When your Curbside order comes up short…
It can take careful planning to determine a family meal plan for a week or to map out all the ingredients to your grandma’s secret stuffing for Thanksgiving. There are few things more frustrating than picking up your curbside order and realizing one of your key ingredients is missing. We not only work at H-E-B; we are also avid H-E-B shoppers who know this pain point of missing items in your cart. So, how do we correct this problem and ensure that the products our customers put in their online cart will be on the shelves when they pick up their actual order? Our engineers set out to do just that…. solve the product assortment riddle.
Over the last 12 years, the product assortment seen on H-E-B’s website had been powered by a system called SSA or Store Specific Assortment. This service enabled customers to see a daily snapshot product availability in their respective store while providing a level of confidence (0 – 100) generated through a complex algorithm of themes and rules. While SSA served us well in H-E-B’s early years of Digital Commerce, it was not designed for Digital Fulfillment. SSA’s listing of assortments was based on nightly batch jobs, however, issues arose throughout the day as customers shopped. SSA couldn’t dynamically update H-E-B’s website with the rapid fluctuations in product availability in a given day, resulting in customers finding that key items in their order were replaced by off-brand substitutes or missing all together. It soon became clear that static assortment based on nightly batch jobs was just not going to cut it.
Product Availability in Real Time
Today, H-E-B’s website is no longer just a product catalog for customers to build shopping lists. It serves as a comprehensive retail platform that allows for the ordering and fulfillment of products for a specific date and time. Not only was it becoming increasingly harder to manage products due to an exponential growth in online shopping, a new problem arose with the COVID-19 Pandemic, product availability. We needed to develop a service that provided accurate, real-time, and forward-looking assortment to our customers in a timely fashion. The Product Assortment & Location Service, or PALS for short, would function as that new service.
To provide a real-time solution, we first needed to define a single attribute that would provide a binary value for a product being in assortment or not. PSA (Product Shelf Assignment) would serve as that attribute. PSA essentially acts as the address for the location of a product in a store. From a personal shopper and customer perspective, this is very important information: we don’t want to make products available to purchase that our Partners and customers cannot locate. Along these lines, if a product has a PSA, a personal shopper can find it quickly within four feet of its shelf location. This concept created massive momentum toward PSA integrity in stores and is a primary focus across all H-E-B stores today.
PALS is a REST API service that provides store assortment and PSA locations to our consumers. As those consumers make requests to PALS, we can provide them deltas to solve for current and accurate assortment. With SSA, changes in product assortment would not be made available until the following day. With PALS, on the other hand, changes in assortment are made available in real-time as PSA locations change in stores.
Getting customers everything they need on the first try
Since our initial pilot in a single store back in November of 2020, we have gradually been rolling out PALS to larger waves of stores. With our fifth and final wave in May 2021, PALS is now powering assortment across all H-E-B stores! Another benefit of the PALS service is its ability to free up Partners’ time. Now that Partners are no longer spending time tracking down product across a given store, they will have the ability to make your H-E-B experience even more memorable. This is an important step as we continue building a modern shopping experience for our customers and getting the best products into the hands of Texans.