All Articles Food CPG Who moved my seaweed?: The challenges of merchandising in the ethnic foods aisle

Who moved my seaweed?: The challenges of merchandising in the ethnic foods aisle

4 min read


(Photo: Flickr user Michael Hicks)

The other day I was in the “ethnic” aisle at our local grocery store picking up some items I needed for a few home-cooked meals. As I strolled past the likes of Mission brand tortillas, Ortega salsa, Kikkoman soy sauce and Goya black beans, the experience at the shelf was unremarkable — that is, until I noticed the Taco Bell-branded taco shells. I had seen them before, but this time, for some reason, I paused. I was in the ethnic aisle. And there was Taco Bell. In the ethnic aisle. Taco Bell. Ethnic? I found myself contemplating the whole Venn diagram of ethnicity and branding in U.S. retail today — and the way our thinking around these issues can create unnecessary redundancy and confusion.

For starters, this is America. Aren’t we all ethnic? The globalization of cuisine doesn’t just affect major metro areas. This is a national trend. After all, you’re just as likely to find Chipotle in Murfreesboro, Tenn., as in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese restaurants are in small-town strip malls across the country. In the U.S., believe it or not, salsa outsells ketchup, and tortillas outsell white bread. Did I not just hear a sriracha reference in “Pitch Perfect 2?”

What makes tacos ethnic and spaghetti not ethnic? In a Whole Foods in New York City, seaweed snacks were recently moved from the ethnic aisle to the snack aisle. If seaweed can live next to granola bars, can’t soy sauce live next to hot sauce? This is an issue for retailers, who are creating redundancies around the store. There’s so much pressure on making every square foot count, and yet ethnic aisles include items such as beans, soda, rice, oils and spices. Why double-merchandise? Meat, dairy and produce are grouped, and consumers seem to understand the rationale just fine. Although they come from various climates and geographies around the world, I don’t find it confusing or inconvenient that bananas, corn, mangoes, avocados and apples can all be found in the same area.

Greater exposure — bringing more shoppers and families into the mix, regardless of ethnic identity, and exposing them to additional tastes and foods — is the missed opportunity here for brands. In a word, that means missed sales. In my local Shoprite, you can only find sriracha in the ethnic aisle, and yet sriracha is trending. Its sales have skyrocketed in recent years. There’s no doubt that families staying in center store and looking for hot sauce options should see these “ethnic” options as well. Food is universal. It’s a win for brands and retailers.

Why would Goya not want to compete with all of the other major brands? Couldn’t Goya win on authenticity and flavor with many audiences outside of its target consumers? Wouldn’t the same be true for other brands stuck in the ethnic aisle? Won’t more exposure lead to more interest, more recipes and more sales? It makes me think of the Apple brand. Apple used to be an exclusive club, meant for creatives and other cool tech folks who wanted to think differently. Well, Apple did a great job of saturating that market and decided that in order to grow, it needed to expand its customer base and appeal to a wider audience. Apple’s ads, messaging and product design went from edgy to functional. The brand transformed itself from an exclusive club into everyone’s favorite Mother’s Day gift. Huge financial growth ensued.

Along the same lines, salsa, sriracha and soy sauce should be allowed to rub elbows with the rest of the condiments we all hold dear. Enough with the ethnic-aisle redundancies. Let taco shells and tortillas go head-to-head with bread. Let rice be with rice, olives with olives, spices with spices, and beans with beans.

Dave Weinberger is vice president and director of engagement at CBX, the brand agency and retail design consultancy. Reach him at [email protected] and @weinbergerdave.


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