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To expand reach, retailers take aim at Hispanic shoppers

Elizabeth A. Harris
Dimitrios Kambouris/Staff | Getty Images

A few words used repeatedly start to sound like a chorus when Macy's talks about unveiling its new line of clothing and accessories with Thalía Sodi, a Mexican pop star: Curves. Prints. Color.

And the one perhaps used most, which signals this venture's true value, is "Latina."

"This is an amazing opportunity to deliver to the Latin consumer," Ms. Sodi said, who described the brand as "specifically focused" on Hispanics. "The dresses will be stylish and sexy, but not too simple. Colorful prints, nice contouring to flatter the body."

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With the collection, the company joins media companies, political parties and other major retailers like Kmart, all of which have been showering attention on the country's fast-growing Hispanic population.

"We saw white space in this more mature, meaning nonmillenial, Hispanic or Latina customer," said Jeffrey Gennette, chief merchandising officer at Macy's. "We were not addressing her as fully as we want to."

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The retailer plans to introduce the line of apparel, shoes and jewelry in 300 stores in spring 2015. "When you think about the metro markets in the United States, we see a play with this brand in everyone of them," Mr. Gennette said. A few categories of items will be specifically tailored for Latinas, including, the company said, a shorter in seam in many of the pants.

Hispanics make up nearly 17 percent of the United States population and are among the nation's fastest-growing demographic groups, according to the Census Bureau, and its buying power is creeping skyward as well. All this has made the Latino consumer extremely attractive, courted with quite a bit of urgency by companies during a tough economic climate.

"Where we are right now, retailers are looking for any kind of growth," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a retail research company. "If I can get a 2 percent increase in the consumers who shop in my stores, it's worth the investment."

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American retailers have been giving careful consideration to their Hispanic customers for years, starting with something as simple as a bilingual sign and extending to a complicated distribution supply chain.

At Target, Gregg Steinhafel, the chief executive, said that in some of its stores, the Latino population might make up at most 5 percent of the customers, while at other stores, especially along Mexico's border, that figure might be at least 95 percent. The signage is adjusted accordingly, and so is the merchandise, especially the groceries and clothing the stores put on the shelves.

"Latinos in Miami are very different from Latinos in Texas versus Arizona versus Southern California," Mr. Steinhafel said. "There are a whole host of products you have to get right."

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Appealing across those disparate groups is not easy— Ms. Sodi's husband, the music executive Tommy Mottola, compared it to releasing a No. 1 record — and requires a certain level of star power.

Kmart, for example, has a celebrity line that tilts toward Hispanic women called Sofia by Sofia Vergara, named for the star of the popular television show "Modern Family." In an advertisement that aired this fall, Ms. Vergara cheerily marched through a design studio drawing more curves onto sketches of models and giving instructions like "More is more!"

As one of the most recognizable stars of the moment, Ms. Vergara has a reach wider than just one demographic.

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"The magic of Sofia is that she can talk to the Hispanic market because she is so authentically Latin American, but she is such a big star on such a mainstream TV show, she has huge crossover power," Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, a brand and corporate identity consultancy.

Kmart executives agree. In an email, Diane Vaccaro, chief marketing officer of Kmart Apparel wrote that the merchandise was intended to appeal to a broad customer base, with an extra nod in one direction.

"The line was always designed to appeal to women of all ethnicities who wish to make a bold fashion statement at an affordable price," Ms. Vaccaro said. "The Latina customer is certainly drawn to Sofia's heritage, making the collection additionally popular among that demographic."Kmart declined to provide specific sales data, but said the line, introduced in 2010, was a "cornerstone" of its women's clothing assortment.

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Kohl's also features a line with Jennifer Lopez. In general, celebrity partnerships can be a good arrangement for retailers, analysts say, letting them skip the process of building up name recognition, flying out of the gate with a name people already recognize.

It does not, however, automatically make a sale.

"At the end of the day you've got to like the fit,the fabric, the color and the price," said Richard E. Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel. "It's like the interview your dad sets up for you. I'll get you in the door, the rest is up to you."