South of the Border
Showroom owners reveal their strategies for navigating opportunities in the expanding Latin American market.
 

According to Euromonitor Intl., there are 87 million middle class households in Latin America.

“A middle class income is an indicator of sufficient spending power to consume non-essential goods,” says Sarah Boumphrey, Euromonitor’s Head of Countries and Consumers. “These consumers are interested in convenience and are increasingly willing and able to pay for it — companies that offer good customer service, a wide choice of products and consistent quality standards can expect to be popular.”

Since independent lighting retailers count those attributes among their best selling points, many showrooms have been doing lucrative business in Latin America for years.

Tim Jackson, owner of Urban Lighting in San Diego, can see Mexico from his roof. So for him, targeting customers from south of the border was an easy sell.

“We were looking for them and they were looking for us and the high-quality, high-fashion products we offer,” says Jackson. “The biggest thing was just being ready for them when they walked in the door. A lot of that is the ability to communicate in their language.”

Fortunately, Urban Lighting’s Showroom Manager Celia Rivera speaks Spanish fluently.

“Speaking Spanish is a huge advantage when it comes to doing business with customers from Mexico, even though most of them do speak English,” Rivera says. “They’ll come in, and when they realize I speak Spanish, they instantly feel more comfortable and the whole experience is so much easier on all of us.”

The Texas-based lighting design firm Lighting Snobs also attracts a high-end Mexican clientele, thanks in part to its bilingual staff as well as an in-depth understanding of Hispanic culture.

“My business partner, Mariana Loya, is fluent in Spanish, and her family is from Mexico, so her experience is especially invaluable when it comes to working with Mexican nationals,” says Vanessa Turney of Lighting Snobs. “Their way of doing business is very different from what we’re used to in the U.S. It’s a very tight-knit community, and there’s a courting process. They’ll wait to be introduced by a friend or family member, and then they’ll test the waters. It takes a while, but once you earn their trust, they’re your customer for life, and they’ll tell their friends.”

Language and cultural barriers aside, selling to Latin American customers is a relatively smooth operation. Many even have addresses in the U.S. or in towns just across the border, which ensures that the shipping process is easy.

Shipping product across the border is a non-issue for Ken Lebersfeld, Chief Executive Officer of Capitol Lighting. In recent years, Capitol has seen an influx of customers from South America — Brazil in particular — who are investing in property stateside.

“We work with a large number of South American customers who are building vacation homes here in Boca Raton, FL,” says Lebersfeld. “They pay in cash, and they’ve really helped out the market in South Florida. If kids out of college aren’t able to get jobs and buy starter homes, we have to rely on other markets like our South American customers to pick up the slack. And if you do it right, they’ll deliver.”

To Hispanic market expert Charles Garcia, “doing it right” means translating your website and offering Spanish language marketing materials. U.S. retailers who go after Latin American customers also need to be able to take international credit cards and PayPal-like systems that are popular in the countries they want to
do business in, Garcia says.  

Above all, says Garcia, “remember that Mexico is not Costa Rica, which is not Colombia or Brazil. Each country is different, just like tastes in New Mexico are different than they are in Vermont. Each country is different although they have a common language, except Brazil, which speaks Portuguese, not Spanish.” — Jennifer Pinto
 

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