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Last Updated: Monday, 22 September, 2003, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Serving Brixton's black market
By Robin Forestier-Walker
BBC News Online

Many advertisers and businesses are failing to target ethnic minority communities and missing out on a market with a combined disposable wealth of 32bn, according to research by the advertising trade body.

Shoppers browse the greeting card stall at Zabadi in Brixton Village
The black pound is estimated to be worth 15 billion in London alone
BBC News Online visited the heart of London's black community - Brixton in south London - to have a look at the situation there.

In the toy section of Woolworths, two young mothers are looking a little disappointed, because they can't find the right dolls for their three-year-old girls.

It's not that the shop doesn't stock a wide range of toys, but these women have something special in mind - black dolls.

Their daughters are black and the women would like them to play with toys that help reflect their identity.

One of the mothers was keen to stress that her little girl plays with both black and white-themed toys.

"I don't want her to think either 'black is beautiful' or 'white is beautiful' - there's a mix," she said.

"I used to spend time wishing I was white, and I don't want my daughter growing up the same."

In some areas of the UK there is clearly little demand for such products.

But this is Woolworths in Brixton, a London neighbourhood which is considered the cultural heart of Black Britain.

While there were no black dolls in store for these mothers, a spokeswoman for the company said that local markets are "extremely important".

A look inside the multi-cultural toy store.

Stores can "stock products that are specific to people who live within their catchment area," the spokeswoman adds.

But just a few doors away from Woolworths is a toy shop that goes where some chain stores don't.

At Zabadi Enterprises, Hopeton Cunningham sells black action figures and dolls, books illustrated with black characters, posters and games featuring black inventors and birthday cards with images of smiling black girls and boys.

"The absence of black people in everyday products and other material culture has a lot to do with people's self-esteem from an early age," he says.

"A lot of people have been saying that the High Street shops provide a very small collection of multi-cultural toys and children's books, especially at Christmas time.

"But the rest of the year - there's nothing."

Niche producers

For major retailers who want to follow Mr Cunningham's lead, there's a commercial incentive to do so.

The 'black pound' is huge and growing - there's a sound business rationale for developing products that relate to the needs and requirements of black consumers
Chris Mullard, Focus Consultancy
The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the industry's trade body, estimates Britain's minority communities have some 32bn of disposable income which companies are failing to attract.

In London alone, the figure is probably nearer 15bn, says Chris Mullard of Focus Consultancy, a business consultancy which specialises in helping industry understand minority markets.

Professor Mullard believes companies are failing to recognise the potential of localised markets, even when they pay lip-service to diversity in their brochures.

"The 'black pound' is huge and growing," he says.

"There's a sound business rationale for developing products that relate to the needs and requirements of black consumers."

But the fact that High Street chain stores fail to stock such products in areas with big ethnic minority populations is deeply frustrating to niche producers.

Justin Lewis of Lewis Hanson Greeting Cards is busy trying to pitch his African Caribbean-themed greetings cards to supermarkets and major newsagents in south London.

"They are familiar with Caribbean foods but this is an area where the 'sentiment sector' is not represented at all, and we feel it's a niche that needs looking at," he says.

'One size fits all'

Likewise, black and ethnic publications are finding it difficult to find major advertising backers other than jobs notices.

At Purple-Pages, a website targeting black users, Sheryl Henry complains major firms do not advertise on the website because they don't recognise the market value.

"They just want to do 'generic', which doesn't suit our consumer base. They would rather target the gay community than us because they don't think we have any money," she says.

Not so according to a recent Revlon survey, which found black women spend four times as much on beauty products as their white counterparts.

Instead, big companies are using the "one size fits all" philosophy of multiculturalism to brush over genuine differences, says Sam Walker of the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton.

"There is still much to be done with image and representation. There's still a deficit in the UK today," says Mr Walker.

But, he adds, it's important to "satisfy difference" while maintaining a sense of proportion.

"Ultimately, black parents will tend to buy black dolls. White parents will buy a white doll."




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