Grocery shopping in a pandemic [updated]

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

This was the line outside the South Flores Market a couple of weeks ago, just before the store opened on a Saturday morning, one of the earliest days of flow control.

Changes, changes, changes

Grocery shopping has undergone some dramatic changes in recent weeks, and we’re all adapting — shoppers, stores, and the supply chain.

Lavaca and Friends spoke with our neighbor, Joe Zetzsche, an executive with H-E-B corporate, to find out more about how things are going — and how they’re changing. Joe is H-E-B’s Director of BLOOMS® Floral, responsible for floral operations throughout all the stores. He’s also a long-time Lavaca resident, living in a restored home that Joe tells us is one of the oldest in the neighborhood.


H-E-B has been preparing for this pandemic for a long time. There’s a story about it in Texas Monthly, posted just a week ago:

According to the article, H-E-B first put together a pandemic plan back in 2005, first applied it to the 2009 Swine Flu, and has been refining it ever since.

H-E-B corporate began paying attention to the coronavirus in the second week of January, when they began getting reports out of China. According to the article, as things progressed, they got good information from retailers in both China and Italy that gave them an idea of what was happening on the ground where the virus was already spreading.

Implementation of their plan kicked off in mid-February, when the first case of the virus was recognized in Texas, and on March 4, H-E-B activated its Emergency Operations Center here in San Antonio.

South Flores Market

Our local H-E-B store — the South Flores Market — has been affected by the pandemic. Most of the effects are common to all the H-E-B stores, but the SoFlo store is smaller than most and the effects may manifest themselves a bit differently.

Like all stores, the SoFlo Market has changed its hours. It’s now open 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. The later opening time provides more time for overnight stocking, although re-stocking continues throughout the day.

And, like other stores, the SoFlo Market has implemented social distancing policies. To make that work inside the store, SoFlo limits the number of customers allowed inside to fifteen at a time. Other shoppers wait in line (with appropriate distancing) outside. When one shopper leaves, another is admitted.

Because of runs on certain products, H-E-B has put purchase limits in place on some things, including some frozen and canned foods, pasta, and cleaning products. There’s a list of items and the limits on the H-E-B web site:

‘Like all H-E-B stores, certain products will be difficult to find on a consistent basis,’ Joe told us. ‘Like hand sanitizer, bleach and bath tissue, although we are gaining strength in the paper category.’

‘Overall,’ Joe said, ‘food supply is stable.’

Alternatives to the South Flores Market

Some shoppers may prefer to try other, larger H-E-B locations. Since most of us are shopping less frequently, it’s not such an inconvenience to go a little bit further out of our way.

‘McCreless Market is the largest store and will likely have a strong in-stock position,’ Joe told us. ‘Nogalitos the same.’

A note about the Nogalitos store: The store uses both elevators and escalators to move shoppers between the parking area and the store level. Some neighbors have reported recently visiting the store and discovering that the escalators weren’t running, which forced people into the elevators. We’ve talked to the store, and they tell us that the escalators are running. Joe has told us that the escalators do occasionally need maintenance (‘it is a complex machine in that it carries both people and baskets’), but, he says, it’s working now.

Curbside and delivery options

H-E-B has long offered both curbside pickup and home delivery, but now, during the pandemic, demand for both has increased dramatically. As a result, lead times can be long. Here at Lavaca and Friends, we’ve tried both, and for us, the lead time for our first home delivery orders — placed a little more than a week ago — was nine days for Jane and ten days for me. The same was true when we checked available time slots again yesterday.

‘Across the company, curbside and delivery are opening new time slots daily as we work around the clock to add more capacity,’ Joe says. ‘We encourage families to utilize free curbside service as an alternative to going into the store.’

Neither Jane nor I have yet received our first deliveries, so we don’t know what effect temporary shortages may have on certain items, however, the H-E-B shopping site says that it may be necessary to make substitutions, and it’s possible that some items won’t be available.

[See update at the end of this post regarding our experience with delivery]

H-E-B's online shopping tool is nicely designed and easy to use. One note: filling your cart and picking a time slot are two separate steps. If you start by picking a time slot, you’ll have one hour to fill your cart before the slot expires.

Once you submit an order, incidentally, you’re able to go back and add items to that order before the delivery date. However, right now you’re limited to adding no more than four items.

Joe points out that deliveries go to your doorstep now — not inside your home — a change that’s due to the virus. H-E-B says it will contact you to alert you that your order has been delivered.

According to Joe, curbside pickup is free, and — while there’s ordinarily a $5 charge for delivery — that charge is waived when delivery can’t be made same day, which is the current situation. The waived fee shows up as a credit on your invoice. The order system will also calculate a suggested tip for the driver (who is not an H-E-B employee), but the tip is up to you.

Here’s a link to H-E-B’s official information on delivery and curbside pickup:

Pharmacy stocking and delivery

According to Joe, pharmacy stocking is not a problem. ‘H-E-B is in a strong stock position on pharmacy items,’ he told us.

There’s no pharmacy at the small SoFlo store, of course, but the other H-E-B pharmacies have adjusted their hours. The Monday through Friday hours are now 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, like the stores. Weekend hours, which were always more limited, have not changed.

Currently, H-E-B is offering free delivery on all prescriptions. Previously, delivery was free on two or more prescriptions, but there was a five dollar fee for delivery of a single item; that’s still the policy you’ll hear on a recording, if you’re put on hold when you phone in, but delivery is now free on all prescriptions.

And speaking of phone calls: You do have to call in to request delivery and to pay by credit card. Even if you use the online system to request refills, there’s no online mechanism for paying and requesting pharmacy delivery.

Staffing and hiring

Due to changes in shopping habits and demand — plus the additional sanitization and distancing policies put in place to fight the virus — staff is under a lot of pressure, and H-E-B is trying to bring more people on board, many of them in temporary positions.

To apply for any position at H-E-B, check the online ‘careers’ page:

We asked Joe how customers could support staff.

‘Patience, kindness and understanding during this time are the best gifts,’ he said.

Update regarding delivery

[Friday, April 3, 5:45 PM]

Since we posted this report, both Jane and I have received our first deliveries from H-E-B. The experience was very good. Both deliveries were within the requested time slots, and we each received multiple emails and text messages (for which we had signed up), letting us know the status of our orders at several stages throughout the day.

In the current situation, it’s no surprise that some substitutions were necessary. H-E-B texted us about each proposed substitution and almost immediately followed up with a phone call to see if the substitutions were acceptable.

Jane had three substitutions on twenty-two items; I had seven substitutions on thirty-four items.

Almost all the substitutions were brand substitutions; that is, we got the same product but a different brand. Several were slight changes — like multigrain replacing whole wheat. Across both our orders, we declined only one substitution (substituting 1-quart storage bags for 1- gallon freezer bags).

Both of us plan to order again.