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Tucson retailers try to cater to the ever-increasing number of Mexican shoppers

On a typical Saturday at the Tucson Mall, there are more cars in the parking lot with license plates from Mexico than all other out-of-state tags combined. More than a third of the parked vehicles in a row of 30 outside JC Penney are from Sonora.

It's not new for Mexican shoppers to travel to Tucson for a weekend or holiday to spend their paychecks, just as it's fairly common for Tucsonans to head south of the border for a day at the beach, or perhaps an underage drinking binge.

However, as the number of Mexican consumers who visit Pima County continues to grow, many in the retail and service industries are not prepared for the expanding customer base. That's why the University of Arizona's Students in Free Enterprise is working with the city to make Tucson businesses more "Mexico-friendly."

According to a study conducted by the Tucson-Mexico Trade Office, 23 million Mexican consumers came to Arizona in 2001, mostly from the northern states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua, and spent an estimated $962.9 million in the state, up 44 percent from $668.2 million spent in 1991.

In 2001 in Pima County alone, Mexican visitors spent at least $302 million, said Ludwig Van Castro, an economic development specialist at the Tucson-Mexico Trade Office. And just four years later, that number is estimated at closer to $360 million.

SIFE is working with the Tucson-Mexico Trade Office's "Vamos a Tucson" project to attract even more Mexican consumers, said Juan Ciscomani, co-president of SIFE.

"We're not just doing a school project," said Ciscomani, a political science major at the UA. "It's a way of impacting the economy in Tucson."

In March, Ciscomani and his partners in SIFE began conducting workshops at local malls, starting with La Encantada and the Foothills Mall, to teach mall directors, store managers and employees how to reach out to their Mexican customers through language and knowledge of cultural differences.

At a Monday morning managers' meeting at the Tucson Mall, Ciscomani gives a Spanish pop quiz to a group of about 30 store managers and owners.

"How do you say good morning?" he asks. "How do you say shirt? ... What's the word for 11? ... What color is amarillo?"

Most people can manage the simple translations, although the question, "How do you say, 'How can I help you?'" gets a lot of blank stares.

Ciscomani stresses to employees that making even the feeblest attempt at Spanish helps connect with the Mexican customer. And considering the average Mexican family spends as much as $2,000 a visit, usually in cash, according to Van Castro, it's worth the extra effort, Ciscomani said.

"Whenever possible, speak the language," Ciscomani said. "I'm not talking about speaking Spanish. I'm talking about trying to speak Spanish."

Ciscomani also stresses the importance of paying attention to a Mexican family's children, since the younger members of the family are often more likely to speak English and act as translators for their relatives.

Some employers already seek out bilingual employees to attract and better communicate with Spanish-speaking customers. Janet Vakili, owner of Mrs. Fields, a popular dessert counter in the Tucson Mall, said she tried to actively recruit bilingual employees, although she didn't get a lot of applicants. She now has only one bilingual employee and plenty of customers who don't speak English.

"They are huge part of my business, and we have been struggling," Vakili said. "We point at things, and we smile a lot."

Jodie Hinterberg, a manager at Casual Corner clothing store in the Tucson Mall, estimated almost half of her store's weekend business comes from Spanish-speaking customers from Mexico.

"It's not a prerequisite (to be bilingual), but it certainly is helpful," Hinterberg said. "A lot of us try to learn a little bit of Spanish from employees that do speak it."

Ciscomani supplies employees who might not have mastered much past "hola" and "adios" with a "Retail Spanish 101" guide, which includes the Spanish translations of retail basics--colors, numbers, articles of clothing--and a page listing the Mexican holidays, so retailers can know when to expect especially large crowds.

But even those with previous Spanish-language training sometimes have difficulty keeping up.

Leighanne Schmidt, a server at Tucson Mall's Red Robin, said after taking four semesters of Spanish at Pima Community College, she still has trouble understanding requests from Spanish-speaking customers. When Mexican customers pack the restaurant on the weekends, Schmidt and the rest of the predominantly English-only-speaking staff struggle to understand their requests for more fries or no pickles. Schmidt said she thinks it's just as important for the Spanish-speaking customer to try to speak English as vice versa.

While Spanish-speaking employees might be the best equipped to make a Spanish-speaking customer feel at home, it's not the only way stores are creating a "Mexico-friendly" atmosphere.

At Sears, an in-store advertisement airs in Spanish as well as English. In the women's department at Dillard's, music plays in Spanish over the loudspeakers. Restroom signs throughout the mall are dually labeled family bathroom/baño de familia, and a red-lettered banner outside a hair salon reads "Beauty Salon Open" followed by the translation "Salon de Belleza Abierta."

Jill Harlow, group marketing manager at the Tucson Mall, said around one-third of the mall's business is from Spanish-speaking customers from Mexico, and the number is higher today than it was three years ago.

"There used to be a big fluctuation around holiday time, but now, we're noticing more steady traffic," Harlow said.

Van Castro of the Tucson-Mexico Trade Office said the influx could be due to economic improvements in northern Mexico in recent years that have benefited upper-middle to upper-class Mexican citizens--the same citizens that can afford to travel north on a shopping trip.

Ciscomani said while some people assume Mexican consumers cannot afford to shop in the United States, the ones who cross the border to shop come with wallets intact.

"People who are coming here to shop are the people who've got money to spend," Ciscomani said.

Ciscomani said SIFE plans to continue hosting workshops for Tucson retailers, and while the group initially targeted mall management, it also offers the presentation to all individual stores at a retailer's request.

"I wouldn't call the Mexican consumer a new market, but I think it's a newly tapped market," Ciscomani said. "It's been here, and it's been part of the Tucson economy for years and years, but now it's really getting some attention, and that's a very good thing."

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