Getting Ready for the New America

Have you noticed how the country is changing? From California to Maine you’ll find Korean greengrocers, Latino radio stations, Middle Eastern restaurants, and lively enclaves of immigrants from such exotic locales as Russia, Bosnia, and Paraguay. Big cities used to be our melting pots, but now the demographic mix is spilling into suburbs and towns across the land.

I bring this up because I was thinking about what challenges retailers will be facing in the new century, now just a few days off. Surely one of the most inescapable will be America’s astounding cultural complexity.

In 1950, the nation was 85% non-Hispanic white. Today that proportion has shrunk to 73%, and our racial composition is diversifying more rapidly than ever. The influx of immigrants is the largest in any period since World War II. Nearly one-tenth of the population is foreign-born. The Census Bureau projects that Latinos will surpass blacks as the largest minority group by 2005. Around the year 2050, non-Hispanic whites themselves will actually become a minority. In Texas and California, that’s likely to happen even sooner.

There’s another startling demographic trend unfolding, too. Once the country’s wealthy were clustered in places like Beverly Hills, Calif.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Now they’re everywhere. What we’re witnessing is the emergence of nothing less than a mass affluent class—the first in world history, as Forbes magazine proudly points out. Multimillionairedom is more widespread than ever. In the past decade, the number of families with a net worth of at least $1 million has soared to 5 million. And demographers predict that over the next 10 years the number will quadruple, to 20 million.

Of particular relevance to jewelers is that, to a remarkable degree, the trends toward heterogeneity and mass affluence are converging. In other words, many of the newly wealthy are the minorities. Already, the fastest growing ethnic group—Asians—have become the most prosperous, with the highest family incomes in the nation. And the huge Hispanic population—now 31 million strong—is rapidly gaining in both educational attainment and wealth, according to the Census Bureau. Their collective purchasing power comes to $300 billion!

The birth of mass affluence couldn’t be a happier development to greet jewelers as they enter the new century. There’s only one problem. A lot of the newly affluent may pass you right by. Let me share an unscientific observation: Nearly every jewelry store I walk into on my travels around the country is staffed by people just like my wife—white, middle-class, English-speaking women. Where are the African-American sales associates? Blacks are still the nation’s largest minority group, and millions have moved into the middle class. Where are the sales associates who can talk comfortably with the Asians and Hispanics? You don’t have any such customers? Could the reason be you don’t have any such employees? Or any employee who can speak even rudimentary Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, or Japanese?

Given how fast the country is metamorphosing, succeeding in the new millennium will require new approaches to the way you recruit, hire, and train your staff. Daunting, yes, but the payoff could be gratifying. Multiethnic Americans could be your ticket to the emerging mass affluent class. Then you yourself could become part of one of the historic transformations sweeping us into the 21st century.