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The Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Puerto Rican Suppliers Woo Wal-Mart 42 Firms Showcase Goods To Buyers At Retailer's HQ


May 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette Inc. All rights reserved. 

BENTONVILLE - Suppliers from 42 Puerto Rican companies that sell everything from kayaks to fertilizer were in Bentonville on Thursday to give buyers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. a peek at their goods.

Wal-Mart employees and Puerto Rican suppliers packed the buyers rooms - small, nondescript cubicles that line the main hallway at the company's headquarters - to sample food and drinks from the Caribbean island.

Down the corridor, Wal-Mart employees munched on food from a Puerto Rican buffet, which included fried plantains - a member of the banana family - pink and white beans and breaded chicken. Nonalcoholic pina coladas were offered to wash down lunch.

It's the first time a group of suppliers from a specific country has traveled to the retail chain's Bentonville headquarters to showcase its goods, Wal-Mart Puerto Rico Inc. spokesman Federico Gonzalez-Denton said.

"These products are focused on the tastes of Puerto Ricans and Hispanics living on the mainland," he said. About 3.2 million people of Puerto Rican descent live in the mainland United States, nearly matching the island's population of about 3.9 million people, according to the National Puerto Rican Coalition Inc., a Washington-based advocacy group.

Suppliers at the showcase hoped to join a growing number of Puerto Rican firms selling to the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Puerto Rican companies exported goods worth $45 billion to the United States in 2002, up from $40.9 billion the previous year.

But the suppliers who pitched their products at Wal-Mart also hope to reach a far larger customer base.

While flan, a custardlike dessert, isn't an everyday item for most U.S. households, Daphne Barbeito, who runs Postres De Aqui Inc. with her father, Andres, said the treat could be a hit among non-Puerto Ricans.

"Latin stuff is fashionable now," Barbeito said.

Carla Haeussler, founder of Carla's Sweets, a San Juan pastry company, said people who haven't spent time in Puerto Rico often are unfamiliar with guava. The fruit is the centerpiece of her biggest seller, butter cake pastries.

She sells pastries only to Wal-Mart stores in Puerto Rico. But she said she thinks she has a good chance of appealing to customers on the U.S. mainland, whether they are familiar with guava or not.

"Everybody likes sweets," she said.

Companies selling items without an ethnic flavor, such as adhesives or paint, try to use their Puerto Rican origin as a selling point. Take Lanco Manufacturing Corp., which makes paints sold on the island. Not only are labels on cans in English and Spanish, but also workers in the company's plants are protected by federal workplace safety rules.

Gonzalez-Denton said companies in Puerto Rico - a U.S. protectorate - follow U.S. manufacturing and processing regulations.

"Our standards are higher than other Latin American countries," he said.

Wal-Mart opened its first Puerto Rico store in 1992. Now, the company runs nine Wal-Mart discount stores, two supercenters - which include general merchandise along with food items - and nine Sam's Club membership warehouses on the island.

In February 2002, the company purchased Amigo, a 38-store grocery chain with about $542 million in annual sales, for an undisclosed price. The acquisition was approved by U.S. and Puerto Rican antitrust authorities late last year, provided the chain divest six stores in areas where the company had a high concentration of grocery markets.

Four of the properties have been sold and Gonzalez-Denton said Wal-Mart is in negotiations with Supermax, a local grocery chain, to sell the remaining two stores.

Wal-Mart does not break out separate sales and profit results for its Puerto Rican operations. In the quarter that ended April 30, the company said profits were "ahead of plan," with sales growth from existing stores up in the single digits compared with the same period in 2002.

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