Meet the Inner-City Shopper

By Published on .

Inner-city consumers are as eager to open their wallets and shop as their suburban counterparts, according to a new study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC). And while inner-city shoppers may not be as wealthy as people in the suburbs, they do have money to spend-and they spend much of it in their neighborhoods.

"The inner city is one of the most underserved retail segments in this country," says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, a forecasting firm in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. "The current trend is for people who fled inner cities in years past to return to them. These shoppers don't want to-or are not able to-go to suburban malls to shop. They want to shop at convenient locations in the inner city."

The right neighborhoods Where is the inner city, and who lives there? Indeed, there's a significant difference between "city dweller" and "inner-city dweller." As far as economic status, for example, not all people living in the heart of major metropolitan areas are poor. While the income of city households may skew slightly lower than average, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, four in ten central-city households have above-average incomes. According to the PwC/ICIC study, inner-city neighborhoods are defined as "economically distressed urban communities where the median household income is no more than 75 percent of the median for the entire city, and where the unemployment rate is at least 30 percent greater and the poverty rate is at least 50 percent greater than the city average."

Surveys for the study were mailed to a randomly selected sample of consumers in 417 ZIP codes identified as inner-city neighborhoods, in 43 metropolitan areas. Some 1,205 inner-city consumers completed the survey, the results of which were then weighted by the age and income distribution of African American, Hispanic, and white households. Respondents completed the same survey used to build Management Horizons' 1997 Consumer Database so comparisons could be made between inner-city households and U.S. households in general.

While there may be one neat definition for the inner city, the PwC/ ICIC study discovered that there is no one inner-city shopper. Using Census Bureau data, ICIC determined that 42 percent of the inner-city population are African American, while 31 percent are Hispanic and 23 percent are white. Inner-city households are more likely to be single person or single parent with a child or children than two-parent households. They are also more likely to be headed by either younger adults (under 35 years) or seniors (aged 65 or older) than by baby boomers. And women are significantly more likely to run inner-city households than men.

Apparel aware While inner-city shoppers-many of whom live in rental apartments-may not be big business for large appliances or home-remodeling products, they seem to be a prime target for apparel, footwear, and accessories. According to the PwC/ICIC study, African-American inner-city shoppers are 35 percent more likely than the population as a whole to buy women's dress shoes. They're also 54 percent more likely to purchase teen boys' clothing, and 64 percent more likely than average to buy fine jewelry. Other categories in which they are significantly more likely to make purchases: costume jewelry, teen girls' clothing, women's athletic wear, and children's dress or casual shoes.

Inner-city Hispanics follow a similar pattern. They are 20 percent more likely than average to buy women's dress shoes and 40 percent more likely than average to buy children's athletic shoes. Other top items on their shopping list: infants' and toddlers' clothes, boys' clothes, and men's dress shoes. White inner-city consumers indexed lower than average in all apparel categories.

African Americans and Hispanics in the inner-city also share an enthusiasm for shopping. Seven in ten African American inner-city shoppers say they enjoy shopping for clothes, a sentiment seconded by an equal number of Hispanics. Only half of Americans in general agree with this statement. And while 44 percent of U.S. shoppers in general buy clothes only when they need to replace an item, just 29 percent of inner-city African Americans do the same.

Indeed, inner-city shoppers often wish they had more time to browse the racks. Half of African Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics in the inner city said they'd like more time to window shop. Looking often triggers buying-while American households in general spend an average of $1,069 annually on apparel, inner-city African Americans spend $1,502. Inner-city Hispanics ring up $957 a year; their white counterparts spend the least-just $759.

At their service Keeping with the styles of the day is essential to many inner-city shoppers. Roughly 35 percent of African Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics in the inner city say it's important to wear fashionable clothes. And 34 percent of African Americans claim they buy most of their clothes for a new season at or before the season officially begins. Only 14 percent of the general U.S. population follows the same practice.

Retailers in the inner city better make sure they have the right selections on their shelves. When choosing a clothing store, half of African American inner-city shoppers say that the brands they want must be available, and the same percentage believe it's very important to have a wide selection of brands within each clothing category. In comparison, only 35 percent of Americans in general are looking for stores with specific brand names, while 27 percent say it's very important for a store to stock a broad selection of brands within each clothing category. Keeping many lines in stock isn't easy, nor is it simple to pinpoint which brands customers favor.

Helpful sales associates are also critical in inner-city apparel stores. Almost seven in ten Hispanics who live in the inner city say they like salespeople to leave them alone until they need assistance. Roughly 68 percent of them also expect salespeople to be knowledgeable and friendly, as do 74 percent of African American inner-city shoppers. According to Management Horizons "1997 Consumer Database," only 58 percent of American shoppers look for similar service. Inner-city consumers are also much more likely than shoppers in general to have sales associates help them pull outfits together. Of Hispanic inner-city shoppers, 33 percent consider this a key customer service; only 16 percent of the general population agrees.

Still, inner city shoppers expect the same basic features and services in a retail store as shoppers elsewhere: low everyday prices and adequate selection in their size. "There will always be a place for conventional retailers in the inner city," says Mary Brett Whitfield, principal consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. If retailers follow the needs and desires of customers there, that place could be permanent-and profitable.

Most Popular