New research from Ethnicity Matters shows how important it is to understand diverse, multicultural Canadians to strengthen the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. Convenience Store News Canada editor Michelle Warren spoke with Ethnicity Matters partner and co-founder Bobby Sahni about untapped opportunities and how the convenience industry is uniquely positioned to meet the needs of diverse shoppers.
Tell me a little bit about your research and the takeaways for convenience.
BS: The research uncovered several findings that are important to c-stores in particular. We saw a shift in e-commerce across the board. Many of our ethnic consumers are familiar with online shopping, but we found a lot of newbies as well. When you’ve got newbies that means there’s a lot of opportunity. A good number of the respondents said they would permanently change the way they shop, which really begs a question for c-stores: What’s your e-commerce strategy? And, also, how are you considering the specific needs of ethnic consumers?
What is the untapped opportunity?
BS: Ethnic consumers typically make two shopping trips—one to the mainstream grocery store and the second to ethnic grocery stores for very specific products. Amid COVID though, we found that consumers were instead going out once. So for c-stores, if a consumer is looking to make one shopping trip, do you have the products that are going to be relevant in order for them to choose you?
How are c-stores positioned to meet the needs of multicultural Canadians?
BS: If consumers are looking to make one trip, where c-stores are uniquely positioned is their proximity or their position within the community. In a lot of cases new immigrants may not have access to a vehicle—being in the community means c-stores are accessible. Again, amid COVID, c-stores definitely had smaller crowds and few line-ups. The hours are generally more accommodating—they might be open later, or even 24 hours, and on holidays, as well. But none of that matters unless you have the products these ethnic consumers are looking for.
Obviously c-stores can’t be everything to everyone, how should operators decide where to focus?
BS: When meeting the needs of diverse shoppers, it starts with data and really understanding your customer and their unique needs. The customer base in Surrey might be very different than customers in Winnipeg or Edmonton, or Mississauga and so on. Who are the customers within your trading area? What are their unique needs? After you have gleaned insights from the data, it is about having a strategy or game plan. It doesn’t stop at just having the appropriate products on the shelf; it’s also customer experience and communication.
Any advice in terms of how operators can connect with target consumers in an authentic way?
BS: The communication piece could be as simple as having exterior signage letting customers know that they’re welcome in your store, and they’re being recognized as important customers. If we want to get into specifics of communication and letting customers know you’ve got the right products on your shelves, the ethnic communities have really made it easy for us: They have strong online communities—digital media, social media, blogs, forums and influencers—and this extends offline, to community groups, clubs and organizations, as well as ethnic media. It’s really up to c-stores and the operators to examine, within their specific trading areas, how they become part of that community, or how do they welcome those diverse consumers.
Have you seen this in action?
BS: I’ve seen some convenience stores that have really changed what’s on their shelf to be reflective of the local market. Now this may be driven from head office, or it could be just a very smart entrepreneur that understands that they need to reflect a local audience. This includes everything from makeshift exterior signage in different languages to let consumers know about what products might be on sale, to callouts within the store, as well as sections for ethnic grocery. I think a little bit more of an organized effort would involve certain c-stores actually working with ethnic media, as an example, to distribute free ethnic newspapers at their stores, which again becomes a driver for consumers to come to those stores on a regular basis to pick up the media. Operators definitely became a little more creative during COVID, I think they became a little more attentive to customer needs, and this is definitely a great time for any c-store operator to rethink the way they’re servicing not only ethnic consumers, but also all consumers.
This can sound daunting for an independent operator: How do they fit in?
BS: The real opportunity for independents is they can be a little more nimble, a little more entrepreneurial, so I would encourage, as a first step, they absolutely need to understand their local community and local trading area. Lots of data is available, whether its syndicated studies, as we’ve done in the past for c-stores, or even municipal and government census data that at least speaks to the makeup of a given community. But really, get out there, meet your customers—speak to the people that live and work and play within your community and you’ll find out a lot. It’ll definitely shape the way you run your business.
Being able to source the right products is key—how are manufacturers and vendors stepping up?
BS: The manufacturers are really interesting in terms of reflecting diversity in their product offering. On the one end, it’s new product development based on particular data or insights, but it’s also been multinationals importing products from other parts of the globe to serve local customers. There’s also the opportunity to innovate around packaging and size and formats. Many immigrant communities have larger families, for instance, so larger pack sizes work, or in some cases, it makes sense to reskin the exterior packaging to be more relevant to a diverse audience. That could be different languages or festive packaging relevant to ethnic holidays, like Chinese New Year or Diwali. Also, a lot of innovation and opportunity can come from global benchmarking: What are the trends that are vibrant in other parts of the world? How can we execute those locally, but not only to service what I’ll call the low hanging fruit (the ethnic consumers), but also how do we bridge to the mainstream—from a manufacturer and c-store perspective that’s where the magic really happens.
Is the industry doing enough to meet the needs of diverse shoppers?
BS: For some organizations, both in manufacturing and retail, they’re making good strides, but others haven’t even joined the race. Immigration is a growth strategy for the country, so it’s got to be a strategy for every company, as well. If you haven’t joined the race you might be very quickly left behind and be irrelevant to these consumers.
Is your c-store doing something innovative or interesting to target diverse multicultural Canadians? We want to hear about it! Email editor Michelle Warren.