The Creative Liberation Lab Notes

An official publication of Limeadestand Works

A story of Chinese supermarkets: How independent businesses thrive in the age of Amazon

September 18, 2018 | Branding and brand communications


It has been nine months since I left a life in a big city. For almost the entirety of my life, I have lived in one metropolitan area or another, so this has been a big change for me.

If I'm lucky I make two or three trips into Portland, Oregon each month. For the most part, I live in an area where I have no problem obtaining necessities of life. There is a Walmart, a Safeway, and a Dollar Tree in the town a few miles away. But nearly every time I go into Portland or Beaverton, I make a point of stopping by at a Chinese supermarket (or a Vietnamese supermarket, which is culturally similar enough and has very similar selections).

Aside from the well-known Asian supermarket chains such as H-Mart and 99 Ranch Market, almost all these stores are independently owned, small-to-mid-sized businesses.

These days, the grocery industry is concentrated on a smaller and smaller number of hands. In the United States, Kroger, Walmart, and Albertsons act as the virtual oligopoly of grocery stores. Added to this, Amazon now owns Whole Foods Market and Amazon Prime, making these four companies own the retail food system.

But the Asian supermarkets are thriving. New stores are opening as the population in cities and suburbs diversify. In areas where there is a greater ethnic diversity, such as East Portland and Beaverton, multiple stores co-exist and even then, more stores are opening. Even in the age when nearly everything can be bought online, these markets are not going away.
As I come to think of it, the Asian supermarkets are material lessons in the future of small and mid-sized business on how to thrive and be competitive in the era of Amazon.

1. Asian supermarkets focus on a niche and serve that niche well.

I look to Asian supermarkets for things that I can never find at the Safeway or the Walmart -- or those items that I can find at a tiny "ethnic food" section but at an overinflated price. Although most Asian supermarkets appeal to the wide swath of East and Southeast Asian population, every store has a target niche.

Uwajimaya has historically been keen on attracting Westerners who are curious about all things East Asian (in fact this is how Uwajimaya experienced the growth, cashing in on the Century 21 Expo in 1962), in addition to the Japanese business people and students who are in the U.S. for a relatively short time. H-Mart is geared toward the Korean-American community, and 99 Ranch Market is geared toward the Chinese-American community.

Because they focus on a specific niche, they can source merchandise that appeals specifically to that population at a low price, whether they are vegetables unique to certain cuisines or imported grocery.

2. Asian supermarkets sell cultural experiences and a sense of community.

In a recent radio interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting, a Korean-American spoke of a Korean supermarket as a "community center" where her aging mother has "her chance to actually be herself. Speak in Korean, catch up. Just be herself fully."
For others, a trip to an ethnic supermarket can be like a mini cultural expedition. I love it when I go into a Vietnamese supermarket and see everything written in Vietnamese, although I do not know one word of Vietnamese and I can only guess its meaning by finding the commonality with Chinese words (about 75 percent of Vietnamese words are derived from Chinese, but the Vietnamese grammar differs significantly from that of Chinese). I love it when I hear Vietnamese music in the background or catch a whiff of something that's unfamiliar but oddly comforting.

Uwajimaya, a Seattle-based Japanese-American supermarket chain, has been selling culture in addition to food. Since the 1962 world's fair and the rise of Japanese economic influence through the 1980s and early 1990s, Uwajimaya had housed a branch of Kinokuniya Bookstores, hosted Japanese cooking classes and cultural festivals, and has struck a delicate balance between familiarity (that is, a tourist from Japan finds Uwajimaya just like a familiar supermarket in their hometown) and accessibility (that is, those who are entirely unfamiliar to Japanese or Asian cultures would not feel intimidated).

The reasons why Asian (and most likely, other ethnic) supermarkets thrive today are simple: they are about fostering community and culture at a time when everything seems increasingly uniform and impersonal. Despite the recent wave of xenophobic sentiments and ICE raids in immigrant communities -- or perhaps because of them -- these businesses find the unique vacuum they are well positioned to fill.

When you think of your own brand, think not of your products or services; but rather, think of the experiences and communities they draw. Or else, you will always lose out to big-name national and online brands.