Retailers in the Carolinas are waking up to the fact that the region has become one of the fastest-growing spots for Hispanics. For the first time they are making an effort to reach out to the immense buying power of this burgeoning population.

Many Carolina stores and retail services, like banks and insurance companies, are now providing information in both English and Spanish, says Caren Wingate, director of Marketing for Percival McGuire Commercial Real Estate, a full-service real estate firm based in Charlotte, N.C., noting that this wasn't so a year ago.

“Lowe's gives Hispanics a big welcome: Everything is in Spanish and English,” she adds, noting that a study from the Kenan-Flager Business School at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill found that 69 percent of Hispanics in North Carolina come here directly from Mexico, rather from other U.S. states, and 72 percent are fluent in Spanish only. “They've done their homework, identified work-related opportunities and are moving their families here,” Wingate suggests.

While the larger retailers are interested in where and when Hispanics spend money, the growing presence of this ethnic group has spawned businesses that cater almost exclusively to this population, particularly grocers and insurance companies. According to the UNC report, there are 9,047 Hispanic-owned businesses throughout the state, with revenues of $1.8 billion annually.

The report notes that between 1990 and 2003 the state's Hispanic population jumped 817 percent, from about 77,000 to over a half million, the majority of which resides in five metropolitan areas: Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. South Carolina experienced a 273 percent increase in Hispanics during the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The UNC report puts buying power of the North Carolina Hispanic population at $8.35 billion annually, a figure they predict could reach $18 billion within five years. The impact of Hispanic purchasing power in South Carolina is expected to rise from $2 billion in 2003 to $4 billion by 2008, according to a forecast from the University of South Carolina's Latino Immigration Project.

Amid national debate are the merits of immigrants on the economy versus the burden they place on local governments, the UNC study looked at both sides of the financial argument. While Hispanics cost local governments more in services than they pay in taxes, $817 million compared to $756 million, their positive impact on the economy makes up the difference. The UNC report notes that North Carolina Hispanics are responsible for the creation of 89,600 spin-off jobs; save businesses 1.4 percent in wages, or $1.9 billion annually; and helped boost exports to Latin America, which increased from $2.9 billion in 1999 to $4.1 billion in 2004.

Report co-author James H. Johnson, told Retail Traffic that spin-off jobs are spread throughout the market, from additional retail jobs at Wal-Mart due to increased demand to legal services. “If you look in the Yellow Pages you'll see how many immigration attorneys are here,” he says.