Inclusion and segregation in retail: the ethnic food aisle.

You go to the grocery store prepared to shop for the whole week. However, on your shopping list, you have various ingredients, including a bag of spaghetti. Of course, you go to the aisle where you can find pasta and rice. However, a few decades ago, spaghetti was considered an ethnic food and it had a place on the ethnic aisle, along with German hot dogs. 

Times have changed, people have changed their shopping habits, but the ethnic food aisle is still in place. Some stores chose to change the name to “international food aisle”, but the idea behind it remains the same: separating “exotic” products from “regular” groceries. But who decides what is considered international food and what is not? 

In this article, we are going to talk about segregation in retail, with a focus on the ethnic food aisle. Does it affect the potential growth of smaller brands when they are placed on this aisle? Is it a helpful aisle? Or is it an outdated concept and retailers should get rid of it? 

To help us find the answers to these questions, we’ve also talked to retail experts and included their opinions in this article. 

Before we dig deeper into the subject, let’s see how the ethnic food aisle started out to begin with. 

The history of the ethnic food aisle

It all began when supermarkets first appeared. Back in the day, before supermarkets existed, you had to go to the butcher for fresh meat, to the local grocery market for fruits and vegetables, and the bakery for bread and other baked goods. However, the idea that you could get all of these products from one place was revolutionary and that is why supermarkets were such a hit at that time. 

In the 1930s, when supermarkets were created, they were extremely popular. That is why many small businesses closed, leaving the place for bigger one-stop shops.  

One of the main reasons for which retailers included an ethnic aisle in their supermarkets was the desire for exotic food in the US because of soldiers who returned home after World War II. After tasting different foods, soldiers wanted to have the opportunity to savor them back home as well. 

Another reason for which the ethnic aisle was a major hit in the 1930s and 1940s was the big number of immigrants in the United States. Due to the totalitarian regimes in most countries in the 1900s, people came from all over the world to take shelter in the United States. In the 1930s, Polish jews. In the 1940s, Mexicans. After the 1960s, Italians, and Greeks. 

While some minorities made their own stores in the US and sold their products, some supermarkets decided to integrate Mexican, Italian, or Polish products in their stores. However, at first, most foods that are now considered common were considered ethnic foods at the time. That is how supermarkets included the ethnic aisle in their stores. Over time, these aisles included more and more types of foods and some ingredients were moved to different aisles as they became more popular. 

What’s the controversy? 

Now, what is the controversy and why is everybody talking about the ethnic food aisle all of a sudden? Well, one of the reasons for which this topic is trending is the fact that people are looking for more inclusive retail, not for segregation in stores. 

As we’ve detailed in our Inclusive marketing piece, shoppers want to feel heard, seen, and part of the group, not a minority. Inclusive marketing is not just for fashion retailers and brands, it is also for FMCG brands that sell their products in grocery stores. 

Another reason for which the ethnic aisle is raising controversy is the statement made by David Chang, the famous American chef. In his podcast, The Dave Chang Show, he mentioned that the ethnic aisle is racist and that it puts “all the places in the world that are not White America” in one aisle. 

Should retailers get rid of the ethnic aisle?

Now, more and more people are starting to question the need for the ethnic food aisle. So, should retailers get rid of the ethnic aisle? 

Some might say yes, without a doubt, while others might think that it is going to disturb customers who knew where they could find taco shells for their Mexican fiesta. 

Andrew Busby, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections, stated that: 

“The concept of the ethnic food aisle in multi-cultural, diverse countries seems a little out of step these days. The implications and message that it sends are counter to current thinking and attitudes. Just like any retail outlet, supermarkets should reflect the community they serve and should stock the products that reflect this without having to segregate it.”

While retailers might argue that the ethnic aisle is designed to help customers find different products faster, actually it might have a negative impact, because people might not visit the aisle, unless they want to purchase a particular item. 

“The term 'ethnic' is possibly a bit outdated and contrasts to the use of 'world foods' in the UK. The existence of the aisle itself is still valid I think. Similar debates have existed for years about other ranges like organic, vegan, and free from: do you have dedicated aisles or areas, or do you integrate these ranges alongside their counterparts in the mainstream parts of the store?

There are valid arguments for both suggestions. A Polish shopper arguably finds it more convenient to have Polish products concentrated in one bay and one chiller, but this also might be seen as reducing the chances of non-Polish shoppers picking the items up,” mentioned Bryan Roberts, Retail & Shopper Consultant at Shopfloor Insights ltd

Another valid point is made by Bryan. If there is a special aisle for people with dietary restrictions, why shouldn’t there be an ethnic aisle? However, in the ethnic aisle, we do not find specific foods that don’t contain a certain ingredient, there are products that we eat every day, like olive oil, noodles, and rye bread. 

Also, retailers should take into consideration that 40% of the US population is non-white. So is the ethnic aisle really ethnic? 

Apart from the arguments about racism, let’s think about the brands that are placed in the ethnic aisle. How is the placement affecting their potential growth? 

The impact of the niche aisle placement for brands 

Let’s say that you have a small brand that sells guacamole and queso sauce. You have great products that are appreciated by customers. However, instead of having your products placed on the aisle for sauces or on the aisle for chips and dips, your products end up on the ethnic aisle in the supermarket. 

Most people go to the store to buy specific ingredients for their daily meals. They go on different aisles and they might end up adding a few items that weren’t on their shopping list. However, they don’t go to niche aisles (bio, dietary or ethnic aisle) unless they need to purchase something that they can only find there. 

This means that you have lower exposure compared to those who sell hot sauce or ranch dip. Being placed on the ethnic aisle might have an impact on your potential growth. 

“The drawback in having a so-called 'ethnic aisle' is that it immediately suggests that the produce and products contained there are targeted at a certain demographic in the community and for many outside those groups, the inference is that it isn't for them. Integration across the store removes these subliminal barriers and would allow brands to grow beyond their immediate target audience.” mentioned Andrew Busby, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections

The ethnic aisle is definitely a controversial subject. While some argue that it makes the customer journey better, others argue that it lowers the potential growth of certain brands. Also, when adding the racial issues, it doesn’t seem like a great option for retailers. 

All in all, the ethnic aisle seems to be an outdated concept that no longer has a place inside retail stores. However, it might be helpful for some shoppers who want to try out something new. What's your opinion about the ethnic food aisle?


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