You can see it on store shelves: Multicultural Crayola crayons, featuring colors to match the pigments of a multihued society. Betty Crocker morphing into a composite of 75 different women from assorted backgrounds. Salsa passing ketchup as the top condiment in the United States.
You can see it in the demographics: By 2050, an estimated 47 percent of Americans won't be white.And you can see it in the economics: Minority groups in the United States represent more than $700 billion in disposable income, $500 billion of which is spent on consumer goods.
To Gary Sherman, a consultant who researches how different ethnic groups shop, the preceding sights are evidence that the nation is more a "salad bowl" than a melting pot. And retailers must find out how to reach these distinct groups of Americans if they are going to capture an increasingly important segment of the marketplace.
"How many more malls can there be in this country?" Burman said Monday at the annual convention of the Food Marketing Institute at Chicago's McCormick Place. "The next major battle for the future of retailing will be in the inner city. It is all about reducing prejudice and building a bridge of understanding."
Retailers are listening.
During the past year, Sherman's firm, Market Segment Research and Consulting, has conducted more than 200 market studies for such clients as General Mills, Fingerhut, Quaker Oats, AT&T, Anheuser Busch and the U.S. Postal Service. The number of stores using data from electronic scanners to track buying habits by ethnic group has climbed from 2,700 to 10,000 in just a couple years, he said.
And 18 U.S. corporations recently hired Sherman's firm to conduct a national study - using interviews and surveys - to gauge differences in shopping behavior and product preference among different ethnic groups. On Monday, Sherman released data that researchers collected from 2,000 Hispanic, 1,000 black, 1,000 Asian and 1,000 white adults.
What researchers found, Sherman said, is consumers that may share many similar tastes and desires but often exhibit different buying habits along racial lines.
For example, 53 percent of Hispanic shoppers said they believe it is risky to buy a brand they are unfamiliar with; but only 27 percent of white shoppers said that's a risk. Along those same lines, 62 percent of Hispanic consumers said they always look for the brand name on the package; only 24 percent of Asian shoppers and 26 percent of white shoppers are that brand-conscious.
Whites and blacks are much more likely to use coupons, Sherman said. (Hispanics are least likely.) He attributed that to the fact that most coupons are in English and not Spanish. That's an obstacle in a segment of society that has been more conscious than most others of keeping its native language, he said.
While ready-to-eat cereals are a big sales product in grocery stores, Sherman said researchers learned that less than 20 percent of Asian shoppers say they buy cereal. "These are broad generalizations," he said. "But, in many Asian homes, breakfast is a many-stages meal. They just don't buy ready-to-eat cereals."
Other odds and ends: Whites buy more skim and 2 percent milk; black and Hispanic shoppers buy more whole milk. Anglos buy more margarine; Asians use more butter. Asians go to the market more often, with 90 percent saying they visit at least once per week. Black and white shoppers tend to "stock up" during less frequent trips, Sherman said.
While all this may seem to be marketing minutiae, retailers and food manufacturers see the benefits of knowing more about their customers and their communities, and tailoring products and product selection to meet those markets, Sherman said.
"They are micromarketing to different ethnic groups," he said. "We're definitely seeing shifts from an affirmative action and minority-affairs mentality to one of, `Let's make money."'
Hallmark has long created greeting cards for different racial and ethnic groups, said Paul Quick, a company executive. But two years ago, the company created a team devoted specifically to develop and market the company's Mohogany, Primor and Tree of Life lines - catering to the black, Hispanic and Jewish communities, respectively.
"We work with people from those groups to make sure it's relevant to those groups," Quick said. "We just don't take a card and change the colors of the faces - the message must be relevant."
For example, Hallmark recently sent card creators to Israel for several weeks to study Jewish culture. "That's the kind of commitment I'm talking about," Quick said.
And, while Sherman said most companies are reaching out to the broader ethnic spectrum through such things as using Spanish on labels, changing product logos to be more inclusive or changing flavors to meet various regional markets, a number of other companies are launching new products that reflect an expanding ethnic interest.
Across the convention center floors at McCormick Place, food sellers were touting new flavors and products - many with an ethnic twist.
There were Colavita olive oils, Sun Fresh palm hearts, Mejool dates and Amy's organic feta and spinach pockets. Andy Berliner, co-owner of Amy's, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based company, said his foods are inspired by what he and his wife find in ethnic restaurants.
"Our research and development is eating out," he said. "Seriously, it's all an effort to find unique flavors that will have broad appeal."