. To a large degree, I believe, grocers have trained shoppers to think in these categorical ways. Should they un-train them? Just because it’s currently more convenient to think in ethnic categories that doesn’t mean it should or will always be so.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Well that’s the thing – we tried to un-train and it did not work. Does it mean it won’t eventually be accepted to integrate the product? Who knows. I get the organic take though – that designation has become muddy and and ambiguous over the past 10+ years and while I still see some organic aisles in stores, I see more of that product now being integrated into sets. It’s just taken many, many years for that to happen (mainstream acceptance).

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I don’t care where in the store those items are, but I want them, and so do millions of other Americans. We’re not eating just meatloaf and mashed potatoes any longer. Bring on the gochujang!

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

The challenge is how one defines “ethnic,” and how to know when something like salsa breaks out and becomes mainstream. It’s not a clear line, and there are better merchandising methods.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Like everything else in retail, grocers’ ethnic aisle will change to accommodate new consumer habits.

To date, merchandising exports by ethnicity has been convenient. For instance, all the bestselling Pad Thai ingredients are grouped together.

Yet e-commerce and social media have fuelled product discovery across borders. Now more consumers seek global products and grocers will soon require more shelf space than one aisle, making the integration of ethnic goods across the store inevitable.

Joel Rubinson
BrainTrust

I think multiple aisles might be better (Mexican food is pretty big and mainstream), but it is an organization scheme that works for the shopper brain. In Publix, they also have a great international aisle, organized by country/world region. Never would have found marmite in Florida without it!

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

The ethnic sections of supermarkets have pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is they make it easier to locate products and brands than they would be if they were displayed as part of the general category. The largest negative is in many cases they are not allocated enough space.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Mariano’s stores have a section that spans several aisles called “Global Cuisine” that features products from around the world. Hanging from the ceiling are flags from numerous countries, and the names of highlighted countries are projected onto the floor. Signs over each section highlight where the foods below are from, plus the distance in miles to there from where you are standing.

Global Cuisine is a discovery section, full of product you won’t find at other grocery stores. But if you are just in looking for soy sauce you will also find it merchandised in its rightful section of the store, adjacent to other sauces.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Yes, Mariano’s in Chicago and my local Metro Market in Milwaukee are different Kroger nameplates, but the same concept. I agree that treating these foods as “international” rather than “ethnic” is a more appealing way to present them.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Mariano’s: good point.

Chuck Ehredt
BrainTrust

Organizing food selection by cultural cooking style is very helpful for customers. It is probably time to retire the word “ethnic” from the description because is implies negative connotations for some people, but organizing food types by global regions should stay.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Most American shoppers today have more diverse tastes than in the past, just as the new census shows we are living in a more diverse country. But I think the perception that the “ethnic aisle” is somehow becoming a ghetto for both shoppers of color and the products carried there is inaccurate.

I see plenty of white shoppers (like me) buying Mexican, Thai, Indian and other ingredients in that aisle, and it’s frankly easier to find what I’m looking for when it’s organized in this way. Retailers like Kroger do this not because of unconscious racism but because they presumably sell more merchandise. Side benefit: This kind of merchandising has expanded Americans’ palates and their willingness to try new things.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

With the increased interest in cooking and new flavors, grocers should take a look at remerchandising around meal solutions and tastes. Help customers find their favorite ingredients by grouping items in themes, not labels.

George Anderson
Staff

Perhaps all food types should be grouped based on country-of-origin, so to speak, which would put spaghetti and related sauces in Italian instead of pasta and sauce. I know that in our home we often cook based on cuisine type so this might make sense carried across the store.

Something similar has been proposed by breaking out aisles based on day-part or meal type – breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert – or nutritional preference – gluten-free, et al. In the end, any of these types would probably mean that certain foods will be found in various parts of the store instead of one central location. The question to be tested then, is whether having smaller sections scattered in various places throughout drives more sales or those in a single larger space.

Ultimately, in-store shopping experiences come down to storytelling and communication with shoppers. Some stores excel in this area but most, IMO, do not. It’s time for all retailers to work on their communication skills.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Funny you say that George, several years ago, the company I worked for remerchandised the store to day-part/meal type. I thought it was very out of the box and made sense in regards to how I would shop. Customers just hated it. They could not get used to shopping in that manner, so after almost a year the entire store was remerchandised to a traditional store shopping flow.

George Anderson
Staff
It may be that the current system with its various limitations is the best designed by humans, but the quest for continuous improvement, it seems to me, demands that retailers try to create an even better shopping experience than the ones they provide now. As much as many consumers love their local food stores – Wegmans, H-E-B, Trader Joe’s, et al – there aren’t too many times when you hear shoppers saying that there is nothing they wouldn’t change. Stores have been merchandised for years primarily based on the concerns of operations. There are valid reasons for making many of the choices that have been made and most of those are tied to reducing costs and making it easier to pile products high on shelves very quickly. In an age of increasing demand for personalized behavior, however, perhaps it is time to reevaluate space and design decisions to start with the consumer and go from there. Major revamps will mean that stores must communicate why changes were made and provide a clear map/instructions on how… Read more »
Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

We have all been trained since childhood to grab a cart at the grocery store and go up and down every aisle. Shoppers lose their minds whenever a grocer remerchandises the sales floor. Can you imagine the pandemonium it would cause if we suddenly had to relearn how to shop by meal type? I can. 🙂

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

How something starts and where it ends up are intrinsically intertwined. You can’t address today without understanding the logic of the past. There is little doubt of the segregationist nature of the first ethnic food aisles in the equal but separate social reality of mid-20th century America. Goya Food’s Joseph Perez points out that supermarket managers “didn’t want the [ethnic] clientele in their stores,” or at least in part of the store trafficked by white shoppers. Yet today, many view this aisle as a destination of discovery and ease in locating their favorite foods, irrespective of their race or ethnicity.

In the third decade of the 21st century, do we still need an ethnic aisle in supermarkets? I doubt it, and arguments about shopper efficiency ring hollow. Are we capable of (re)learning where goods are stocked in the store after a planogram reset? The past can’t be changed, but the future is ours to create.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

The ethnic aisles are racist?? And here I thought they were a reflection of a simple retail concept — focus and clarity of offering. They certainly simplify my grocery shopping. I have always viewed them as a step up from all of the mostly bland and undifferentiated offerings in the center aisles (with the exception being Whole Foods). If the ethnic aisles do indeed disappear I will still find all of my favorites, but in the meantime I enjoy the focus and clarity in grocery shopping just like I enjoy the ease of picking a restaurant type.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

I can’t see how having a specialty aisles or areas dedicated to different cultures is a diversity issue. A section that focuses on foods from different parts of the world should be appreciated. And to Mr. Garza’s comment about salsa, I agree. It should be in an aisle with condiments as well as the Spanish or Mexican food section.

I’m very open-minded and want to always do the right thing, so if I’m not seeing something that is offensive, please let me know.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
At a minimum we should retire the word “ethnic” as soon as possible. In a multi-cultural society certain products naturally develop a broader audience. I live in Metro Detroit and my children grew up thinking of what some would classify as “Middle Eastern Foods” as “food.” I also spent some of my childhood as an Irish-American Catholic kid in Utah leading me to a lifelong commitment to what some still call Hispanic foods. And, my grandmother was from rural Georgia so I spent my teenage years eating what some folks think of as, “Soul Food,” and what my grandmother called, “Southern cooking.” I don’t think I’m unique. Many RetailWire correspondents may be of an age that allows them to remember when there was one SKU of soy sauce and maybe two or three SKUs of hot sauces in most mainline supermarkets. Today there are hundreds of SKUs in those categories. Foods’ role in cultures evolves. Often the mainstream versions are “Americanized” and once a large enough market has been created consumers of all ethnic backgrounds… Read more »
Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

When Kroger placed all plant-based meat in a three-foot set within the meat department in 60 test stores for 12 weeks, plant-based sales rose an average of 23 percent. And this was between December 2019 and February 2020–before the pandemic. Gains for plant-based ranged from 13 percent to 32 percent, depending on the local demographic. A Kroger exec said at the time that “this test demonstrates the viability of shifting product placements to reach even more customers.” Ethnic sections? Gimme a break.

RandyDandy
Guest
5 months 2 days ago
I am for foods being grouped by categories. You know, pastas with pastas, sauces with sauces, and condiments with condiments: like salsa with ketchups. Besides, if by now, you don’t know the former is like the latter? Which does bring up the notion of whether you present things via the lowest or highest common denominator, yes? Talk about a thorny subject. However, it does point out whether all things are equal; and that soy sauces being sold in Middle America are to their clientele the same as the rest? Probably not. But should items be segregated to their own sections? Also, probably not. Yet, how far in any direction is too far? Meanwhile, thinking that it’s all a level playing field isn’t exactly being “fair” more than just the “thing to do.” For one, I like some difference (call it diversity) showing up in my world. That includes actually traveling abroad, and seeing that not every place needs to (or should) look like everywhere else. As well as to some uniqueness right around the corner… Read more »
Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

As the recent census survey reports, the US is more diverse than ever before. It’s a blending pot where more shoppers are trying foods from different areas of the world and different ethnicities. The question about ethnic aisles is not a clear yes or no, but it depends. It depends on the data and the local market and your customers.

In my local Ralphs in San Diego, there is an ethnic aisle with considerable focus on Asian foods and Hispanic ethnicities, but there is a separate multiple aisle section including a separate part of the bakery that is Kosher catering to the local Jewish clientele. The diverse store customer base is loyal and everyone is happy.

It’s difficult to remove the ethnic aisle entirely across all stores in the chain. I think that customer data, local demography, basket analysis, and eCommerce search analytics can all support decisions at the local level. If Ralph’s removed the Kosher and Asian sections, that would definitely be a risky proposition in my neighborhood.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

The use of the ethnic aisle works differently for different ethnic products. It is helpful to have all of the Mexican foods together as the consumer will want to buy several items to put together a meal. On the other hand, items like sriracha sauce are considered by the consumer as an item that belongs with the other sauces. The best choice for placement will come from the grocer who knows his customers and tests item placement in the store by moving items to either the ethnic aisle or regular aisles for maximizing sales.

The placement should have to do with maximizing sales, not racism.

storewanderer
Guest
5 months 1 day ago
Save Mart in CA/NV tried this a number of years ago. Save Mart has some stores heavily SKU-ed by Kehe with a large assortment of ethnic items. Some of their stores still have this set up. Others do not. It was a disaster. Nobody knew where to find items. When the resets were done, the way it ended up, was you still had little patches all over the store that looked like an ethnic section, but then they were all incomplete looking. They still had it set up where the unusual/ethnic items were “to the side” of mainstream brands. The entire store flowed very poorly. Asking employees where items were was frustrating — nobody knew. In reality they added thousands of ethnic SKUs, but it was not obvious to the consumer because the consumer had to do too much work to find the items. There is nothing racist about the ethnic aisle. It makes it easier for people to shop for items they are looking for, makes it easier for small brands to gain the… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I think Mr. Chang would have made a stronger case if he wasn’t so quick to pull the “racist” card: his analogy is flawed. If “Italian” foods like olive oil and vinegar have been integrated into the body of the store, so has the “Asian” staple rice. (And if it seems stereotypical to equate rice with Asia, then I guess my point has been made with respect to Italy and vinegar.)

That having been said, there is likely some value, and certainly no harm, in stores revisiting — and perhaps better standardizing — their aisles: the point of “sections” after all is not to segregate shoppers, but to facilitate them finding things.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust
I’ve introduced foreign OTC pharmaceuticals and food brands into the country’s grocers and I have mixed feelings about the ethnic aisles. On the positive side, ethnic aisles have served as a stepping stone or proof of the consumer’s demand for the product as we push for inclusion on the mainstream category schematic. If we sold very well in the ethnic aisles, we were able to present mainstream category buyers a promotional program with a path to the mainstream aisles. On the negative side, large grocers/retailers assign an outside distributor to determine which ethnic products should be included in the ethnic aisle. This gives the distributor complete control of which products are in the ethnic schematic. Buying decisions are not made according to consumer demand or for the benefit of the grocer, rather for the benefit of the distributor. It’s an awful system that lends itself to abuse by the assigned distributor. I favor retiring the ethnic aisles and the assigned ethnic product distributor. Not just due to the abuses by the assigned ethnic product distributor,… Read more »
John Karolefski
BrainTrust

The wine department in most supermarkets typically groups wine by country: Italy, France, Spain, etc. This is a customer convenience. I agree with Ryan Matthews about retiring the word “ethnic” and replacing it with “international” and have the food in that aisle grouped by country rather than by ethnicities such as Italian, Mexican, Korean, etc.

Brian
Guest
5 months 1 day ago
One of the reasons that Category Management was invented over 30 years ago was to help address questions such as this. The most fundamental concept of Category Management is that the consumer should be at the center of all marketing and merchandising decisions. This means that how we define a category and how we merchandise it in the store should as closely as possible reflect how consumers define their needs and how they use and buy the category. The right answer to the “ethnic foods” question then would be based on the answers to these fundamental questions. Do consumers have a need to buy “ethnic food” products or is this need typically driven by how the consumer uses these products? If the latter is more typically the case, then integrating and merchandising these products within the categories that contain the products that use ethnic products as ingredients is more likely the right approach. The exception is when the products (e.g. plant based products) are new. Merchandising these separately is generally the right answer until the… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"It comes down to making the customer experience easier, and may have less to do with specific ethnicities than grouping products that frequently get used together. "
"I favor retiring the ethnic aisles and the assigned ethnic product distributor. Not just due to abuses ... but because the country’s demographics have changed."
"At a minimum we should retire the word “ethnic” as soon as possible. In a multi-cultural society certain products naturally develop a broader audience."

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