Sendy Lopez buys hundreds of dollars worth of books and CDs through the Internet, both for herself and her Hispanic friends. They turn to her for help because they dont have access to the Internet or they cant read English or theyre uncomfortable making an electronic purchase.
"There arent enough sites in Spanish," said Lopez, 20, an administrative assistant in Santa Ana, Calif. "My friends tell me they would appreciate a site like Yahoo! or AOL that had general information in Spanish."
Still, Internet use among Hispanics and blacks is growing and represents a potentially lucrative market for companies that can learn how to tap it. By 2005, Jupiter Media Metrix forecasts that 64 percent of black households will use the Internet, compared with 30 percent in 1999. Sixty-eight percent of Hispanic households will be online, compared with 33 percent in 1999. Jupiter expects the percentage of whites using the Internet to grow from 47 percent in 1999 to 76 percent in 2005.
Successfully courting these fast-growing groups of Internet users, however, depends on whether companies make the effort to bridge a number of language and cultural issues, experts say.
One critical issue is credibility. Among all Internet users, just one in seven say they would be uncomfortable using their credit cards to buy online, the Cultural Access Group survey found. But 49 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Hispanics would be uncomfortable doing that, the survey noted.
"There isnt the implicit trust online to key in your personal information or credit card [among blacks and Hispanics]," said Thomas Tseng, marketing director of Cultural Access Group. "Its an institutional distrust of financial services."
Companies need to make a special effort to reach out to minorities, Tseng said. "It isnt enough to stick a black, brown or yellow face in print and translate that to a language. You need to speak to that culture."
Thats what Ahmos Zu-Bolton and Michael Warren had in mind when they launched regional portal magazine Blacktexas.com in 1999.
"We draw African Americans looking for black-oriented events," said Zu-Bolton. The site features a calendar with information on sporting events, nightclubs, cultural and community events, concerts and conferences within 150 miles of Austin.
Advertisers include small black-owned businesses, universities, the minority business council, the African American Chamber of Commerce, Bennigans Irish American Grill & Tavern and Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, as well as Sally Beauty Shops. The site recently added an online career center, popular with Texas corporations eager to recruit minorities.
BlackTexas is self-funded and recently passed the break-even point to make a little money, Zu-Bolton said.
While 40 percent of its 10,000 regular viewers earn more than $50,000 a year, the site doesnt have an online shopping link. It has links to a few retailers, but making online shopping a central feature didnt seem to make sense. "Most people I know dont do a lot of online shopping," Zu-Bolton explained.
According to research by Pew Internet & American Life Project, Hispanics are more likely than whites to use online banking, browse the Net for fun, download music, play online games and sample audio and video clips. They buy stocks online at about the same rate as whites, but are less likely to buy goods and services.
Hispanics tend to be younger than the general population and have fewer credit cards than other Americans - one explanation for why they make fewer online purchases.
Still, theres a lot more retailers can do to lure minorities to portals - and ultimately, to online shopping.
Many Hispanics still are tied to events back home and go online to find news of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
"Theres a tremendous opportunity, rather than just target the audience, to create social and community interaction online," Tseng said. "Theres a much more compelling way to bring them on, discuss items and lead folks to make transactions or purchases offline."
Successful ethnic Internet sites create community with chat rooms on hobbies, culture and entertainment. "Its not Come to this site and purchase this travel service," Tseng said. "Instead, its an opportunity to speak to things like literature and art."
Web sites catering to minorities come and go as fast as mainstream sites. The successful ones, such as MiGente.com and Univision Communications Univision.com, have introduced a sense of community, getting people to talk to others of a similar background in a common language.
By far the most popular portal for Hispanics is Yahoo!, said Felipe Korzenny of research firm Cheskin. The fastest growing is Univision, a Spanish-language portal. Univision appeals to Hispanics who arent assimilated into mainstream American culture, Korzenny explained. It features ads and information from companies offering credit and ideas about purchasing homes. Its also partnered with Gateway to sell desktop computers and act as an Internet service provider.
The first wave of Hispanic Internet users tended to be those who could speak English well, but the next wave likely would prefer Spanish translations.
"More Spanish-dominant consumers are going into the Web," Korzenny said, and retailers would do well to add Spanish-language pages.
"Sometimes, its not just an issue of understanding the Web site. Its a matter of pride as well. If they offer you an option in Spanish, the Hispanic consumer is more likely to see that as welcoming. Its part emotional. The vast majority of consumers we talked to say that definitely means the reseller marketer has a welcoming attitude toward them."