(Nov. 10) While you’re busy at your desk, you don’t notice the moving trucks going back and forth across the highway closest to your office.

Those trucks increasingly carry the goods of individuals from a wide range of countries and cultures. Between 1990 and 2000, minority populations increased 12 times faster than white populations, according to American Demographics magazine.

During that decade, the Hispanic population surpassed the black population (12.5% vs. 12.1%), while the Asian and Pacific Islander population increased 43% to nearly 11 million people.

When you examine the eating and buying habits of various ethnic groups, it’s apparent they are a profitable market, and you are there to serve.

1. GRASP YOUR DEMOGRAPHICS.

Naturally you’ll study the demographics within several miles of a location before you build a new store, but you also want to evaluate the neighborhood every few years to make sure you’re not missing pockets of people.

If a particular ethnicity makes up more than 10% of the community around a store, it’s worth considering a storewide marketing plan for them, says Joe Pulicicchio, produce specialist for Town & Country Markets Inc., Seattle, which operates six stores.

Before the company’s Shoreline Central Market store opened in 1999 in Shoreline, Wash., a study revealed a 12% to 15% Asian population within three or four miles of the location.

In Southern California, which has the largest Hispanic population in the United States, Albertsons Inc., Boise, Idaho, took dramatic measures to meet the needs of that ethnic group.

The chain, which operates more than 2,200 stores nationwide, changed the name of three stores in Latino neighborhoods to Super Saver. The converted stores switched to bilingual signs, increased produce department size by 30%, made meat counters four times larger and started playing popular Mexican music. In eight months, store sales doubled, according to a Time magazine online article.

After you identify the ethnic groups in your area, study their thinking, preferences and habits.

Hispanics think more about their health and nutrition when they shop, says Santiago Ogradon, executive vice president and account director of Castells & Asociados, a Los Angeles advertising agency.

Research by Norwalk, Conn.-based Yankelovich Monitor shows that 67% of Hispanics look for low-fat items when they shop, compared to 47% of whites. Low calorie content strongly influences the purchases of 47% of Hispanics vs. 34% of whites. The research also found that 86% of Hispanics, compared to 71% of whites, believe that foods made from scratch are more nutritious than prepared food.

This leads them to buy more produce, Ogradon says. When they shop, Hispanics look for good quality first and price second, Ogradon says.

Asians have a discerning eye for product freshness, says Stella Fong, an Asian food specialist who lives in Billings, Mont. If Asians find a rotten orange in a bag, they may not return to the store they bought it from and are likely to tell family and friends about it.

During your studies, learn what regions your ethnic groups come from. Southeast Asians prefer more spicy ingredients and will eat produce raw. Those from China tend to prefer less spice and usually use produce as an ingredient in the meal, Fong says.

Among Hispanics, those from Mexico prefer hot spices. “In Cuba, nothing is hot,” Castells & Asociados’ Ogradon says.

2. ADAPT TO THE CULTURE.

Use your new insight into their cultures to guide what and how you merchandise.

Shoreline Central Market hired a clerk who previously worked in an Asian store. Though he reports to the produce manager, he is in charge of the Fresh Asian area and educates the staff and the non-Asian customers about the Asian items, Pulicicchio says.

Food Lion LLC, Salisbury, N.C., with more than 1,200 stores in 11 states, serves many ethnic groups and recruits from those communities to fill positions. “We want our associates to reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. We also want to have good communication with our customers,” says corporate communications manager Jeff Lowrance.

In Ontario, the 75 Price Chopper stores owned by Sobeys Inc., Stellarton, Nova Scotia, have ethnic shoppers from all over the world, says Carmen Bartucci, sales/category manager for Price Chopper’s produce departments.

Therefore, out of 220 produce stock-keeping units, about 30% of them are ethnic items based on the demographics of each store, he says.

At the end of the summer, Price Chopper stores in markets with a strong Italian influence bring in 50-pound boxes of canning-grade roma tomatoes and merchandise them in the produce departments with canning jars, herbs and spices, he says. The average purchase from that display is eight boxes at $12 per box, he says.

Learn your shoppers’ tastes and provide their favorite items, but not necessarily in a separate section dedicated to them, experts say.

Castells & Asociados’ Ogradon warns against talking down to your ethnic customers. “It’s a culture, not a race,” he says.

Rick Noeth, senior vice president of perishables at Gerland’s Food Fair Inc., Houston, views Hispanics in the 15 Gerland’s stores as similar to every other customer ... so he doesn’t have separate Hispanic sections. He knows their preferences and carries more oranges, more iceberg lettuce than leaf lettuce and lots of hot chilies. He also carries their favorite chips — taro, plantain and yuca.

At Shoreline Central Market, Pulicicchio features hot prices on produce popular with Asians the same as he would any other sale item. The store doesn’t advertise, but when it has the opportunity to purchase a large volume of napa cabbage or Chinese long beans, for example, he allots enough space to merchandise between 10 and 20 cases of napa and five to 15 cases of long beans, just like he’d do for peaches in the summer, he says.

3. CELEBRATE THEIR EVENTS.

Some Sobeys and Price Chopper stores are in markets with Jewish customers looking for kosher products and other specialty items.

“We’re particularly sensitive to the needs of our Jewish customers around high holidays, such as Rosh Hashana,” Bartucci says. Since pomegranates are popular at that time, he makes sure to offer them at a highly competitive price and often promotes them in a Rosh Hashana bag stuffer ad.

Pulicicchio has learned the value of oranges for Asians during Chinese New Year’s when they like to give oranges as gifts. Because they prefer to give citrus with the stem and leaf on, he makes sure to supply it then.

If you cater to Vietnamese, learn about their New Year’s traditions. When they celebrate, they like to eat dried watermelon seeds and dried ginger, persimmons, bananas, lemons, tangerines and lotus seeds, Fong says.

The Vietnamese also like to display five sacred fruits on a tray during the holiday — orange, tangerine, green banana, citron (Buddha’s hand) and pummelo. The fruits symbolize metal, wood, water, earth and fire, she says.

Food Lion likes to participate in ethnic festivals. For example, at the La Fiesta del Pueblo festival in Raleigh, N.C., each September, Food Lion sets up a tent in which festival goers can win prizes and receive small trinkets along with customer loyalty card applications.

The involvement benefits Food Lion because it gives the company an opportunity to interact with its Hispanic customers outside the store and show its support of the local Hispanic community, Lowrance says.

For Cinco de Mayo, Gerland’s promotes avocados and builds a festive atmosphere for Hispanics with piñatas hanging from the ceiling and for sale.

4. RELY ON SUPPLIERS FOR HELP.

Don’t hesitate to break from your regular supplier for your ethnic items.

Pulicicchio with Shoreline Central Market found an Asian vegetable supplier that not only advises him on the proper varieties for various Asian nationalities, but also sells full cases, which helps him compete on price.

He warns against buying repacked ethnic produce because you will pay more for it and price yourself out of the market, he says.

“A retailer only has so much time to focus on so many things. The more vendors can help to really be a partner and help promote it and the retailer, it’s a good win-win,” says Jan Berk, sales/marketing consultant to San Miguel Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif. The company grows and packs the Cut ‘n Clean Greens brand of packaged cooking greens, featuring collards, turnips, curly mustard, flat mustard, spinach, kale, green and red Swiss chard and rainbow chard.

The company helps retailers target black consumers by sponsoring a booth for the retailer at festivals that attract blacks.

For example, in the past year and a half, San Miguel was a co-sponsor with Albertsons at the Old Pasadena JazzFest in Pasadena, Calif., and the KLJH Knott’s Berry Farm Gospel Showcase in Buena Park, Calif., with The Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs Grocery Co., chain based in Compton, Calif., which operates 456 stores.

At these and other events, San Miguel sets up the booth for the retailer, provides a sign with the store name and mans the booth, giving out brochures about the product with recipes and conducting a survey, Berk says.

The survey helps San Miguel and the retailer understand consumers. The company provides the retailer with survey results, photos of the event and store sales results, Berk says. Stores normally increase sales of the greens at least 50% the two weeks during and after the event, she adds.

5. PLAY WITH YOUR PRICING.

Noeth of Gerland’s knows that price is important to Hispanics. Therefore, he tries to sell as many multiples of $1 as possible. “Everyone understands a dollar,” he says. He may sell size 163 valencia oranges at 20 for $1 or two or three cucumbers for $1. The number he offers for $1 depends on the market price.

“A true Asian market aggressively prices authentic Asian vegetables and operates with a slimmer margin than a traditional grocery store,” says Pulicicchio.

To compete, he aims to make a gross margin of 25% in the Asian vegetable category, compared to a 35% gross margin for traditional items, he says.

If he gets a good deal on napa cabbage and features it for 38 cents a pound versus the regular 78 cents, he uses a red price sign in place of the standard white sign. Customers know to watch for the red signs, he says.

With Asians, not only is price important, but so are specific numbers. Work with those numbers in your pricing.

The number eight symbolizes good luck and prosperity to Chinese, Fong says. Conversely, the number four symbolizes death, since the word in Chinese sounds similar.