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Meet the godfather of ethnic grocery in Canada

Kam Choi helped grow T&T Supermarkets into a powerhouse. Now he's getting East to meet West at PriceSmart in B.C.

Kam Choi2-0913

Some call Kam Choi the “godfather of ethnic grocery” in Canada. Indeed, the former T&T exec is considered a trailblazer, having taken the ethnic supermarket into shopping malls.

His latest project, as the ethnic director at Overwaitea Food Group, is to literally make East meet West at the independent retailer’s PriceSmart stores. Two outlets have been converted to a layout in which half the store is Asian (with a red colour scheme), while the other side (blue) features more mainstream, western food.

Canadian Grocer managing editor, Nancy Kwon, spoke with Choi about PriceSmart and the difference between Asian and mainstream Canadian shoppers.

READ: Inside the mind of the ethnic consumer

What’s the concept behind the East-West PriceSmart stores?

The idea is to incorporate two supermarkets (ethnic and mainstream) under one roof. No one has done this before anywhere else. The mainstream market is still the biggest market, so I want to offer more meal options to make at home. And Asians can truly do one-stop shopping here. After they finish their Asian shopping needs, they walk over to the other side to get their western goods.

How do Asian and mainstream consumers shop differently?

For Asians, it’s a pleasure to shop. It’s not a chore. The aisles at PriceSmart in Richmond, B.C., for example, are wider, like a typical western supermarket. Open freezer cases make it easier to see products and allow traffic to flow better when promotions are going on for high-volume goods. It’s just not the same with upright freezer cases with doors.

Asian consumers also want fresh; they believe the meat is freshest where there’s a butcher. Western shoppers have always been receptive to Asian goods. The difficulty is they don’t have information on Asian food. They look at products such as sesame oil, and can’t figure it out. But they want to try it.

How do you educate mainstream consumers about ethnic foods?

At the end of each aisle on the Asian side are demos. They’re critical when you bring in new products. We get new merchandise from everywhere and we can’t expect customers to buy it without trying it. It’s also important to get the right people to do the demos.

READ: Why an ethnic strategy is a bit of a misnomer

They have to tell about the quality of the product, where it’s from and they have to speak English and Cantonese or Mandarin. Last year, we did a Taiwan food festival in-store, with demos by 28 Taiwanese manufacturers. They told their story, how the products are made and why they’re good.

Why do you think Asian grocers are doing so well today?

They are willing to take a risk when big companies aren’t able to. Smaller operators can make decisions quickly, while in western supermarkets, schematics are fixed and can’t be changed as easily.

If you ask any Asian, particularly a Chinese consumer, why they don’t go to a western grocery store to do their Asian food shopping, it’s because there’s a lack of variety of ethnic goods. They can’t find everything on their shopping list. [Asian consumers] go to western supermarkets for their western goods.

What’s the biggest mistake grocers make when targeting ethnic shoppers?

You cannot do a single format for everybody; you have to identify the consumer you’re targeting. It’s not enough to add some Asian merchandise. Asian markets in Toronto and Vancouver are already so mature; grocers would never be able to take away the market.

Asian customers don’t have the luxury to go to [an Asian] supermarket in their neighbourhood such as western shoppers. Before T&T, Asian customers had nowhere to go. They had to go to Chinatown. So T&T became a destination automatically.

VIEW: See inside Nations new store in Hamilton

I took T&T into some locations that were far away from the Asian demographics. For example, the T&T at Promenade Mall [in Thornhill, Ont.] was in an area with a predominately Russian-Jewish-Italian demographic. It ended up being so successful, drawing customers from everywhere, because it offered convenient one-stop shopping.

People couldn’t understand why Chinese consumers would go to a mall to shop for groceries. My theory was: Asian customers like shopping. It’s one of their favourite pastimes, other than mahjong [a Chinese game].

What’s your vision for ethnic grocery?

We want to educate, not just sell merchandise. [An ethnic grocery store] is the most convenient spot for western customers to explore Asian culture and food. At PriceSmart, we have both western and Asian staff; no other Asian grocer has a mixed staff like ours.

My bigger vision is around diversity in the industry. I want our Asian staff to grow and expand their careers by learning English. It’s a cultural exchange at PriceSmart. I’m building a melting pot here.

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