StorefrontBacktalk: Despite — and Actually Because of — the Numbers, Hispanic Retail Sites are a Bad Idea

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Aug 02, 2011
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Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from StorefrontBacktalk, a site tracking retail technology, e-commerce and mobile commerce.

With the growing U.S. Hispanic population, it would seem to be a no-brainer that major retailers should have Spanish-language versions of their sites. The reality is that there are far better ways to reach that audience — and that such site creations come with massive downsides.

At the top of the list of reasons to not create such a site is simple economics. It’s not a trivial investment to create a full version of a chain’s site in another language.

Making his argument for why retailers should not launch Hispanic sites, Lee Vann, CEO of Captiva, a Hispanic digital marketing agency, starts by noting that roughly 30 million Hispanic consumers in the U.S. regularly shop online.

"More than half of those 30 million actually prefer English. That takes the market from 30 million to 15 million," Mr. Vann said. When removing bilingual consumers who are equally comfortable with English and Spanish, that brings the Spanish-preferring number closer to six million. "And many of them are still comfortable with English," even though it’s not their preference, Mr. Vann said.

"Compare that to the U.S. online market of about 280 million people," he said, and the cost-benefit ratio of reaching that audience "would be astronomical."

For certain types of products that the customer already knows well, Spanish descriptions also may not even be necessary. "When it comes to SKUs, product images and descriptions, most people can figure that out," Mr. Vann said.

Moreover, accurately translating marketing promotional phrasing can be a huge hurdle. Senior execs carefully choose phrases and tone to send a precise — and sometimes subtle — message. It’s almost impossible to not lose many of those nuances when they are translated into a different language, even when the conversion is handled by a bi-lingual veteran marketer.

This brings up one of the critical arguments in favor of having such a site: respect. Consumers may look favorably on a retailer that gives them the option to be addressed in their native language. But unless the language use is perfect, the site could be seen as sloppy and insulting. Mr. Vann added, "More than anything else, you’d be giving people a subpar experience."

The only major chain to offer a complete Spanish version of its site today is Best Buy, but Mr. Vann said that is because the site is not designed to be used only in the U.S. Given that the Best Buy site is focused on selling to consumers outside the U.S., the numbers and arguments are vastly different.

This certainly doesn’t mean that retailers should expect Hispanic consumers to simply accept English everything. Spanish social media posts (especially tweets), customer-service interactions (online and especially on the phone), supplemental Spanish on the site and Spanish comments (plus Spanish responses to those comments) are a much more effective way to go.

Discussion Questions: Is there a need for Spanish-language versions of websites for U.S. retailers? In what areas should retailers be offering options to communicate with Hispanic consumers in Spanish?

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10 Comments on "StorefrontBacktalk: Despite — and Actually Because of — the Numbers, Hispanic Retail Sites are a Bad Idea"


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Doug Stephens
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Doug Stephens
9 years 9 months ago

I think there’s really two distinctly separate issues here. One is cost per customer but the other is one of fundamental respect. To tweet out a post in Spanish that leads to an all English website is not only patronizing but disrespectful. If the Hispanic market isn’t your target, then so be it. If it is, I think businesses need to approach the market with the respect it (and we all) deserve.

Lisa Bradner
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Lisa Bradner
9 years 9 months ago
This piece points out the really important distinction between someone who culturally considers him or herself Hispanic and someone whose preferred language is Spanish. We do a lot of work to model for customers where their key Hispanic segments are, what the level of acculturation is in these segments and what the language preference looks like. As Mr. Vann points out, that can provide a vastly different target number and picture of the marketplace. A more important issue than having the fully built-out website is whether the retailer understands the path to purchase of its target Hispanic customers and how effectively the retailer is at communicating across that path. If a media campaign is fully in Spanish then retailers need to drive customers to a predominantly Spanish language site (otherwise you risk alienating customers you worked so hard to bring in. Understanding the shopper journey and the languages used in that journey will help retailers justify the investment in a bilingual site (or justify that it is not necessary) but blindly building out a full… Read more »
David Biernbaum
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9 years 9 months ago

Retailers and CPG companies should definitely offer Spanish language sites for Hispanic consumers. This can be done in at least the most basic way, but I do know too that much of the content comes to the retailer from the outside, and so not all the content is easily offered when the retailer becomes, in effect, the third party.

Gordon Arnold
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9 years 9 months ago

The ability to post and maintain foreign language websites will soon be viewed as more important to growth and expansion than all other IT opportunities combined. Without effective communication which is easy and accurate for the consumer, there is no sale. I am surprised that companies are throwing millions of dollars at mobile apps and almost nothing at this.

Terry Soto
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Terry Soto
9 years 9 months ago
It’s all about your online goals and the customer experience, and I agree with Lisa — it must be part of an integrated strategy. I would point out that not all English language websites are meant to reach 280 million people. Every retailer has its core customer segments, which brings the number down considerably. Additionally, we know that not all websites are transactional, many are solely for branding, product information, helpful category tips and advice, and to build community so defining ROI is not always as clear as we’d like it to be, but we move forward anyway. Regardless of your online objectives, don’t make the the mistake of thinking through your online strategy with Hispanics as a separate market. If they are part of your core customer base or you want them to be, and they speak both languages, then address it. Also keep in mind that relevantly speaking to English speaking Hispanics also means reflecting some diversity on your English language sites so all customers can see themselves in context of your brand.… Read more »
Tim Henderson
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Tim Henderson
9 years 9 months ago
If a brand has a product or service that they want Hispanic consumers to use or the brand already has a Hispanic foothold but wants to grow that customer demo, then that company should make every effort to create websites and marketing materials in Spanish and provide other services in a manner that resonates with the Hispanic culture. I’ll add that in today’s highly competitive retail industry, successfully reaching a specific demographic or life stage requires creating an offering that resonates with that consumer’s lifestyle, be it Hispanic consumers, aging shoppers, college students, first-home buyers, new parents, empty nesters, lesbian/gay consumers, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. Yes, reaching such demos will require additional expenditures. But if the brand really has an offering that resonates or they really want to serve the targeted demo, then brands need to pony up the necessary dollars. And re: the translation of English-language marketing materials into Spanish, I think the key point has been missed. Specifically, simply translating English-language promos into Spanish isn’t the way to reach Hispanic consumers. Marketing materials that… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

I find this topic intriguing. It’s nice to see someone – for once – NOT argue for catering to ever more obscure demographics (the rural vegan LGBT market is huge…really??). But this article seems reactionary: to (try to) argue numbers down with comments like “even though it’s not their preference” misses the whole point of how one business can be more successful than another. (HINT: it’s often because one pays attention to preferences.) It also ignores the fact that the Hispanic market is concentrated in certain areas; so it’s not really 15 of 280 but more like 10 of 40 (for regional players in those areas). Of course one needs to look at the numbers, and yes “do it right or not at all,” but that’s true of anything.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
9 years 9 months ago
One of my companies is currently developing a Spanish language version of our English language website, and as Evan Schuman stated, “it’s not a trivial investment.” But, we’re not creating the site to serve Hispanic customers in the U.S. necessarily. Instead, it is intended to serve our customers in Mexico, Spain, and other Spanish-speaking countries. We currently have customers in 98 countries. But the effort goes far, far beyond site development. Since our products include a very important service & support element – critical for customer success – we must also employ and train Spanish-speaking support personnel who have special skills in the areas of empathy, intelligence, accuracy, courtesy, female health, and conception. Not inexpensive, but worth it to serve our international customers. If we were considering only domestic Hispanic customers, the ROI would be vastly insufficient. The argument that it’s “patronizing but disrespectful” not to provide Spanish language websites for U.S. consumers is ridiculous. Hispanics do not come to the U.S. to create mini-versions of the countries they fled. Hopefully they arrive to embrace… Read more »
Louis Mellet
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Louis Mellet
9 years 9 months ago
In the Southwest, particularly in Southern California, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Go into any Ranch Pro’s Market, Vallarta, Northgate or Superior Supermarket and you will find that better than 85% of the population are immigrant or first generation Latino. The same might be said for Bashas Food City in the greater Phoenix market. Or Fiesta in Houston and Dallas, to a lesser extent. As a former Texas Longhorn and H-E-B shopper, while it is true that many Austin, San Antonio and H-E-B shoppers are dual language speakers, I think it is a mistake to segment this group into English vs. non-English speakers; rather, it is more of a spectrum ranging from Spanish speaking only to English only shoppers. The point is to make your shoppers as comfortable as possible within your four walls or, in this case, your website. It is precisely because of the comprehensive package: store layout, Hispanic product offering, Spanish sign package and dedication to the Spanish speaking communities that these businesses are so successful in capturing this highly loyal… Read more »
LIONEL MELLET
Guest
LIONEL MELLET
9 years 9 months ago

Evan Schuman is essentially correct; he could also have added that Latin American American Spanish (LAS) comes in different “flavors”; Cuban LAS is different from Mexican LAS which is yet again different from SoCal or TexMex, etc … especially when it comes to marketing content. When a customer asks us for LAS, our first question is about which market or country the content is intended for; if the nature of the content is technical enough, we’ll use the neutral dialect associated with Venezuela and Colombia. However, if the content is marketing, we must send it to translators expert in the desired dialect(s). So, in general, a flavored Latin American web site is likely to please almost no one and possibly offend some.

Where translation does make sense on a site is when the content addresses exceptional product information or notices, consumer forms, legal notices, etc. Translation also makes sense if the store(s) sell online and the English content is informative (as opposed to marketing) so that the translation can remain neutral.

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