For years, national government regulations meant H-E-B customers who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) had to pay in store—but when COVID struck, we didn’t want our customers to choose between shopping in store or losing their benefits when they needed them most.
After years of advocating for online SNAP abilities, H-E-B’s Digital teams jumped into action once the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened up their online payment program to several states, including Texas. But enabling SNAP payments wasn’t as easy as adding another dropdown option at checkout. The complexities of accepting this nutritional program required a host of creative solutions—some that you would expect, like coordinating across multiple levels of government and across back-end systems of H-E-B, and some that might surprise you, like selfie sticks. H-E-B’s Jonathan Turfboer, Director of Product for Payments, Anna George, Senior Product Manager, and Michael Willis, eCommerce Project Manager, explain how it all came together.
This spring, we implemented Phase 1 where a customer could pay with SNAP benefits at Curbside without ever having to enter a store. This was a very manual process: we had to accept payment at the curb with a modified selfie stick…allow us to explain.
Jonathan Turfboer, Director of Product: We wanted to give our customers who rely on SNAP to obtain healthy foods the ability to shop inside our stores or online using Curbside and Delivery. Our goal was to create a solution with minimal operational impact to the in-store teams, and, to do so quickly. We knew many customers were heavily impacted by the economic situation in our state and that the longer we took, the longer our customers had to choose between using their SNAP or shopping Curbside without them.
Prior to COVID, the USDA did not provide support for online payments. They were in pilot mode in other states, but we were blocked. As the USDA support expanded, we realized just how complex creating a seamless shopping experience would be. We’d need to solve for a slew of variables: customer’s SNAP balance, product eligibility, weighed items, refunds, add-ons, fees that aren’t covered by SNAP, and other things we learned along the way.
Anna George, Senior Product Manager: We wanted to do it right, and we wanted the best experience possible. Then the pandemic happened and it became imperative that we get something to our customers as quickly as possible, even if it was not optimal operationally. We needed a phase one to support our customers’ pressing needs. That was pay-at-pickup.
So we began dual tracks of development—one to get pay-at-pickup out as fast as possible, another to integrate and build the experience for paying online. This turned out to be a wise decision, as solidifying the requirements for SNAP online that would best serve our customers was a task in itself.
Michael Wills, eCommerce Project Manager: At the store level, we came up with an elegant yet clunky solution. While we developed the logistics of paying online, we found a socially distant way for our customers to pay once they arrived to pick up Curbside. We used velcro to attach an Otterbox with our mobile point of sale to a selfie stick. I’m not a selfie stick guy, but Esther Castelo, our Vice President of eCommerce eStore/Retail Operations, suggested it, and it worked pretty well. When the customer arrived, they entered their payment info themselves. Then we would pull the stick back, process payment, tape the receipt to the back of the selfie stick, and pass it back. It wasn’t the most tech-heavy solution, but it worked. Along the way, we were able to provide text receipts, which saved us another point of physical contact with our customers.
Michael: For our stores, the biggest obstacle was predicting demand. When we went into pilot mode for two stores, we had an inkling it was going to be big, but not to the extent we saw!
We had to be gentle with our stores. COVID had already put our Curbside and Delivery teams through the wringer, both from increased demand and the process changes the pandemic required. Now, we were adding a completely new system without knowing what the scale could be. Jonathan: The complexities come once you process payment before an order is completely prepared. SNAP is a fundamentally different payment method. There are eligibility rules (only certain products can be purchased with SNAP) and tax rules (anything that’s purchased with SNAP is excluded from taxes), and most crucially, payment is processed immediately. Credit or debit cards allow us the ability adjust the price based on final orders—say, if you buy a steak and the weight is a third of a pound instead of a quarter of a pound, we’ll just adjust your charge, but with SNAP we can’t do that. If the tortillas you order aren’t available, we can’t just swap them with any other tortillas, because our hot fresh tortillas aren’t SNAP eligible. When customers are paying at pickup, we can adjust their order at the curb. The online phase is a lot more complex.
Michael: That has an incredible impact on how the people who are preparing your order work. The market, deli, and seafood items you request are picked by the departments, not by your individual shopper, so we’re already starting to talk through those nuances and issues. If a customer purchases an item that is eligible for SNAP and it’s not available, then the Personal Shopper needs to pick a sub that’s also eligible. How can we surface that information to the Personal Shopper as they are shopping?
Jonathan: From an implementation perspective, that means pulling everyone together: the ATG team, the web team, the two mobile teams, my team (payments), e-store operations, communications, FAST, COMS, Point of Sale, accounting, tax, legal, compliance, regulatory, government affairs, marketing, loss prevention. Everyone moved this forward so that each piece of the process works well for our customers.
Michael: And it’s changing our stores themselves—we have some stores that previously had a high volume for SNAP that didn’t have a Curbside system in place. With these new capabilities, we can change that. We added Curbside to 10 stores near the border that didn’t have it previously.
Full Speed Ahead
Anna: What really stood out to me during this process was the focus on creating the best experience for the customer. There were corners we could have cut (that other retailers certainly have) to make it easier for the business to operate, but instead, we were laser-focused on doing everything possible to make every interaction seamless for our customers.
There are still some things we need to button up, but we are continuing to move forward for all Texans. When the system rolled out on December 15, customers responded every step of the way, achieving our team’s main goal: for every Texan to be able to use the H-E-B app and website we all know and love.