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Learning Latin

Furniture Plays to Hispanic Shoppers With a Spanish Talk-Show Star

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page H01


In a crowded showroom at the International Home Furnishings Market here last month, Ricky Martin was shaking his booty singing "Livin' La Vida Loca" on multiple widescreen TVs as waiters served sangria. In the midst of the hoopla, Spanish-language TV talk-show queen Cristina Saralegui gave store buyers and media types a tour of the Casa Cristina collection from Pulaski Furniture based on her Miami home -- and sporting bilingual price tags.

"I wanted to do a collection that represents who I am," said Cristina, who has 100 million worldwide viewers for her program, Univision's "El Show de Cristina." "The sheer numbers of Latin Americans in America have brought our culture to the forefront and I think America is ready to embrace it."

Cristina Saralegui and her first collection for Pulaski are targeting the Hispanic customer. (Sara D. Davis for The Washington Post)

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Cuban-born Cristina, who goes by her first name, has been called "Oprah with salsa." She and Pulaski, a 49-year-old Virginia-based maker of traditional wood furniture, have joined forces to catch the eye of consumers in the red-hot Hispanic market, an emerging power on America's retail landscape.

Home ownership among Hispanics, the nation's largest minority group, increased by 21 percent between 1994 and 2004, according to Census figures. And where there are home buyers, there are furniture buyers: Hispanic households allotted nearly $7 billion for furniture spending in 2003, according to Pulaski research.

U.S. Hispanic purchasing power is expected to reach nearly $700 billion for 2004, according to HispanTelligence, a tracker of Hispanic market trends.

Pulaski is betting that the Latin star power of the outspoken platinum blond media mogul -- who already has her own magazine, radio show and is a favorite on "Hollywood Squares" -- can sell furniture designed to connect with these consumers. Creating the line was a complex task, according to Executive Vice President James H. Kelly, whose team blended Cristina's Miami-Mediterranean style with design motifs from 20 countries stretching from Spain to the Caribbean to South America. The result is a casual, sometimes rustic look incorporating bold carving, terra-cotta tile and wrought-iron detailing.

There is lively debate within the home furnishings industry about marketing directly to Hispanics, or any other specific ethnic group.

"Lots of sellers of consumer products have decided that the taste of the Latin customer is different in some regards than the Anglo customer," said Warren Shoulberg, editor in chief of HFN, an industry news weekly. "Some furniture companies have determined that they have different preferences on colors, which might reflect the heritage of the country they came from, and finishes, which might reflect more of their native woods."

Regina Molaro, senior associate editor of License! magazine, says the furniture industry is wise to look to the beauty, fashion and art industries that have addressed the growing Hispanic numbers in this country. "You are kind of missing the boat if you don't," she said.

But Ed Tashjian, vice president of marketing for Century Furniture, doesn't feel he has to appeal separately to Hispanics. "Hispanics have assimilated into this culture better than any other ethnic group," he said. "Ethnicity is not a good discriminate variable for targeting audiences in high-end furniture buying behavior."

One of Century's best-selling furniture designers is Oscar de la Renta, a native of the Dominican Republic. Century doesn't target advertisements explicitly to Latinos, Tashjian said, but "I will tell you that Floridians of Hispanic descent do go ga-ga for Oscar de la Renta. They are all over it."

"Yes it's for Latinos," Cristina said of her furniture, "but it's also for everyone else."

In a style it pegged as "Euro-Mediterranean," Pulaski has made leather-topped bars with swivel stools for entertaining ($3,749 for 3-piece set) and distressed wood kitchen islands designed to encourage family gatherings ($1,599). For teens: four-poster beds in rubbed white finish and cherry bunk beds to tap into the growing numbers of U.S. Hispanics with young children.

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