Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Contemporary Ethnic Retailing: An Expanded Framework of Study

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Contemporary Ethnic Retailing: An Expanded Framework of Study

Article excerpt


Ethnic retailing is not a new phenomenon. Concentrations of retail activity focused on specific ethnic groups have existed in North American cities for over a century. Traditionally, ethnic retailing refers to businesses that are owned and operated by members of an ethnic group, and that offer culturally specific and suitable goods to serve the co-ethnics of the business owners. The traditional definition implies that the ownership, operation, merchandise, and clientele are all ethnic specific; together, they form an isolated system, where money is retained within the same ethnic group. This definition of ethnic retailing has, however, been blurred, with some ethnic retailers (selling both goods and services) now expanding their business scope to cross ethnic boundaries, and also with mainstream retailers entering the realm of ethnic retailing. Some of the recent changes are well accounted for by the later theoretical developments such as Mixed Economy and Mixed Embededness. Others necessitate the need for further theorization. Based on our observations of the recent business developments in metropolitan Toronto, this paper discusses the changing meaning of ethnic retailing and proposes a new typology for the expanded study of ethnic retailing. The paper is divided into five sections. The first section reviews the theoretical advancements made in the last three decades on ethnic entrepreneurship and ethnic economy, and presents an expanded list of factors for reconceptualization of contemporary ethnic retailing. The second section establishes the size and spatial structure of the ethnic consumer markets in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) to provide the geographic context for the various case studies. In the third and fourth sections, we identify the new trends of ethnic retailing and present examples of mainstream retailers participating in ethnic retailing. Our discussion of the new trends is framed around the extended list of factors. The final section provides a summary discussion, where the new typology is also presented.


The traditional approach to defining ethnic retailing was developed by sociologists and anthropologists from the perspective of entrepreneurship and in the context of ethnic economy. In the traditional approach, an ethnic economy, of which ethnic retailing is a major part, is defined as consisting of ethnic employers (including the self-employed) and their co-ethnic employees (Aldrich and Waldinger 1990; Bonacich and Modell 1980) that exist when "any immigrant or ethnic group maintains a private economic sector in which it has a controlling ownership stake" (Light and Gold 2000, 9). An ethnic economy must also depend on the existence of a co-ethnic consumer market. Despite its narrow market orientation, ethnic economy has evolved into an integral part of the larger economy in most immigrant-receiving countries and become an important area of academic research (Light and Gold 2000).

The history of ethnic business is almost as long as the history of the immigration of minorities to the immigrant-receiving countries. In recent decades, however, ethnie businesses have not only proliferated significantly but also undergone multifaceted structural changes and diversification. Accordingly, successive and progressive theorization has been made by more than one generation of scholars to advance our understanding of the meanings of ethnic economy and entrepreneurship.

In the early years of immigration, ethnic businesses tended to concentrate in peripheral commercial activities that were left over by the larger economy (such as laundries, restaurants and grocery stores). They were small in scale and were confined to small areas in the inner city. Initially, such businesses occurred when the concentration of ethnic households reached a threshold and generated sufficient demand for a range of goods and services. …

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