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Understand the Asian-American Consumer

May 30, 2014


"Significant, Sophisticated and Savvy: The Profile of the Asian American Consumer,” a December 2013 report from New York-based Nielsen, a global provider of information and insights, states that Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing U.S. multicultural segment, with a current population of nearly 19 million. In fact, between 2000 and 2013, the Asian-American population grew almost 58 percent, mainly spurred by immigration.

But tapping into this consumer group’s purchasing power will take more than offering a few token ethnic items on store shelves. Instead, retailers that commit the time and effort required to research this demographic and its shopping habits will be more likely to attract this group to their stores and store brand products.

Brand-conscious

In its report, Nielsen states that Asian-Americans are 29 percent more likely to say they’ll spend more for name-brand food items, even if a comparable generic is available.

To understand why, retailers might want to keep in mind that the very concept of a store brand is still fairly foreign to Asians, states Kyeyoung Park, anthropology and Asian-American studies professor at UCLA, Los Angeles. In fact, even a large supermarket is a fairly recent innovation in Asian countries, so Asian-Americans, especially first-generation immigrants, are likely not used to the idea of private brands.

Additionally, many Asian-Americans tend to view the purchase of branded items as a socioeconomic status marker. In just the past few decades, various Asian countries that were poorer than countries in Africa are now a rich and powerful part of the world economy, Park states. Remembering what it was like to be poor, these “nouveau riche” middle-class Asian consumers purchase branded goods hoping they will be treated according to what they own. And this attitude seems to travel to the United States with them.

Nielsen identifies 35 percent of Asian-Americans as “Swayable Shopaholics”; the company’s data show that these consumers enjoy buying products and can be impulse purchasers, states Betty Lo, vice president of regional community alliances and engagement for Nielsen. Many in this consumer group are willing to pay extra for an image-enhancing product that provides the prestige associated with quality or the prestige associated with simply owning it.

And, as with many other immigrant populations, Asian-Americans often must deal with the problem of feeling “un-American” or a “perpetual foreigner,” Park states. Thus, they feel that if they purchase luxury items, they will be respected as “authentic” or “legitimate” American citizens.

Familiarize them with your brand

Additionally, many American national brands tend to spend a large amount of advertising dollars overseas in Asian countries, creating brand familiarity among this consumer group.

“Many national brands that Asian-Americans are loyal to in the United States as immigrants are brands that are strongly marketed in Asia,” says Vicky Wong, president and CEO of San Francisco-based DAE Advertising. “When they immigrate to the United States, they already know the national brand from buying it in Asia and are comfortable buying it here, whereas they are less comfortable purchasing a brand that they are unfamiliar with.”

Rin Ueno, president of Torrance, Calif.-based H&Y Planning, agrees.

“Familiarity is key to making Asian-Americans purchase store brand products,” he says. “Although Asian-Americans prefer buying name-brand products over generics, they would be attracted to the store brand if they were familiar with it.”

One of the most effective ways to familiarize Asian-Americans with store brand products could be through in-language advertising.

“It is not sufficient to communicate to Asian-Americans with English-only messages; in-language communication is essential to reach them,” Ueno says.

Nielsen’s data show that 77 percent of all Asian-Americans speak a language other than English. And between 1999 and 2010, the number of Asian-American media outlets, including print, TV, radio and digital, increased by 1,115 percent. This dramatic increase indicates an obvious market and opportunity to reach the Asian-American consumer group with in-language advertising. Nielsen’s report adds that Asian-Americans are 15 percent more likely than the general population to say they regard advertisements as sources of information, indicating they are more receptive to advertising.

Focus on what matters

Besides creating brand familiarity, retailers looking to attract Asian-American shoppers also will likely benefit by focusing on what matters most to this group when they shop. For example, Asian-Americans place a high emphasis on quality — both for food and non-food products — which often spurs them to purchase national brands as they use the brand name as an indicator of quality, Wong says.

But they are also interested in value or getting a high-quality product for a great price. Nielsen’s report states that Asian-Americans spend 33 percent of their dollars on deals, compared to 27 percent of non-Asians, and 78 percent of Asian-Americans prefer to shop around before purchasing a product.

Since store brands generally cost less than the national brand, retailers could greatly benefit by convincing Asian-American consumers that store brands are just as high in quality as, or better in quality than, the national brands they typically purchase. Once convinced, Asian-Americans would be inclined to purchase store brands to fulfill their desire for both quality and value.

For retailers, a heavy emphasis on store brand sampling could help convince Asian-American shoppers of the store brand’s quality, Wong says. Sampling increases the comfort level of all shoppers, not just Asian-Americans, in purchasing a product; the more positive experiences an Asian-American consumer has with multiple store brand products, the more willing she will be to try another one because she now trusts the store brand.

Additionally, food is very important to Asian-American immigrants because it connects them to their culture, heritage and the homeland they left behind, Wong states. Because Asian-Americans typically cannot find the food they want or need at American grocery chains, they tend to frequent ethnic supermarkets to fulfill their primary grocery shopping needs. Additionally, these ethnic supermarkets have a reputation for having fresher produce and lower prices, another draw for these value-oriented consumers. So retailers might need to diversify their Asian-American food offerings.

For retailers that cannot carry more ethnic Asian-American foods, promoting a variety of shelf-stable meal starters, prepared foods and soups catering to the taste of these consumers could draw them into stores.

“While meals cooked from scratch are still important, such traditions are facing the pressures of time,” Nielsen’s report states.

Twenty-eight percent of all Asian-headed households include two or more adult generations. Since Asian-American households will have both parents working and looking to provide meals to a multigenerational home, convenient food options are increasingly important to Asian-Americans, too, Lo says. Asian-Americans are 66 percent more likely to purchase shelf-stable meal starters than the total U.S. population, and 27 percent more likely to purchase prepared foods. Asian-Americans are also 66 percent more likely to regularly purchase organic foods, which could be a huge store brand opportunity for mainstream retailers hoping to attract this consumer group, as many ethnic supermarkets offer limited organic products.

By Michal Christine Escobar