How supplier diversity widens the playing field

There has been a surge in new products from mission-driven, BIPOC-owned businesses in the natural products industry, as well as a growing call for industry stakeholders to step up to support these businesses along their journeys.

As a result, many retailers are striving to create programs to support these businesses as suppliers. These relationships can help promote change and reduce systemic barriers, as well as promote racial equity. At the same time, by diversifying the playing field, supplier diversity initiatives can also provide new and innovative products from a variety of mindsets and cultures, and thus help retailers better serve the diverse demographics represented by the natural product consumer. 

Though many retailers may be conscious of the importance of increasing supplier diversity in their stores, structuring formal systems for implementing these practices is often a work still in progress.

Right on Target

One retailer that has systemetized ways to help set BIPOC-owned brands up for success is Target, which in 2021 established the Racial Equity Action and Change (REACH) committee with a commitment to invest more than $2 billion towards black-owned business by the end of 2025. Target’s philosophy is to treat its consumers as its guests and to create an inviting atmosphere in its stores.  

“Supplier diversity is important to deliver on our purpose, “to deliver joy to all families,” says LeSpencer Walker, director of merchandising and vendor development at Target. “This includes partnerships with brands that are authentic, diverse and create belonging in our shopping experience,” adds Walker. “It’s not only a business choice, it’s a human choice and, through my team, Merchandising Vendor Development, Target is committed to identifying Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE)/Brands aligned with our merchandising strategies and setting them up for success.”

In addition to diverse-owned brands, Walker recognizes that consumers are also seeking brands with strong values. “It all depends on the category, but what sells well are brands that have purposeful brand missions, deliver great quality and inspire joy for the guest. It’s is not about one thing but a cohesive experience.”

Transparency first

Though there is still much to be done on the retail level to truly implement supplier diversity practices across the board—and some natural grocers are much further along in their efforts than others—many brands agree that a good place for retailers to start is by being transparent with brands and providing guidance about the process to get into stores, particularly for newer, emerging brands. 

Jake Deleon, the founder of Fila Manila, a natural product food brand that is leading the way in innovation by representing traditional Filipino food in grocery stores, agrees, and stresses the far-reaching benefits of expanding supplier diversity for retailers, brands and consumers alike.

For one, having a variety of products showcasing diversity can attract consumers from all walks of life and create brand loyalty for diverse brands. Many diverse-owned brands with first-generation founders like Deleon, created products inspired by their familiar, cultural traditions. These not only play a role in product sourcing and brand development, but also in appealing to people of diverse cultures that are also typically underrepresented in grocery stores.

“Filipino is actually the largest growing Asian subcategory in the U.S.,” says Jake Deleon, Founder of Fila Manila. “What’s exciting is the rate of growth, because at this point in the U.S. there’s a lot of appreciation for Filipino culture and cuisine.”

Deleon was particularly inspired by the desire to develop a sense of community, as well as a vision to represent the next generation of Filipino flavors.  

“The feedback I hear and mostly from other Filipinos when they see us at trade shows is ‘thank you so much, kuya, which means older brother in Tagalog, for doing this for Filipino food,’” says Deleon. “There’s always a stigma about Filipino food, because [some people] feel it’s not good enough for stores. It’s not good enough for the country. But that’s what we’re trying to do is to abolish that stigma and say, ‘Hey, you know, we can actually stand on our own.’ Not only that, but we can do really well in the market.”

Brands that feature a variety of cuisines and flavors may influence consumers to appreciate different cultural foods and consequently promote inclusivity. Deleon adds, “You can impact people and change people’s view on things and that’s what makes it exciting.”

In addition to supplier diversity initiatives, Deleon insists that it’s important for brands to investigate different resources that can provide financial support. There are some that may offer investments or grants to BIPOC founders or women-owned brands.

“The reality of the industry is that if you don’t have that money to support [your brand], it might fizzle away faster than you can get it on the shelf,” says Deleon. “There’s a lot of capital out there, you just have to find the right person,” adds Deleon. “I would encourage founders to do some research online. There are lots of programs from nonprofits and even consumer packaged goods, or big companies.”

Leaning on locals

Functional salt and pepper brand Spicewell has learned first-hand what retail support can mean for an emerging brand. This BIPOC and woman-owned brand has found an ally at, literally, the corner store. “Our very favorite retailer of all is in New York City. The Goods Mart has been incredibly good for us and [the retailer] truly believes in supplier diversity!” says founder Raina Kumra, who developed her products to provide consumers with additional nutritients through spices.

A neighborhood convenience store that sells non-GMO food free from artificial flavors, preservatives and dyes, The Good Mart has curated an inventory with ethically sourced, mission-driven products. The retailer has also provided helpful advice that supports the success of Spicewell, as well as other brands owned by women of color—somthing that is not always available from larger stores.

Kumra hopes that Spicewell can eventually seek better and bigger distribution within bigger, conventional grocery stores, as well as more natural foods channel grocers. Even so, the brand continues to enjoy its success in smaller stores where Kumra says she has been able to share her mission more directly with buyers.

“Retail placement has been some of the hardest work we have had to do for our brand, and I can’t say it’s always been a good experience,” says Kumra. “I’ve had a good experience at smaller stores. I walked in and dropped off samples and introduced myself and our mission to the buyers. A few weeks later we got our first orders and then we even got re-orders. Some stores were incredibly supportive, and some just nice and helpful. I think it is very relationship based at this point.” 

“We are diverse from our core and this will continue to be a brand value for us—being rooted in Ayurvedic traditions and south Asian flavors—and something that makes us really cognizant of where we come from and where we are going,” adds Kumra. Having a retailer recognize this and lend its support is an invaluable step in the right direction.

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