Despite&mdash;And Actually <i>Because</i> Of&mdash;The Numbers, Hispanic Retail Sites Are A Bad Idea

With more than 30 million Hispanic consumers in the U.S. spending tens of billions of dollars a year, it would seem to be a no-brainer that major retail chains should have Spanish-language versions of their sites. In reality, not only is it not a no-brainer to create such a site, it turns out to be an impressively bad idea to try.

It's not that the Hispanic segment is not a critically important one for retail. It absolutely is. But the reality is that there are far better ways to reach that audience than a Spanish Web site—and that such site creations come with massive downsides.

At the top of the list of reasons to not create such a site is simple economics. It's not a trivial investment to create a full version of a chain's site in another language—more on some of the huge non-monetary expenses shortly—which means that the benefits have to overcome that. And that's where the math comes in.

Lee Vann is the CEO of Captiva, a digital marketing agency specializing in Hispanic sites. Vann makes his argument for why retailers should not launch Hispanic sites by breaking down Hispanic figures, starting with the roughly 30 million Hispanic consumers in the U.S. who are regularly shopping online.

"More than half of those 30 million actually prefer English. That takes the market from 30 million to 15 million," Vann said. When he then removes bilingual consumers who are equally comfortable with both English and Spanish—a group that clearly neither needs nor particularly craves a Spanish version of a retailer's site—that brings the Spanish-preferring number closer to six million. "And many of them are still comfortable with English," even though it's not their preference, Vann said.

"Compare that to the U.S. online market of about 280 million people," he said, and the cost-benefit ratio of reaching that audience "would be astronomical."

But the numbers get worse yet. For retailers selling certain types of products that the customer already knows well, Spanish descriptions may not even be necessary. "For many E-Commerce sites, a product is a product. When it comes to SKUs, product images and descriptions, most people can figure that out," Vann said.

Indeed, when it comes to specs, pricing and measurement, the numbers and the universal terms, much of the "just the facts, ma'am" has always been fairly language neutral. It's when the text moves into marketing promotional phrasing that language nuances kick in.

And therein lies another huge language problem.And therein lies another huge language problem. Senior execs pour a lot of attention and marketing dollars into carefully choosing phrases and tone to send a precise—and sometimes subtle—message. It's almost impossible to not lose many of those nuances when they are translated into a different language, even when the conversion is handled by a bi-lingual veteran marketer.

Don't even think about using software conversions. Google Translate, for example, is a helpful tool, but it's one that consumers need to discover and use on their own. Suggest Google Translate—or, heaven forbid, use it to create your non-English site—and you've endorsed whatever results it delivers.

This brings up one of the critical arguments in favor of having such a site: respect. Even if many Hispanic prospects may not need a Spanish-language site, it can be seen as a sign of respect that you're speaking to them in their native tongue, rather than forcing them to read the sales material in yours.

That argument ends up supporting the decision for retailers to not launch a Spanish site domestically. Unless the language use is perfect and the marketing phrasing reflects your exact messaging, the site could be seen as sloppy and insulting by the very audience you're trying to impress. Worse yet, it could be mocked, and that mocking could very easily turn into a viral hit.

"More than anything else, you'd be giving people a subpar experience," Vann said.

The only major chain to offer a complete Spanish version of its site today is Best Buy, but Vann said that is only because the site is not designed to be used only in the U.S. Given that the Best Buy site is focused on selling to consumers outside the U.S., the numbers and arguments are vastly different.

This certainly doesn't mean that retailers should expect Hispanic consumers to simply accept English everything. Spanish social media posts (especially tweets), customer-service interactions (online and especially on the phone), supplemental Spanish on the site and Spanish comments (plus Spanish responses to those comments) are a much more effective way to go.

Not all E-Commerce challenges can be solved by technology. And quite a few—such as embracing Hispanic customers online—can be, but absolutely shouldn't be. Sometimes the most respectful message to send prospects is "I don't want to disrespect you by giving you a half-measure because we speak different languages. I'll deliver as much Spanish as I can where I can, but to try and deliver to you more than I can do at the quality level you deserve is not something I'll do to you. Respect is sometimes admitting what I can't do."