H-E-B is No. 1 by many measures

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Ask 100 people to name the two best Beatles songs and you’re likely to get 200 different answers. The point is, identifying the best of anything is not all that easy. To the contrary, it’s a daunting assignment.

Which brings us to the subject for today. Can anyone here name the best retailer? Or the four, five or six best? People will rush to answer — but their answers will likely be all over the lot. For a simple reason: How does one define the best retailer? What are the criteria? How do you compare retailers, especially across retail classes? The assignment, then, is not difficult. It’s impossible.

Having said that and, in the bargain, provided an acceptable excuse for getting this assignment wrong, we will now attempt, in this small space, to identify one of our candidates for best retailer.

Hedging our prognosis at the start, we will begin by airing the possibility that we might well be wrong. Said another way, there simply is not one mass retailer whose performance or results or attempts to prosper set it apart from the rest. Despite that caveat, we’d like to offer a possible candidate for best mass retailer.

That candidate is H-E-B.

Many reasons present themselves for favoring H-E-B. Foremost among them is an acute understanding of just who its customer(s) is (are). Put another way, there is no one H-E-B customer. Rather, there are many. Having acknowledged what for many retailers is impossible to acknowledge, the people who run, oversee and toil for H-E-B offer their customers a variety of formats in a variety of settings. And each format appeals. Not necessarily to every shopper but to enough of them to keep them coming, and coming back.

That’s step one. Step two is far more difficult: Getting customers to buy far more than they intended — and, in many cases, far more than they realized they needed or wanted.

Anyone doubting that premise need only visit an H-E-B supermarket in the Texas Hill Country or almost anywhere in Texas. The stores, though carrying different names and often diverse merchandise assortments, faithfully provide H-E-B customers with enough valid reasons to shop across a range of merchandise items and categories that the typical customer is convinced that the store was designed for her. And shops ­accordingly.

That’s why an H-E-B supermarket emphasizes service departments, just in case the customer is in the mood to try something new. And that’s why, despite that emphasis, the basic mix provides enough variety across a spectrum of price points that it is a rare customer indeed who leaves an H-E-B supermarket feeling undervalued or under-catered-to.

One could go on and on. Take private label, for example. H-E-B doesn’t offer its vast house brand assortment as an alternative. Rather, house brands are presented as a viable, even preferential choice. Indeed, its positioning often consigns the name brands to the category of alternative. Think that’s easy? Take a trip to Austin.

Finally, and this is the most difficult part of the deal, H-E-B people are never satisfied. They never truly believe they’ve succeeded in catering to and ultimately satisfying the customer.

So they continue to try. And try. And try harder than before.

So, while H-E-B may not be the best mass retailer in America, it’s close enough to get our vote. Until, that is, someone better comes along.


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