About a decade ago, I read in Icono Culture about a trend in which old, outdated strip malls were being refurbished to cater to Latino shoppers. The article cited two or three examples. Fast-forward to 2014, and a similar story about The Legaspi Company was recently featured in Fast Company about how they are creating "Hispanic malls" all across the U.S.
As a shopper marketer, it doesn't get much better than this. What better channel in which to examine Hispanic shopper behavior than through the lens of Hispanic mall design? One such mall is located near me — La Gran Plaza Mall in Fort Worth, Texas — and a quick visit is a great way to be reminded of the ways in which the Latino shopping experience can be different from mainstream patterns. These points of differentiation are key for manufacturers and retailers, but often overlooked.
As you approach it, you feel is that this Fort Worth mall is making a point to welcome Spanish-speaking shoppers. Overt outside cues like the large "Cine Latino" and "Se Habla Español" signs telegraph that here is a place where your needs are accommodated. Yes, the mall is anchored by large retailers (e.g., Ross Stores and Burlington Coat Factory), but what is more interesting is the mix of outlets specifically catering to the Hispanic demographic. You will find the usual suspects, like pre-paid cellphones (Cricket, Metro PCS, Univision's new T-Mobile JV) and money transfers (Western Union, Barri). But some of the more illuminating (and independent) stores are what drew my attention.
In the past, I've written about how Hispanics can be a prime target for "occasion based marketing (OBM).” Why is this the case? Basically, it's because Hispanics have more occasions. Not only do they celebrate mainstream holidays, like the Fourth of July, but they also celebrate Hispanic occasions (e.g., Fiestas patrias) —not to mention a goodly incidence of OBM-facing extended-family celebrations at Quinceañeras, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc. Interestingly enough, La Gran Plaza Mall had many businesses capitalizing on this behavior. Specifically, I saw quite a few storefronts that offered video-recording services, elaborate portraiture, and venue rentals to commemorate these special family functions.
I also noted numerous “Western wear” stores. The designs tended to differ from mainstream Western clothing, instead embodying the soul of Mexican rural life — specifically the vaquero, or Mexican cowboy lifestyle. Why this is critical is that many mainstream marketers don't realize that a significant percentage of Hispanic immigration, particularly from Mexico, comes from rural rather than urban areas. Therefore, there is a natural affinity for Mexican styled boots, hats, and other Western regalia, as well as regional music (rather than mainstream J-Lo or Shakira). To that latter point, Mexican regional stations typically have far higher ratings than those playing Spanish pop/rock. While marketers can be mesmerized by the allure of "Hollywood Hispanic" stars, they are missing the main chance of catering to the more populist tastes of Mexican regional culture.
Another series of storefronts catered to Latino entrepreneurs. This spotlights the large amount of small business growth that is being fueled by Hispanics for Hispanics. Sprinkling the block were numerous business card, sign-making, and small business tax consultancy services — all tended to by Spanish-speaking personnel. What a better way to get rich than selling shovels in a gold rush?
The gold rush that this mall is tapping into is culturally attuned and populated by numerous mom and pop businesses. The beauty is in the shopper details. You will not find The Gap here, but you will see vendors selling tacos and elotes (Mexican style corn). Yes, there is Chinese takeout in the food court, but note the name —"El Chino." And the pizza stand is not a "hut," but instead "Pizza Patron."
As I strolled from the mall I realized that big brands had missed an opportunity to make a meaningful experiential impact with these shoppers. This place is full of foot traffic, yet for the most part it's the small businesses that are gleaning the shopper dollars. What makes this mall special is the way in which it makes a big nod to culture across all of its elements — merchandising, vendors, music, signage. The Hispanic shopping experience here is less guarded and decidedly positive. In fact, its authenticity is so effective in transporting you to a small slice of Mexico that you want to open up not just your wallet but your heart, too.