In 2017, Hurricane Harvey kicked off an historically destructive storm season, devastating parts of Texas and ultimately matching Hurricane Katrina as the costliest hurricane to hit the United States. In the aftermath of Harvey, we saw something unexpected, something that resonated deeply with consumers and still resonates to this very day.
Associate Director at C Space
Christina Stahlkopf, Ph.D. is an Associate Director in C Space’s Boston office and a core member of our Global Research Team. Christina turns stats to story and is the lead architect of our Customer, Experienced. study, which connects key brand relationship behaviors to stronger business performance. A sociologist, ethnographer, and author, she’s our in-house pathfinder, constantly mapping out ways for brands to innovate and push boundaries. You’ll often find Christina on the ski slopes or being towed behind a ski boat on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee (pronounced winna-pah-SAW-key) alongside her husband and two children.
As more mainstream, traditional disaster relief players like the American Red Cross worked to mobilize, the Texas regional grocer H-E-B stepped in to help its community.
H-E-B has a long history in Texas. Founded in 1905 on the ground floor of a Texas home, H-E-B has grown to be one of the largest privately held companies in the U.S., all the while never forgetting its roots. So with the tagline, “Helping our neighbors in need,” after Harvey struck, H-E-B was there to ensure that everyone had access to food, water and supplies.
The massive operation involved command centers, helicopters, private planes, military styles vehicles, mobile kitchens and frequent calls to suppliers. H-E-B’s response was so strong, so well organized and so visible to Texans that memes suggesting the company did more than the U.S. government went viral.
OK sure, you might say that was an unprecedented event. Well, the thing is, for H-E-B, it wasn’t.
Regardless of industry, H-E-B is the top-rated U.S. company in our C Space Customer, Experienced. data¹. Not only that but among those who rated the company, 98% have recommended it to a friend or family member and 99% intend to purchase products from them in the future. Now, that certainly got my attention.
And here’s why it should get yours. When we dig into the data on H-E-B, we find that, for the most part, consumers don’t talk about the products they carry or the cleanliness of their stores. They don’t talk about checkout or wait times. They don’t talk about prices or sales or coupons. They don’t focus on the usual, in-store, functional experiences that get mentioned about most brands in any industry with a physical store presence. Instead, consumers emphasize their relationship with H-E-B, referring to them as a friend, or as family. For the locals, this Texas titan is synonymous with community.
“My local H-E-B knows its customers. We aren’t just regular shoppers. We are friends.” – H-E-B Customer
Despite its stores covering over a quarter of a million square miles (that’s roughly the same size as France – yes, Texas really is that big) outside of the store, H-E-B is also viewed as a community support system and foundation. And it’s not just because of extraordinary efforts like those during Harvey. H-E-B’s success lies in its everyday relationships with customers and the community. H-E-B starts with building core in-the-moment, in person connections. This means it creates a human, in-store experience built on real, individual relationships with customers:
“They are always so nice and there is this lady that laughs at my jokes. She is the sweetest person I’ve ever met. Like OMG.” – H-E-B Customer
But it doesn’t stop there. The company ladders out their relationship-building more broadly into the community, working hard to support local people and foster the local economy by, for example, sourcing local produce and meats for their stores and becoming regularly involved in local charities.
“They do a lot of community service, helping their customers, especially during times of hardship. They are at almost every local event sponsoring everything they can.” – H-E-B Customer
And H-E-B proves that they aren’t just a fair-weather friend. They stand by those relationships when it’s easy and when it’s hard, such as Harvey:
“They are always community involved. They are there in time of celebration and in times of disaster and tragedy.” – H-E-B Customer
At a time when there are questions about the future of brick-and-mortar stores, this 113-year-old regional grocer is trailblazing an example of how you can survive. A challenge that all industries increasingly face (not just in Texas, but around the world) is how to maintain a human connection in an ever more digitized online experience and existence. And we certainly see this within the grocery category. For all the discussion, market effects and knee-knocking that AmazonFresh has generated, consumers rate it middle of the pack with a rating far below that of H-E-B. Digitization alone isn’t everything.
This is not to say that H-E-B is a mom and- pop physical grocer. It isn’t. It has a strong online presence, with home delivery and curbside pickup options. But in keeping up with the digital Joneses, H-E-B has never lost sight of the people and the community it serves. H-E-B takes every opportunity to seek out a genuine connection in the physical world, knowing that will translate into an ongoing connection in the digital world, as well.
Interestingly, regional grocers more generally seem to have a corner on the customer relationship. Wegman’s and Publix also rate not only at the top of the grocery industry but are among the top five rated U.S. companies across industries. These two, like H-E-B, focus on creating strong in-person relationships through their in-store experience. And customers call out their connection to polite, friendly, cheerful and engaging employees.
Yet, only H-E-B manages to convert friendly to friend and only H-E-B (to customers at least) demonstrates their friend status with broader community integration – all of which puts them ahead of their competitors, at the top of the grocery industry and sets them apart as a company to watch, even among those not in grocery. In this, H-E-B has found the secret sauce to not just being the place its customers go to buy groceries, but to holding a coveted place as part of their lives.
¹H-E-B did not appear on C Space’s Top U.S. Companies list because it is a regional grocer and mentioned only by consumers in that region. To qualify for the national list, a company must be mentioned in all 4 U.S. regions.