It was 2003 and the managers of Safeway's Langley Park store had a problem. Their shoppers were predominantly Hispanic. The store's groceries were not. And across the street, a Latin American supermarket had recently opened, threatening to take a big bite out of Safeway's sales.
"Consumers kept asking us, 'Why don't you have this, why don't you have that? The other store has it,' " said Safeway store manager Jeffrey Crockett. "We realized we had to do something."
So Safeway gutted aisles 12 and 13, relocating the Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, Hellmann's mayonnaise and Bacos bacon chips. It printed Spanish signs, including one that is two feet long and reads "Mercado," or market.
And it went shopping for some new products, choosing brands most of its managers had never heard of: La Banderita tortillas, Chifles plantain chips, Sabrosas crackers, Cafe Bustelo coffee and Del Frutal soft drinks.
Today, the Hispanic section of the store, about 400 square feet in all, carries more than 1,000 products, from rice and beans to specialty pans and religious candles. Safeway has re-created the Mercado concept in four Washington area stores and plans four more this year, all of them in communities with large Hispanic populations.
Greg TenEyck, a spokesman for Safeway, said the introduction of the store within a store has boosted sales, though he would not disclose figures. "Plain and simple, it is good marketing," he said. "We need to cater to our customers' needs."
As the Washington area's Hispanic population soars, the region's biggest supermarket chains are discovering there is big business in satisfying its grocery appetites.
Not only are Hispanics the region's fastest-growing population, Hispanic shoppers tend to spend more than their counterparts, according to one study. A 2002 report by the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based trade group, found that on average Hispanic grocery shoppers spend $117 a week on food, compared with $87 for the average U.S. shopper, in part because of larger families.
In Langley Park, a majority of the population is Hispanic, making it a magnet for Latin American food retailers. The town's shopping centers are dotted with Hispanic grocers, from small corner stores to full-size supermarkets. At Atlantic Supermarket, across the street from the Safeway in Langley Park, there are eight different brands of tortillas.
To compete with the specialty stores, Safeway monitors what it charges for popular Hispanic products. It hires Spanish-speaking cashiers and pharmacy technicians.
It also created a language training program specifically designed to help Hispanic employees. During the 12-week session, employees are instructed on how to use phrases such as "What can I help you find?" and "Thank you for shopping at Safeway." Vocabulary words include "cash register," "shopping cart" and "receipt."
"It is a real confidence builder for the employees to be able to work with all customers," said Patti Donnelly, executive director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which runs the career development program with Safeway. The company says the program is designed to help it recruit and retain Hispanic employees.
Safeway says its ordering in nearly every department at the Langley Park store reflects the tastes of Hispanic consumers. Pork and beef are sliced thinner. There are larger orders of papaya, plantains and yuca root. At the checkout, the Spanish-language tabloid Mira sits next to the National Enquirer.
In its efforts to track the shopping habits of the store's Hispanic consumers, Safeway managers have discovered strong brand loyalty -- and sometimes not for the brands they had expected. Goya, for example, a popular brand among non-Hispanic shoppers, often loses out to names such as La Costera.
And when it comes to laundry detergent, Ariel powder detergent easily beats out Tide, much to the puzzlement of the store's manager. "I don't know what the difference is," he confesses. "But it is much more popular."
Catering to Hispanic consumers is not cheap. To fill the expanded Hispanic section of its stores, Safeway special orders several lines of products at small volumes, bypassing its traditional distribution system, which is designed to cut costs by buying in bulk.
But those are the products needed to win over Hispanic customers, Safeway officials say. Inside the Mercado section of Safeway's Langley Park store last week, Mercedes Diaz grabbed a package of tortillas and tossed it into her shopping cart. The 27-year-old mother of two, who was born in El Salvador, said she prefers Safeway to nearby Hispanic grocers.
"I buy everything here," she said. Plus, "it's cleaner."
Diaz said she often struggles to communicate with English-speaking sales clerks. But "it's okay. We know the products," she said. "That matters."