Image: Cingular bilingual
Evan Vucci  /  AP file
A Cingular employee works by a bilingual sign at a Cingular Wireless store in Silver Spring, Md., Monday, Oct. 9, 2006. Latinos — the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. — are expected to have $1 trillion in buying power by 2010.
updated 10/23/2006 3:24:38 PM ET 2006-10-23T19:24:38

Speaking mostly Spanish and knowing little to no English — let alone any Greek — didn’t keep six of the 10 employees at Stoupsy’s of Athens from finding work in the Washington restaurant.

It also hasn’t kept them from getting cell phones like all their fellow workers.

Vilma Torres, a bilingual Stoupsy’s cashier originally from El Salvador, said she is loyal to Cingular Wireless because of its Spanish-language customer service. She prefers the English version of Cingular’s Web site, but said “it’s nice that they offer everything in Spanish and English.”

That is music, or maybe ring tones, to the ears of cell phone companies and other technology providers that are increasingly targeting a young, tech-savvy Hispanic population — at 43 million, the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. — that is expected to have $1 trillion in buying power by 2010.

Latinos, on average, used 979 voice minutes per month in the third quarter of 2005, trailing only blacks in that area, according to estimates by Telephia Inc., a consumer research firm. Asians or Pacific Islanders used 845 minutes and whites used 632 minutes.

“Corporations from A to Z involved in sales are trying to reach this market,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. “The $64,000 question is how?”

These efforts can be seen everywhere. Verizon Wireless is a sponsor of the Latin Grammys slated for Nov. 2. The company also uses five “Latino street teams” nationwide to go to concerts and street fairs promoting its products and services.
Cingular, a joint venture between AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp., is converting signs, pamphlets and other information in about 420 stores nationwide to both English and Spanish. The project began in June and is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
“This was largely driven by the growth of the Hispanic community and the fact that Hispanic people have tremendous buying power,” said company spokesman Mark Siegel. “We want to serve Hispanic customers in a way they prefer to be served and that starts with their own language.”
There were 43 million Hispanics in the U.S. last year compared with 22 million in 1990, according to the Census Bureau. The population is projected to be 103 million in 2050, which would account for 24 percent of the nation’s total population, up from 14 percent last year.

Bilingual signs are aplenty at one converted Cingular store in suburban Silver Spring, Md. One offers the latest cell phones capable of playing music from Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes store. A bilingual employee is always on duty to help Spanish-speaking customers.

Sales manager John Wainwright said about a quarter of his customers speak Spanish, as do five of the eight employees. He said the store added the bilingual materials in July and has seen an increase in its Latino customer base, mostly through word of mouth.

Cingular, along with competitors T-Mobile USA, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Wireless, offer Spanish-language Web sites and print materials, bilingual customer service representatives and the option of Spanish-language screen text and menus on phones.

Large family sizes and an extended network of relatives are seen as a driving factor in high Latino cell use. In Mexico, for example, cell phone penetration rates are high compared with landlines so “it’s not a foreign concept to them” when Mexican immigrants enter the United States, Pachon said.

A recent report by Synovate, a market research firm, found that cell phone ownership increased among both U.S.-born and foreign-born Hispanics when children are part of the household.

Juan Ruiz, an electrician doing work in Washington, uses a Nextel phone for his job and Cingular for personal calls. He said some members of his family use cell phones exclusively and do not have a landline in their homes.

Ruiz, 34, said his older family members prefer to do business in their native tongue, “but the younger ones would be lost in Spanish.”

Technology providers also are targeting Hispanics because of strong access to the highly coveted youth market. Jupiter Research says Internet users who are Latino tend to be younger than those who aren’t.

Time Warner Inc.’s AOL LLC, Microsoft Corp.’s MSN, and Yahoo Inc. all have content specifically targeted at online Latinos, and automakers Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have featured marketing campaigns aimed at online Hispanic consumers.

“The old perception that this community was way behind the (technology) curve may not be accurate,” Pachon said.

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