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Cell phone companies work to attract Hispanic customers

NORCROSS

When Miosotis Farias and her family arrive at Cingular Wireless' store on Singleton Road in Norcross, manager Franklin Dominguez jumps to his feet. He greets them in Spanish, hugging Farias and getting a toy phone for her 4-year-old son, Jason.

Farias' sister, Ayalida, hands Dominguez a $20 bill. Last week she had tried to purchase a cell phone charger, but the computer wouldn't register the sale properly. So Dominguez paid for it out of his pocket and Ayalida agreed to pay him back later.

"They trust me, I trust them," Dominguez said. "It keeps them coming back."

Dominguez's store is one of two in Gwinnett that has been converted to specifically serve Hispanic customers. The converted stores, located in heavily Hispanic communities, feature bilingual staff and marketing materials. The Cingular slogan "Raising the Bar" is replaced by the Spanish word "Adelante," meaning "go forward."

Farias, who was born in the Dominican Republic, has stayed faithful to Dominguez's store since she switched to Cingular's phone service nine months ago.

"I know when I leave (the store) everything will be OK," she said.

Dominguez, who has been working at Cingular's Norcross location for more than two years, said 80 to 90 percent of his customers are Hispanic.

"(Cingular) realizes this is a prime location," he said. "It's a great opportunity."

Staring in June, about 420 Cingular stores were converted nationwide, with more on the way. The stores are part of a marketing strategy designed to keep Cingular the No. 1 cellular service provider for Hispanics. A variety of bilingual options, downloadable content and international calling plans also help woo the fastest-growing demographic in the United States.

According to the research company Telephia, Hispanics use cell phones more than any other ethnic group besides blacks. And minute usage increased 13 percent between the first and third quarters of 2005.

Verizon Wireless and metroPCS have already implemented similar steps to attract their share of Hispanic customers. While both companies have several bilingual stores, they have set up partnerships with smaller retailers to increase their appeal to Hispanic customers.

Verizon has set up an exclusive arrangement with retailer ToDo Communications to market Verizon products to Hispanics. The first store was opened on Buford Highway in Atlanta last October, making it the first Hispanic-owned, fully bilingual wireless communication store in Georgia.

Verizon's multicultural marketing manager in the South, Carlos Beccar, said the relationship has been beneficial for the company. The owner, Lino Dominguez, has 20 years of experience in the community and is the publisher of the Hispanic newspaper Mundo Hispanico. Also, because ToDo Communications is a smaller company, it is more maneuverable and adaptable, Beccar said.

Beccar said one of Verizon's goals is to associate itself with events and people important to Hispanic customers. Verizon is sponsoring singer Shakira's next U.S. tour and participates in local events like the Peachtree Latino Festival.

MetroPCS Regional Vice President of Sales and distribution Michael Johnson said there are 12 independent retailers in Gwinnett that serve primarily Hispanic customers. He said the company has more of a grass-roots focus than other cellular phone providers.

"We try to place dealers to service a particular community," Johnson said.

All three companies allow customers to pay in cash instead of checks or credit cards, helpful for Hispanic customers who don't have a solid line of credit or Social Security numbers. Cingular began allowing cash payments around the same time they rolled out their "Adelante" marketing strategy, and Dominguez said his customer base increased 20 to 30 percent since cash payments were allowed.

Beccar said Hispanic customers tend to value international calling more than white subscribers - all three service providers have set up special rates for calls to Latin America - but said most differences between the demographics are subtle.

Raul Cifuentes, project manager for Cingular's bilingual store program, said Hispanic customers use text messaging 41 percent more than other customers and make more use of a phone's different applications, like photo sharing and ring tones.

Cifuentes said Cingular has strived to have a deep understanding of its Hispanic customers, making sure its store workers speak in "neutral Spanish" that can be understood by immigrants from all Latin American countries.

"I can put a poster in my store in Spanish, but that doesn't mean I'm serving the Hispanic community," he said.

Part of serving the community is creating a family environment in its stores. Cifuentes said Hispanic customers generally shop as a family, requiring the company to make the experience enjoyable for all ages. That family extends out to the Hispanic community as well. Dominguez has talked with Oscar Galvez, the manager of the nearby Puerto Plato Restaurant, about conducting cross promotions to pull in more customers.