If retailers have not yet developed a strategy to market to Spanish-speaking customers, they may be in trouble.

"It's hard to imagine people being successful in this market without responding to the needs of Hispanics, especially the mass-market channels," says Brad Fay, managing director of NOP World in Princeton, which just released a study of Hispanic shopping patterns.

So far, Wal-Mart has been able to get a leg-up on the competition, according to the new study by NOP World, a market research unit of United Business Media. Thirty-six percent said Wal-Mart is their favorite store, with the JC Penney, Sears and Target chains, all tied for a distant fourth, with 4 percent each.

But many chains recently have stepped up efforts to eat away at Wal-Mart's share. Kmart, for one, has made Mexican singer Thalia Sodi their Spanish Martha Stewart. Sears, now Kmart's partner, also appreciates the buying power of Latinas, who spent an estimated $6.6 billion on clothes in 2004. It's launching a line named for Cuban American TV star Lucy Pereda.

Those surveyed didn't reflect a desire for a national Hispanic chain, says Fay. Instead, he notes, "The most appealing retail options appear to be the major national U.S. retailers who make accommodations for Spanish speakers, in the way of personnel, signs and product labels."

While those polled didn't name any single Hispanic retailer as their favorite, 5 percent gave as their No. 1 choice local Hispanic stores. Also, 54 percent of those polled said they prefer stores with Spanish-speaking employees and 52 percent want products relevant to their lifestyle. Forty-seven percent said Spanish signs are important and 43 percent want Spanish-labeling. They also want a wide range of payment options (47 percent).

A look at the changing demographics reveals how important Hispanic shoppers will become.

The Latino community is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. The Hispanic population will reach 60 million by 2020--about 18 percent of the U.S. Already, Hispanic purchasing power reached $686 billion in 2004. By 2009 it is projected to reach $992 billion--a 347.1 percent increase from 1990.

The survey did find that there are some retailer traits that Spanish-speaking shoppers desire the same as all other consumers: Low prices, convenience and a wide range of merchandise. The survey of 500 Hispanic American adults rated the importance of these factors at above 70 percent.

-- Beth Karlin