When doing the right thing is the right thing for brands.
With 350 stores throughout Texas and Mexico, H.E.B. is one of the largest grocery chains in the region. Nearly a quarter of the 112 year old retailer’s stores are located in Houston, in the path of Hurricane Harvey. At a time when Amazon looms large and commentators are questioning the future of bricks and mortar retail, H.E.B.’s approach to serving the people of Houston in their time of need reminds us that there’s so much more to building a brand than price and convenience.
Hours after Hurricane Harvey hit, H.E.B. had 60 of its 83 Houston stores open to customers. Within days they had repaired damaged stores and had 79 of 83 open. This was not luck or opportunism, this was a result of dynamic planning for the unfolding disaster borne from a business that truly sees itself as part of the communities it serves.
Planning began for the impending storm six days before it hit. As the reality of what lay ahead unfolded into certainty, H.E.B.’s first and most important decision was to do everything they could for their customers. They put together an emergency plan based on an understanding of need.
H.E.B. President of Houston division, Scott McClelland relates: “We first knew the storm was coming last Tuesday. You begin to put plans into motion. We began shipping water and bread into the effected areas. Those are the two categories people buy first. When you go into a hurricane, nobody buys frozen food. You want milk, bread, water. You want batteries, you want canned meat. You want tuna. Coming out of a hurricane, if there’s been flooding, they’re going to want stick goods: mops and bleach. I’ll take all the bread I can possibly get right now. Then you’re going to start to get produce. The guy who runs floral at H-E-B calls everyday: Can I start to ship floral? We don’t care about floral. People do not buy flowers in the middle of a hurricane. You only have so many trucks and so much space.”
When employees couldn’t get to work due to the storm, stores ran with as few as five people; one at the door for crowd control and the others working the registers, trying to get people looked-after as quickly as possible.
McClelland says; “One of my stores, we had 300 employees; 140 of them were displaced by the flooding. So how do you put your store back together quickly? We asked for volunteers in the rest of the company. We brought over 2,000 partners from Austin, San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley. They hopped into cars and they just drove to Houston. They said, we’re here to help. It’s shitty work. For 18 hours a day, they’re going to help us restock and then they’ll go sleep on the couch at somebody’s house.”
“We used helicopters to fly truck drivers over from San Antonio, where our headquarters is based. Many of our drivers [in Houston] were stuck in their homes or lost their homes. The neck in the funnel, really in our capacity, was to get enough drivers to be able to get our trucks out of the yard and get them delivered.
We had trouble getting from Houston to Beaumont, Tex. yesterday because the water level was so high. We sent 10 trucks of water over because the city water is tainted. It took 18 hours for a trip that would normally take 90 minutes. So we’re contracting with Army troop carriers to get people through the high water. Then we said we’d use our corporate plane to get people over, but we couldn’t do that today because President Trump is coming over. The airspace is closed.
If you think about toilet paper, we’ve called Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, and we said: Send entire trailer loads directly to our stores. One store will take half a trailer, and the other store will take the other half. You can just bypass our warehouse, so you can just get it to us. In doing that, I create more capacity in my distribution chain. So, you send direct trucks — here are the stores you can go to — and split the truck: make it half paper towels and half toilet tissue.
I called Frito-Lay and said, rather than manufacturing your entire product line, manufacture your bestsellers. I need Lay’s, I need Doritos, I need Fritos. I need a variety pack. I don’t need Funyons and I don’t need Munchos. Just make your best sellers. I won’t turn down any delivery. We’ll take it as fast as we can.
We have our own bread manufacturing plant. We normally make 50 different bread items; this week we’re making three. We’re making white. We’re making wheat. We’re making hotdog buns. Having access to product is more important than variety. Every time we have to changeover to a different product [in the bakery], we have to stop the machines. If we can just keep running the machines, then we can make more product and get more product out to the stores.”
We have these mobile kitchens: full-blown, self-contained kitchens on wheels. They can feed 2,000 people an hour. We send them right into the hurricane areas. We feed first responders and evacuees — people who wouldn’t have access to food. It’s just something H-E-B is known for doing in crisis, when there are fires, tornadoes. Oftentimes, we’ll get there before the Red Cross.
I think I said on Thursday of this week, I don’t even know what day it is. Someone told me, hey, the Astros signed Justin Verlander. I had no idea. I really don’t know too much of what’s going on in the world, but I can tell you what’s happening area-by-area on flooding. Yesterday, they put a water ban on one part of Houston. Within five minutes, we had a truck rolling to that area.”
The top line of this story is remarkable enough; Supermarket chain opens against the odds to serve their customers. It’s only through understanding the work that goes into making that happen that we begin to understand the culture and commitment of H.E.B. to being so much more than a grocery retailer. H.E.B. understand the role they play in the community in a way that has somehow passed-us by. In many ways they represent the opposite to the profit first, community later model of the modern Amazon and Walmart retail brands. Yet the depth of this gesture of community service has the power and potential to underpin incredible brand loyalty for the next generation and beyond. This is a gesture based on strong values – H.E.B. could not have done otherwise even if they’d wanted to. They did not choose to open and serve their customers as a brand strategy, or an attempt to minimise downturn in sales, they authentically and truly made the call to remain open as part of the responsibility that comes with the role they play in the community – and that is precisely why it will be so powerful for them and their brand.
We take our hats-off the the crew at H.E.B – real community heroes who happen to also run a retail brand.
David is the founder of Truly Deeply, a brand agency with 25 years experience working with brands to position them for growth. His deep expertise is in the creation of high engagement brands that attract the attention of their audience and stand out from their competitors. David has extensive experience working with corporate, retail, food & beverage and entrepreneurial clients. Find out more here
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Flooded store pics: Inside Story
Internet Meme: Unknown
People queued outside H.E.D. store: WBUR.org
Volunteers at H.E.B. tent: Liz Lopez
H.E.B. staff handing out food: Tom Reel /San Antonio Express-News