By MARY LOU PICKEL | Atlanta Journal
Tony Chong knows the value of the Hispanic dollar in metro Atlanta.
The Korean-American grocer opened a farmers market in Norcross last year, catering to Mexican and Central American tastes.
Bins of chili peppers, fresh cilantro, barrels of dry beans and fresh tortillas greet customers in the produce section of El Mercado del Pueblo, or “the People’s Market,” on Jimmy Carter Boulevard.
“The population is growing really fast,” Chong, 39, said. “I was seeing this 15 years ago in Los Angeles. I figured why don’t I start right now?”
Hispanic buying power in metro Atlanta has increased more than nine times in 15 years, to $7.7 billion, according to a report released today by the University of Georgia business school.
Georgia is now the third-fastest growing Hispanic market in the nation and ranks 10th in Hispanic buying power, according to the report from the UGA Selig Center for Economic Growth.
The state’s Hispanic buying power has reached “critical mass,” Selig Center director Jeffrey Humphreys said.
Georgia historically has had a large African-American market and ranks fifth nationally in black buying power. Now the state is a player in the Hispanic market as well.
The trend mirrors population changes in Georgia.
Hispanics accounted for one-quarter of the 441,000 people metro Atlanta added in the past five years, recent U.S. census numbers show.
The census estimates the state’s 2004 Hispanic population at 576,113, with Mexicans being the largest group.
“It’s probably more than twice that,” said UGA demographer Doug Bachtel. Many experts believe the official Hispanic population count is under-represented because of a large number of illegal immigrants who shy away from contact with the government, including census takers.
While Hispanic buying power in Georgia trails white and black buying power, it has lots of room to grow, Humphreys, the Selig director, said.
“This group is striving. They are starting new businesses,” he said. “As Hispanics rise on the occupational ladder, it’s just going to add more buying power.”
Hispanics nationwide spend more than the average U.S. consumer on groceries, telephone services, furniture, major appliances, men’s and boys’ clothing, children’s clothing and footwear, according to the Selig Center study.
Hispanics have larger and younger households, and a population with more men than women, he said. Many men come to the United States to work, leaving family members behind.
They spend less than average on health care, entertainment, personal insurance and pensions.
After living two years in Mexicali, Mexico, where he ran a watch store, Chong said he is familiar with Mexican preferences. He stocks favorites in his grocery.
“This pepper is really good,” said Pascuala Gonzalez, 54, of Norcross, as she picked through a bin of red chilis at Chong’s store, clearly happy to find a pepper with sufficient firepower. She pointed with disdain to the bin of green peppers. “Those don’t have any bite,” she said.
Selling to Hispanics requires a different approach, said Naveen Donthu, a professor of marketing at Georgia State University.
“Advertising is less effective,” he said. “Word of mouth is more important. What your friend tells you, what your neighbor tells you, what your parents tell you is what you buy.
“You look for opinion leaders ó if you can get community leaders to accept your product,” Donthu said.
Chong is following that line of reasoning, sponsoring a Mexican Independence Day party in his parking lot with local Spanish-language radio station 102.3 FM La Raza.
He pipes Mariachi music over the store’s speakers. The bakery features fresh-baked Mexican breads and “tres leches” cakes, baked on-site by Mexican bakers.
“This is my favorite part of the store,” Chong said of the bakery. “It makes me a lot of money.”
Chong is taking over a lease on a Publix on Buford Highway to create another Hispanic farmers market. And ó to mix it up ó he plans to turn a Kroger in Stone Mountain into a grocery for Jamaicans and other Caribbean immigrants.
But the Hispanic markets are his largest.
“Business is business,” he said.
“With this kind of demographic, we need to put the Hispanics first.”