Making H-E-B products: digital and delicious

Episode 4: Inventing ice cream and designing digital products are more alike than you’d think. Amanda Jamison, Brand Manager for ice cream, frozen pizza, and frozen meals, and Chris Risdon, Principal Experience Designer, discuss how they are both working to make lives easier and tastier.

Full transcript below:

Chandra K. Bricker: Hello and welcome to Staple and Fancy by H-E-B Digital. I'm your host Chandra K. Bricker and today I have Amanda and Chris on the mic. Hi Chris.

Chris Risdon: Hello. How's it going?

Chandra K. Bricker: Doing all right. How are you?

Chris Risdon: Not too bad today.

Chandra K. Bricker: Amanda how about you?

Amanda Jamison: I'm doing great, thanks.

Chandra K. Bricker: And it's Amanda Jameson, correct? What is your official title, Amanda?

Amanda Jamison: I am the Own Brand manager for ice cream, frozen pizza, and frozen meals. I have such exciting categories.

Chandra K. Bricker: Yeah that is super fun. Own Brand ice cream is a very, very popular topic here at H-E-B.

Chris Risdon: A lot of jealous people.

Chandra K. Bricker: They'd love the job of tasting ice cream all day long. Chris Risdon what is your official title?

Chris Risdon: Principal Experience Designer under H-E-B Digital.

Chandra K. Bricker: So the purpose of today's conversation is to talk about how, Chris, on your side of the business you build digital products and, Amanda, on your side of the business you build physical products, so what is that about?

Amanda Jamison: Before I get to what I do—Chris what is a digital product?

Chris Risdon: That's a good question, and I know that's something that we sort of, I don't want to say struggle with, but it is a thing that we deal with at H-E-B, because we're so good at putting real products, physical products on the shelves for customers. So I'm gonna be a little overly simple, but a digital product is going to be a piece of software. And the reason it's called a "product" is because a long time ago that software was things that went on discs and put in boxes, and was a product you actually did buy on the shelf—just like the things that we have on our shelves. But now you have it where you download an app or you go to a website. But these digital products also could be things that we use for our Partners, like the software that we use for our Curbside pickup and home delivery or that those personal shoppers use to shop in the aisles. Or even the software that we use for our self checkout kiosk. That sort of summarizes what it looks like to have digital products.

Amanda Jamison: Well I would say I can definitely relate to that product development side. My background, I actually worked in research and development in our ice cream plant prior to joining our Marketing team after getting my MBA. And I can say that with our 13 manufacturing facilities, we offer our customers products that are local, that are made right here in Texas. And we have an H-E-B family of brands—so we have our H-E-B, our Central Market, our Hill Country Fare, and really we develop these with the highest level of quality and also the assortment in mind. So whether you're looking for something that's organic or you're looking for the best, premium H-E-B Creamy Creations ice cream—we've got you covered.

Chandra K. Bricker: Yes, you are correct. Our Own Brand products at H-E-B have to serve a wide array of customers and each of those customers are unique. I believe the word you would use Chris is "archetype" or "persona"? 

Chris Risdon: Yeah. There are different types of customers and they have different behaviors or they have a different set of needs that separate them from other customers. And we think of everyone individually, but we also find patterns among them, so that we do group them. That we group them isn't to take away anyone's individual needs. It's to understand how can we target enough people with something that we're gonna do, like basically some software we're gonna ship out that's going to help serve their needs. And so we think of those archetypes or those personas as kind of people that exhibit a certain similarity of traits. And that allows us to target: "well if they need this." If they need a shopping list or if they need to have these types of features when they're checking out of the online app then we can better target knowing that there's a critical mass of people that we're going to serve with that feature.

Amanda Jamison: Yeah Chris, and I would agree with you. In our Own Brand department as we're developing products, it's the same process that we go through. It's trying to serve our community and our customers in the best possible way. And we even go down to the local level where we developed Houston Texans ice cream and other items that really meet those customer needs.

Chris Risdon: Customer needs is something that I think is a good phrasing for us to sort of share. We know that thinking like a customer is one of our core values. And so the way we think about it, even though it's shared throughout the organization, is we sort of practice applied empathy or sort of tactical empathy where from a design process we're saying there is a specific challenge or problem that we want to address—some areas we think we can improve the experience for our customers. We're gonna go out and we're gonna watch them, observe them, talk to them. Sometimes we've gone into people's homes to understand the environment in which they do their online shopping or what their refrigerator looks like and that's gonna give us an understanding of how they have specific needs or how they approach their problems and then we're gonna be able to then design something in these digital products that's gonna serve their needs even better.

Amanda Jamison: And I would say our Partners are our customers too. And so as I go about my daily life, I use the Curbside app all the time. And providing feedback is critical, and I would say that we definitely lean in to customer feedback to improve and make sure that we're meeting the customers need.

Chris Risdon: Well I'd even extend that. Besides the fact that we're often customers because we shop at H-E-B, we're serving Partners with digital products in many ways. I already mentioned we help Partners with software that helps them shop for the customers that are going to do Curbside pickup and home delivery. There's an array of enterprise software that we use to help people manage store capacity and manage the intake of orders. So it's easy to sort of simplify our digital products as knowing that we have a customer-facing app and we have a customer-facing website, but there are literally dozens, maybe even more than dozens, of pieces of digital product we're doing that don't just serve customers but they also serve our Partners.

Chandra K. Bricker: Yes that's absolutely 1000% true. One of the things that I wanted to ask you Chris is—Amanda will probably back me up on this—our assortment in our stores is very tailored to the neighborhoods that we serve. And so one of the big questions that we have is: how does that work in a digital space? If our stores have four walls and we can customize the assortment in those four walls, how does it work on the four frames of a screen? 

Chris Risdon: It's a really good question and it's also really hard. And that's one of the reasons why we have we've been hiring the talent that we have and we've been growing at the pace that we have—because it is sort of what we call a wicked problem. It's like one of those problems that seem sort of intractable because how can the digital product—the website or the app—feel really like it's meant for you, and yet how can I open it and really feel like it's meant for me, when we're different people and we have different needs. And that goes to that empathy again, where we need to do some research and we have to hear people and listen to how they talk about their problems. And our challenge is our secret sauce are the people that are in the stores and the humanity that they bring to people. And that is really hard to do, admittedly, in a digital product. But that's sort of what we're tasked to do. And I don't really have an answer because we haven't gotten to that end result yet. But it's sort of an exciting ride to sit there and listen to customers. We've gone to different markets. We've sort of identified different patterns and themes and connections that sort of unite customers across markets, across different segments of class and income so that we can serve them really well. And it's an interesting challenge. I'm kind of excited to where we're going to go in the next year or two to find out how we bring that something special that we have in the stores into our digital products.

Amanda Jamison: Yeah and I would say thinking about Own Brand innovation as we continue to develop items that meet those customer needs—if you look at our ice cream portfolio today we have around five different vanilla flavors. And that's truly because vanilla is one of the fan favorites, and those fans all have different preferences. I also think that it's about making life a little bit easier. When you think about what we've done with our H-E-B Meal Simple. You can go to the grocery store easy. You can even order Meal Simple on the Curbside app and you have a dinner solution for your family. So I think we're trying to really make lives easier and better and a little bit tastier with Own Brand.

Chris Risdon: And I think that's a really good point. I think there's a parallel to that, where sometimes in my world, in the tech and digital product world, we want to initially sort of boil the ocean. We want to reinvent something and innovate in some massive way. It's easy to take for granted that some people just want a thing in their life to be a little bit easier or a little bit simpler to figure out. I think that you know what you're saying sort of resonates with what we're often tasked with doing—which is making what we would say are iterative improvements. Step-by-step—in a week you're gonna see something a little bit different in the app or the website and hopefully it's a little bit of improvement that makes, for example, finding a right timeslot easier to pick up your groceries. The next week or two weeks later, you might find something else that just makes one other aspect of it a little bit easier. And it's easy for us to take for granted how important some of those small things are for our customers.

Chandra K. Bricker: Well I would say that's where we're all united. Regardless of which division we work for at H-E-B, it is all about making the lives of Texans better. I think that brings us to the end of our Staple and Fancy podcast by H-E-B Digital. Thank you both for being on the mic today.

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