Thursday, June 8, 2006

Stores are taking notice as buying power approaches an estimated $579 billion in 2010.

By HANG NGUYEN
The Orange County Register

 
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COUNTY COUNTS
California counties with the top Asian population
1. Los Angeles: 1,289,934
2. Santa Clara: 463,268
3. Orange: 462,716
4. Alameda: 337,680
5. San Diego: 277,737
Source: Census 2004
 

Cayleen Ong calls it luck when she stumbles upon sunglasses and clothes that fit her well.

But she isn't always fortunate.

None of the 15 stylish sunglasses she owns, including her Kate Spades, sits perfectly on her face. They hit her cheekbones. And they often slip down her nose because like many Asians, her nose bridge isn't high enough to hold the shades in place.

So the 20-year-old Filipino must constantly "push, push, push" her sunglasses up, she said. "It's pretty frustrating."

Standing 4 feet 8 inches tall, Ong views buying clothes as another chore. She stopped shopping at Gap because its outfits didn't hug her body right. And her mom must hem up most of her pants.

Gap, one of the world's largest specialty retailers, and Oliver Peoples, a high-end sunglasses company, recently fixed these nuisances for Ong and other Asian-Americans.

In the past few years, more retail businesses have moved beyond marketing to grab Asian-American consumers, whose buying power is among the fastest growing of any ethnic group in the U.S. The companies offer Asian-Americans products such as sunglasses, skin-whitening cream, jade jewelry and petite clothing.

Companies cater to Asian-Americans because experts expect their buying power to reach $579 billion in 2010.

About one-third of that will occur in California. That's the biggest slice of any state, according to statistics from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at The University of Georgia.

And Orange County could significantly benefit; nearly a half-million Asian-Americans call the county home.

Selig predicts the Asian-American buying power will balloon about as fast as that of Hispanics over five years. But until several years ago, many retail businesses focused on Hispanics and ignored Asians.

Census 2000 statistics changed that when it depicted Asians as a powerful presence. "It was a wake-up call for companies," said Jeffrey Humphreys, Selig director.

ACCESSORIESStarting two months ago, Oliver Peoples began carrying Asian plastic frames at its South Coast Plaza store.

The company flattened the lenses' curve so they don't hit Asians' cheeks. It extended the nose bridge to give more support.

These modifications thrill Ong, who recently checked out the company's Costa Mesa store. "I'll probably shop here more," she said.

Oliver Peoples now talks about putting the Asian frames in Neiman Marcus stores in San Francisco and Honolulu.

"Stores have been requesting it because no one really caters to that customer right now," said Patty Perreira, vice president of design and product development for Oliver Peoples.

Luxury companies such as Oliver Peoples want to capitalize on the fact that Asian-Americans have the highest median household income of any ethnicity, experts say. Oliver Peoples sells some Asian frames for about $300.

But until a few years ago, companies devoted most of their attention on Asians in Asia. Oliver Peoples unveiled its first Asian frame in 1989 in Japan.

Foothill Ranch-based Oakley, which recently bought Oliver Peoples, began selling Asian sunglasses in Asia four years ago. About six months ago, it put them in some Hawaiian stores.

Later this year, the company will roll out three new Asian frames in Asia that will only be available in the U.S. on the Web.

Oakley says it isn't selling them in more U.S. stores because the online option satisfies domestic demand.

Still, "it's kind of infuriating" that companies give higher priority to Asians who live in Asia, said Julia Huang, chief executive for InterTrend Communications in Long Beach. InterTrend is an Asian marketing company whose clients include JCPenney.

Asians in Asia can also easily find businesses selling jade jewelry.

That accessory trickled into the U.S. last fall and became trendy this spring, said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for The NPD Group, a retail information company. Stores carry jade jewelry because it's fashionable and appeals to Asians, he said.

Players include Macy's and Bloomingdale's, Cohen added. Macy's Web site describes jade this way: "In some cultures, it has been used as a cure for kidney ailments."

Many people in China and Vietnam believe the stone holds the power to ensure good health and good fortune for those who wear it as an amulet.

SKIN CAREAnny Chen of Irvine visited family and friends in Taiwan last fall. Her relatives drooled over her white complexion. Taiwanese treasure the stark white skin tone so much that they wear long sleeves even in hot weather so their arms won't tan, she said.

The 22-year-old recently noticed how the sun slightly toasted the top of her arms because she wears short-sleeve shirts while driving. So she may buy a skin-whitening cream, a product that's been popular in Asia for generations.

Carolyne Lai, 22, whose skin looks light brown, said: "I'm really dark for a Chinese person."

So the Costa Mesa resident picked up a skin-whitening cream in Hong Kong last year because she couldn't find it in the U.S.

Lai and Chen may soon discover that their skin-whitening choices in the U.S. have multiplied.

After selling skin-brightening merchandise in Asia since 1992, last month Clinique placed Derma White on select shelves in the U.S., including Macy's at South Coast Plaza and Westminster.

Clinique is reacting to a "growing demand from the Asian population that was looking for products to address dark spots," said Beth Spruance, vice president of global treatment marketing for the beauty company.

Sephora.com also advertises a new product, DiorSnow Pure whitening skin gel, for $85.

Asian-Americans are boosting demand for the popular product that really only entered the U.S. last year, retail expert Cohen says.

Until recently, the "U.S. market was all about tan skin," he added. In January, Gap joined a growing group of companies offering petite clothing. It rolled out smaller sizes at its namesake online store for those standing 5 feet 4 inches tall and under. And it may later put them in Gap shops.

Petite sizes start at extra small for tops and 0 for bottoms. Gap also shortened shirt sleeves and narrowed shoulders.

"Petite female consumers have traditionally been underserved by the apparel market," Gap said in a statement.

While many races buy petite clothing, Asians are purchasing them at the fastest pace.

American retailers sold $485 million worth of petite clothing to Asian women in the year that ended in April. That's up by more than one-third from a year ago, according to NPD.

Experts point out other ways to cater to Asian-Americans.

NPD's Cohen highlights the small shoe as an example. Many Asians have tiny feet.

But the search for small shoes remains a "large frustration for Asian consumers," because few companies offer sizes smaller than 5, Cohen said.

Ong, the petite Filipino woman, agrees. She wears a size 4½. But her hunts uncover few brands and retailers that cater to her small feet.

She sighs and says shoe shopping "is hard."

WHERE THE MONEY IS

  Asian Hispanics
U.S. buying power, 2010 $579 billion $1.1 trillion
Buying power growth, 2005 to 2010 46 percent 48 percent
U.S. population, 2010 15.3 million 49.4 million
Population growth, 2005 to 2010 16 percent 17 percent
U.S. household income, 2004 $58,000 $34,000

Sources: Census and Selig Center for Economic Growth, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia