Mainstream retail spices it up

Sears, Ikea - even The Brick - respond to growing consumer demand with new ethnic offerings

Turkish carpets, Mexican furniture and Indian silk throw-cushions are no longer limited to exotic far-away locations that most of us only dream about. In fact, these and many other symbols of foreign exotica are becoming more commonplace in Canadian homes.

Driven by multiculturalism and globalization, as well as a desire to reflect a unique sense of style, Canadians now have a strong propensity for ethnic clothing, furniture and accessories.

According to retail analyst John Torella, of Toronto-based JC Williams Group, ethnic products are now firmly entrenched in Canadian stores. ‘More than 50% of consumers in Toronto are from a non-English or French background,’ he says. ‘Consumer diversity is growing so the market for ethnic products is going to grow more and more.’

And although retailers are catering partly to the large multicultural groups – according to Census Canada, in 2001, there were 1.8 million immigrants in Canada who had arrived since 1991, making up 6.2% of the total population – they are also catering to the mainstream consumer who, in part thanks to the impact of immigration, has become decidedly more open to international goods, according to Wendy Evans, president of Toronto-based retail analyst Evans & Co.

‘People are travelling more now than ever before,’ she explains. ‘Kids are graduating from high school and travelling the world so they come back with all this knowledge of other cultures and they want to reflect that knowledge in their homes.’

Sears Canada is the latest major retailer to jump on the international bandwagon by launching its first ethnic product line. ‘Postcard,’ which is marketed with the tagline ‘We’ve shopped the world for you.’ It includes clothing under Sears’ Jessica brand, and home décor accessories with fabrics and designs inspired by far-flung destinations such as India, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia.

The range (which targets the retailer’s traditional market of female shopping enthusiasts aged 25 to 50) was born as a result of extensive research that uncovered a demand for brightly coloured fabrics and far-eastern inspired artifacts.

‘Our fashion retailers literally travelled the world looking for important trends in fabric and colour,’ says Vincent Power, director of corporate communications at Toronto-based Sears Canada. ‘When we put them together creatively, it reminded us of the ancient spice route.’ Power adds that the retailer was looking for new ways to add an international flair following ‘very favourable’ customer feedback from an anniversary flyer that thanked its customers in 13 different languages in spring 2003.

In order to kick-start the new line, a two-week promotional program was launched on March 21, including a 25% to 40% discount on ‘Postcard’ products. The sale was promoted through 4.1 million newspaper flyers featuring a glowing artistic impression of the Taj Mahal in India, and two national TV spots created by BBDO Toronto, which display some of the new products. In addition, three stores were chosen in high-density urban locations (including Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas) to host a series of events during the two-week period, ranging from Indian fashion shows and dances, to fire-eating and Indian and Moroccan cuisine. The marketing mix also includes in-store banners and an online contest to win one of seven trips to India.

Demand for ethnic-inspired prints and carpets has been on the rise for some time at IKEA, according to external communications manager, Nandindi Venkatesh. But while these products have traditionally been marketed alongside mainstream goods with the tagline ‘Be unböring,’ the retailer is in the process of organizing a marketing team to promote ethnic housewares in response to the increased demand. ‘We are seeing a lot of interest in this sector,’ says Venkatesh. ‘People are looking for ethnic products to express themselves and create a unique home.’

The Brick agrees – and it has also introduced ethnic-inspired furniture and home accessories in response. Lines such as ‘Rustica’ (consisting of Mexican-inspired wooden furniture with wrought iron handles) have been popular for several years, says Joseph Wuest, GM of advertising at the Edmonton, Alta.-based chain.

‘We are seeing a definite trend towards the desire to make your house beautiful,’ says Wuest. ‘Cocooning is an old trend but now it has gone beyond the idea of just filling your house with big-screen TVs. Nowadays people want decorative pieces to finish off their homes, maybe because of all the TV networks that focus on how to design your home.’

In order to reach its very broad target group, The Brick uses mass-media advertising including TV and newspaper flyers. The message is to make your home beautiful. Meanwhile, ethnic accessories like African-inspired wooden giraffe figurines are mixed into room grouping displays at store level.

Other retailers have built their success entirely on the sale of ethnic goods, Pier 1 Imports being a good example. Imported products from more than 50 countries range from a carved elephant to a framed Buddha and Chinese wind-chime. Merianne Roth, spokeswoman for the Fort Worth, Tex.-based retailer, says that demand for ethnic home décor goods is definitely on the rise and it’s a worldwide trend. The proof is in the pudding, as 120 new stores were opened globally during the recently ended fiscal year. Eight of these new stores were in Canada and another 11 are planned in the country for the new financial year.

‘Asian home décor became a big trend with the emergence of feng shui [in the early 1990s],’ says Roth. ‘Now there is a major emphasis on people wanting to individualize their spaces.’ Pier 1′s marketing targets the broad 18-to-49 category, and consists primarily of TV, together with a select national magazine buy and e-mail marketing.

Roth emphasizes ethnic offerings are hot in part because consumers no longer want their living rooms to look identical to their neighbours’. ‘In such a diverse country there’s no need to make your home look like everyone else’s home. [Canadians are] buying foreign products that reflect their personality.’

Mainstream grocers go ethnic

Canadians have developed a taste for ethnic fare, a fact that’s evident in the number of sushi bars and Indian joints that have cropped up on city streets in the last few years.

‘We have found that Canadians do like strong flavours, and ethnic foods meet that criteria more than the mainstream,’ says Marion Chan, VP of food and beverages at Toronto-based marketing firm NPD. ‘Strong-flavoured foods have historically had more success in Canada than in the U.S, possibly because we have a broader ethnic mix.’

But the difference nowadays is that Canadians want to create their own exotic dishes. This is exactly why Toronto-based Loblaw Companies has been serving up more ethnic offerings. In fact the retailer is in the process of launching a new range of Indian cooking sauces under its President’s Choice banner in response to consumer demand, according to Geoff Wilson, VP of industry and investment relations at the grocery chain.

‘People like experimenting with different foods and trying new flavours,’ says Wilson, adding that the tremendous success of Loblaws’ Indian entrées is part of the reason for the new launch. The retailer focuses the majority of its marketing efforts on in-store merchandising, often promoting ethnic products relating to a particular religious or cultural holiday.

Chan believes that ethnic foods in mainstream grocery stores are designed to appeal to the mainstream consumer more than to the ethnic group itself. ‘These foods are seen as short-cuts. It’s an easy way to prepare interesting food without a lot of knowledge.’