Should grocery stores retire the ethnic aisle?

Photo: RetailWire
Aug 18, 2021

A New York Times article recently explored the controversy surrounding ethnic aisles in supermarkets and the function they still serve.

Supermarkets first added ethnic aisles (sometimes called “international,” “Asian” or “Hispanic”) in the U.S. to cater to returning World War II soldiers who had discovered foods from Italy, Germany and Japan.

For some brands, however, placement in the niche aisle limits the potential growth that could be more accessible in heavily-trafficked category-based aisles. For instance, sriracha sauce now enjoys greater exposure in many grocers sitting alongside barbeque sauces and other hot sauces. Such placement also helps sriracha be increasingly seen as an ingredient beyond Asian cuisine.

Some charge the ethnic aisle basically features non-white foods and is out of step with the America’s increasingly diverse population.

David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, called the aisle “the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America.”

The celebrity chef told The Washington Post that, as a child of immigrants, shopping in the ethnic aisle signaled he was an outsider. He wondered why Italian foods, such as olive oil and vinegar, had been integrated in regular aisles but not foods of other ethnicities, such as Chinese, Japanese and Mexican. He asked, “All the foods in the ethnic food aisle are already accepted. So why do we even have them?”

Nonetheless, grocers cite convenience as the reason for maintaining ethnic aisles as shoppers have been trained to find tortillas, soy sauce and turmeric in those sections. For many consumers and brands, the aisles still support discovery.

The Times article noted how brands often face challenges being repositioned into more mainstream aisles and that it often takes an acquisition by a larger company with co-op dollars.

In an interview with Business Insider last year, Miguel Garza, CEO of Siete Family Foods, said ethnic aisles provide founders with opportunities to “authentically express their cultures,” but he also lamented that many of his products compete for limited shelf space.

“I don’t understand it,” said Mr. Garza. “If something like salsa is now the No. 1 condiment in the U.S., why would it be relegated to one aisle?”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you find the ethnic aisle antiquated or is it still playing a vital role in grocery discovery? Should products displayed in the ethnic aisle be integrated into the rest of the store?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It comes down to making the customer experience easier, and may have less to do with specific ethnicities than grouping products that frequently get used together. "
"I favor retiring the ethnic aisles and the assigned ethnic product distributor. Not just due to abuses ... but because the country’s demographics have changed."
"At a minimum we should retire the word “ethnic” as soon as possible. In a multi-cultural society certain products naturally develop a broader audience."

Join the Discussion!

41 Comments on "Should grocery stores retire the ethnic aisle?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

Every retailer will need to decide what merchandising strategy is best for their shoppers. I still believe there is a place for “new and unique” products, and I don’t see anything wrong with having one. That said, in the over-politicized world we live, even the food aisles have become controversial.

Dr. Stephen Needel

For me, the ethnic aisle simplifies my shopping experience. And let’s be real – how many sriracha sauces have broken through? If I want soy or fish or oyster sauce, an Asian aisle simplifies that. My Kroger also has Italian, Hispanic, British, and Indian sections – and I’m happy to see that they periodically expand. For example, they’ve given ramen its own section.

Good retailing/merchandising can make this a positive for the retailer and the shopper – we don’t need political correctness dictating how to stock a store.

David Naumann

My initial reaction is that we need ethnic sections, because shoppers are trained to know where to find ethnic products based on previous store organizations. However in a lot of ways it seems inefficient and may reduce the exposure of some ethnic ingredients. Why can’t all sauces be located together and the same for noodle, rice, vegetables an other ingredients – regardless of ethnic cuisine?

Neil Saunders

If retailers integrated ethnic sauces into aisles with general condiments then they’d probably be accused of cultural appropriation. So decisions can’t ever be made on the basis of trying to pander to what is seen as being politically correct. What matters is how consumers shop and what makes most sense to them in terms of creating a convenient and logical shopping experience. To me, it makes sense to have Asian ingredients in once place, and Mexican ingredients in another. To others it may not. But the retailer should look to understand customers in any given location and see what works best. The point about giving shelf space is important and retailers should certainly try and promote niche brands, especially from a diverse range of cultures and founder backgrounds. But this can be done using end-caps, promotional tables, and advertising in-store. The truth is, every niche brand struggles for shelf space regardless of whether they are an ethnic brand or otherwise.

Liza Amlani

As a visible minority, this subject is very sensitive to anyone that is lead to shop in the “ethnic” aisle for non-white products. It’s almost as if we should be grateful that there is an “ethnic” aisle in the first place.

Although it is very important to have an inclusive and diverse product range, there is a way to showcase “ethnic” products in a way that doesn’t highlight that the customers who shop these aisles are “different.”

Marks & Spencer Grocery has been showcasing diverse product ranges for years and they partner with “ethnic” brands using authentic marketing with POC, expanding their own private label product assortment, and increasing product knowledge around the roots of these products.

There is a way to be inclusive without being completely clueless and calling customers out on their ethnicity or the fact they are different.

Richard Hernandez

I have done this in the past, and it’s not as simple as what people think. We integrated the Hispanic and international aisles into the regular grocery sections. We left it this way for several months. Customers reacted negatively to the change – most thought we deleted the assortment, so they sought what they needed in other smaller ethnic neighborhood markets. We ended up moving everything back and our customers came back. This is the way customers shop – it’s not right or wrong, and I would not lose customers over political correctness.

Jennifer Bartashus

It comes down to making the customer experience easier, and may have less to do with specific ethnicities than grouping products that frequently get used together. This happens across the store – parmesan cheese is typically in the pasta aisle, as well as sometimes in the cheese department, and salsa can be found in the snack aisle as well as a Hispanic section. Having products located together that might be needed to prepare a specific dish may be more efficient for customers than having to traverse the entire store to find needed ingredients.

Melissa Minkow

If all other foods are categorized by how they’re used, previously deemed “ethnic” foods can be as well. Merchandising the whole store in a uniform way ensures everyone feels comfortable shopping there, and it’s also a more consistent way of organizing the store. Knowing to go to the “ethnic” aisle is a learned behavior taught to us by retailers, so they can help us unlearn this as well.

Lee Peterson

“The last bastion of racism”? That’s pretty harsh, but there’s definitely merit to the idea of re-thinking the whole thing. I always thought “International” was OK, but, points well taken. I’d say test it broken out ASAP. Put sauces in sauces aisle, etc, and see how the numbers comp. One thing we learned from working with grocers though; consumers HATE when you switch aisles on them so, during the “re-thinking” stages, keep that in mind!

Rick Moss

Quite the conundrum. I’m sure grocers don’t want to be perceived as racial profilers. A recent experience I had, to me, points out the complication. I went to my local grocer to pick up some coconut oil. I typically find the coconut milk in the “International” section, so that was my first stop, but no coconut oil among the other coconut products (positioned along with the other Asian offerings). I found it instead in the conventional oils aisle on the other side of the store — three choices positioned on the top shelf, all labeled “Organic”. So apparently coconut oil transitioned from an ethnic product to a healthy product. This market had integrated its healthy/organic offerings throughout all categories years ago. Apparently finding all the organics in one place is no longer deemed convenient enough to warrant its own section. Decisions, decisions.

Richard Hernandez

Rick, I don’t see it as racial at all – it is keeping it simple for the customer and unfortunately there is no standard in the industry. Fideo (Mexican vermicelli) is a Hispanic item but in 99 percent of the the stores I have been in the past 30+ years, it is merchandised with the dry pasta. Same goes for ghee. It used to be in the international aisle, but now I see it in the baking aisle with the oils. I don’t think retailers should be forced to change because a few see it as not PC.

Rick Moss

I agree, Richard — sort of. I am drawing a parallel to organics because, in a similar way, grocers need to figure out what’s most convenient for their shoppers. Then again, category managers are human and may have preconceptions of how a health-conscious shopper wants to shop, or where a shopper looking for soy sauce would go to find it. To a large degree, I believe, grocers have trained shoppers to think in these categorical ways. Should they un-train them? Just because it’s currently more convenient to think in ethnic categories that doesn’t mean it should or will always be so.

Richard Hernandez

Well that’s the thing – we tried to un-train and it did not work. Does it mean it won’t eventually be accepted to integrate the product? Who knows. I get the organic take though – that designation has become muddy and and ambiguous over the past 10+ years and while I still see some organic aisles in stores, I see more of that product now being integrated into sets. It’s just taken many, many years for that to happen (mainstream acceptance).

Cathy Hotka

I don’t care where in the store those items are, but I want them, and so do millions of other Americans. We’re not eating just meatloaf and mashed potatoes any longer. Bring on the gochujang!

Jeff Weidauer

The challenge is how one defines “ethnic,” and how to know when something like salsa breaks out and becomes mainstream. It’s not a clear line, and there are better merchandising methods.

Lisa Goller

Like everything else in retail, grocers’ ethnic aisle will change to accommodate new consumer habits.

To date, merchandising exports by ethnicity has been convenient. For instance, all the bestselling Pad Thai ingredients are grouped together.

Yet e-commerce and social media have fuelled product discovery across borders. Now more consumers seek global products and grocers will soon require more shelf space than one aisle, making the integration of ethnic goods across the store inevitable.

Joel Rubinson

I think multiple aisles might be better (Mexican food is pretty big and mainstream), but it is an organization scheme that works for the shopper brain. In Publix, they also have a great international aisle, organized by country/world region. Never would have found marmite in Florida without it!

Steve Montgomery

The ethnic sections of supermarkets have pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is they make it easier to locate products and brands than they would be if they were displayed as part of the general category. The largest negative is in many cases they are not allocated enough space.

Georganne Bender

Mariano’s stores have a section that spans several aisles called “Global Cuisine” that features products from around the world. Hanging from the ceiling are flags from numerous countries, and the names of highlighted countries are projected onto the floor. Signs over each section highlight where the foods below are from, plus the distance in miles to there from where you are standing.

Global Cuisine is a discovery section, full of product you won’t find at other grocery stores. But if you are just in looking for soy sauce you will also find it merchandised in its rightful section of the store, adjacent to other sauces.

Dick Seesel

Yes, Mariano’s in Chicago and my local Metro Market in Milwaukee are different Kroger nameplates, but the same concept. I agree that treating these foods as “international” rather than “ethnic” is a more appealing way to present them.