Ten years ago, finding ethnic food in a major supermarket was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Companies that stocked foreign-produced items offered limited selections often relegated to a small aisle in the back corner of the store. But all that is changing, and one grocer—the nation’s largest—is leading the way.
Over the last decade, Kroger has been expanding its offerings with a focus on improving ethnic food options in more than 2,600 stores. In 2008, the company created a new position and tapped Angel Colón as its first head of multicultural business development.
As a kid in Puerto Rico, Colón split his time between the baseball field and the grocery store. When he wasn’t laboring on the pitching mound, he was stocking store shelves, loading trucks, and building displays. After summer jobs with Goya Foods, he joined the company and started what has become a 27-year career in the industry in which Colón has held almost every possible position. The pedigree, he says, gives him unique insights into his latest role at Kroger. “I worked for a producer of Hispanic foods sold in the United States,” he says. “This helped me understand the entire business, and I saw early on the importance of quality products, innovation, and the desire to meet customer needs.”
Kroger made a bet back in 2008 that Colón’s expertise could help the company attract and retain a growing base of customers from Latin America and other countries with unique palates—but he’s also reaching average Americans with appetites for foreign foods. “Targeting only multicultural customers is a mistake. Instead, we are engaging all of our customers with a multicultural approach, and that lets us leverage the growth, influence, and popularity of ethnic foods,” Colón says.
Multicultural marketing in the United States is often siloed because companies view these efforts as separate from their overall marketing strategy. Colón says that’s not the case at Kroger, where he works with business partners across all divisions to make sure multicultural efforts are aligned with core business strategies. The key, he has found, is communication. “We have to share data and progress with stakeholders and demonstrate how multicultural marketing and our efforts in ethnic foods support business growth.”
Throughout his career, Colón has grown accustomed to being the only Hispanic in most meetings, departments, or teams. He came to the United States at age 17 and learned to change his culture and language. “Multicultural people in this country endure a lot, but I think that’s helped me grow and learn,” he says. “Now I can use those experiences to help Kroger relate to customers in an authentic way.”
The cornerstone of Kroger’s marketing strategy is its customer loyalty card, which allows the company to gather data and analyze consumer behavior. The card has allowed Kroger to provide personalized rewards to customers who shop at company stores. This one-to-one marketing will drive Kroger in the future. Although the grocer often employs more traditional means to gather consumer insights—Colón, who once traveled the country to observe customer habits across 18 divisions, preaches the value of spending time talking to customers and associates—the loyalty card tracks information about what customers purchase in a concrete way. “We’re leading in data,” says Colón. “We leverage data more than our competition and merchandise our stores based on actual customer information instead of making guesses or basing every decision on a narrow focus group. We know what, where, how, and when people shop, and we have actual customer behavior insights.”
“The days of international foods for international customers are gone. International food is for everybody.”
Armed with the data, executives can make better merchandising and procurement decisions to optimize assortments based on who is shopping in a specific location. In many stores, Kroger is integrating ethnic and traditional food products. By placing Maseca corn flour (a Mexican product used for tortillas) next to white flour, Kroger allows multicultural customers to see the entire assortment while Americans get exposed to an international choice.
Before Colón’s arrival, Kroger had a handful of stores that were engaging international shoppers. The efforts, however, lacked cohesion. Today, Colón and Kroger leadership have built a centralized team aligned with the company’s strategic direction. “It’s hard to move the world with two hands. We have a lot of talent around Kroger that continues to make this happen,” he says. Together, Colón and his associates are helping Kroger understand the potential of obtaining multicultural customers and engaging all customers with ethnic foods. They’re also working on expanding a strategy for inclusion on marketing and promotional materials. In the coming years, Colón hopes to close the multicultural gap and gain more share in the international category by putting international food on more tables across the country.
Today, when Colón walks up and down the aisles of a Kroger store, he sees something very different. Ethnic foods are no longer hidden in back corners or shoved to the side. “The days of international foods for international customers are gone. International food is for everybody,” he says. Changing demographics are changing American cuisine. Experts predict the Hispanic food and beverage market to grow from $8 billion to $11 billion in the next two years alone, and salsa has topped ketchup as the nation’s number one condiment. The potential is there, and if Kroger can engage all customers, the company will retain its spot atop a notoriously competitive industry.