Sam's Targets Latino Market With 'Mas Club'

Sam's Club, the warehouse-club sibling of Walmart, has set its sights on the booming Latino market. It has opened an experimental store in Houston with a distinctive Latin accent. It's called Mas Club. Alex Avila, a producer with the NPR show Latino USA, has the story.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Wal-Mart, the retail giant that also runs Sam's Club, is trying to grab a bigger slice of the booming Latino market, a market that's expected to top a trillion dollars next year. The latest experiment: a version of Sam's Club with a decidedly Latin accent.

Alex Avila, a producer for the NPR show Latino USA, went to the Houston store, which is dubbed Mas Club. Here's what he found.

ALEX AVILA: Close your eyes inside of the Mas Club superstore just 15 minutes north of downtown Houston, and it isn't hard to imagine yourself in a Mexican retail store like Soriana, a Wal-Mart-like chain found south of the U.S. border.

(Soundbite of security alarm)

AVILA: But look around and the setting seems much more American, like a Sam's Club. There's a reason for the similarity. Mas Club is the retail giant's latest and boldest step into the American Latino consumer market. And what exactly is Mas?

Ms. YVETTE GONZALES(ph) (Co-Manager, Mas Club): Mas is more, meaning that we basically have more of a selection. We have more imported product. Our imported product is coming from Mexico. We have more cafe, more meat, more bakery.

AVILA: That's Mas Club co-manager Yvette Gonzales pushing the English translation of the club's Spanish name. Mas also happens to be Sam spelled backwards, something Gonzales says is just a happy coincidence. The household products and frozen vegetables sold in bulk have a Sam's Club feel. But the suppliers have very Mexican names, Del Valle(ph) instead of Green Giant, for example.

You see, bilingual signs with Spanish more prominently displayed. There are bilingual product demonstrators and food testers. But there's also a Mexican bakery, a cut-to-order meat shop, a banking center and an onsite medical clinic. The store opened August 6th, and already has a cafe that draws a strong lunch following. You can order a hotdog or a pizza slice like you get in Sam's Club. But you can also order tacos, tamales or a plate of chicken rostisado(ph) with rice and beans.

Bakery team leader Anthony Argos(ph) operates a mechanized press attached to an oven with conveyor belts that cranks out 30 to 40,000 tortillas daily.

Mr. ANTHONY ARGOS (Bakery Team Leader, Mas Club): All fresh tortillas. We also fry our own chips here. We sell out of tortillas every single day, cannot keep them in stock. We come in at five in the morning, until closing at night. As soon as they come out of the conveyor belt, we package them, and the customers are waiting for them, they just take them. We don't have anything on-shelf because they're going that fast.

AVILA: That Houston would be a test market for the Mas Club concept doesn't surprise many analysts. One-third of the city's population is Latino, and no one ethnic group makes up the city's majority. And around the neighborhood where the store is located, many of the goods and services found in Mas Club already exist.

A couple of miles away, Fiesta Mart, a Houston-based grocer, offers many of the same products as Mas Club. Mexican bakeries, tortilla products and specialty stores are easy to find and almost all of them offer some kind of banking and money transfers.

So does taking what's already in the neighborhood and bringing them under one roof make business sense?

Mr. EDWARD WELLER (Financial Analyst, Think Equity): Wal-Mart's been doing exactly that for 30-some years, I guess 40 years. And the answer is, from Wal-Mart's point of view, certainly yes.

AVILA: Edward Weller is the financial analyst for Think Equity, a market research group based in San Francisco.

Mr. WELLER: And that's the way they offer the customer convenience and low prices and speed and ease. That's the whole point of what Wal-Mart does, or the whole point of what Wal-Mart perceives it does in the way it adds value to the overall shopping experience.

AVILA: And convenience is what appears to draw new members to the store. Graziella Primeva(ph) visited Mas Club during her lunch hour with some co-workers. She returned later with her husband, Jorge(ph), ready to pay the $30 annual membership fee.

Are you Sam's members?

Ms. GRAZIELLA PRIMEVA: Yes.

AVILA: But you're joining Mas?

Ms. PRIMEVA: Yes.

AVILA: Why?

Ms. PRIMEVA: Well, because of the variety of Spanish products that they're...

AVILA: Why don't you just go to, like, Fiesta?

Mr. PRIMEVA: I don't care for Fiesta. I don't like their prices. I don't like the store setup either.

AVILA: And you?

Mr. JORGE PRIMEVA: I like big stores.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AVILA: Analysts say there may be some risks on taking a known commodity like a Sam's Club store and re-branding it for a niche market. And it's much too early to tell if the Mas Club experiment will result in more Mas Club superstores. But if it works, the company is eyeing another huge Hispanic market in Arizona.

Alex Avila, NPR News, Houston, Texas.

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