One thing I miss about life before Texas is the ability to choose my own grocery store. You’d think a big state like Texas would have a variety of grocery store chains to choose from. Unfortunately, so far we have only run across one chain… HEB. HEB is a grocery store that has locations in Texas and Mexico and, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the only game in town around these parts. We do have Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s somewhere near San Antonio. But you won’t find any of the other national or local chains. Indeed, even when we lived in po-dunk Sanford, North Carolina, we could choose between Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly, or Lowe’s Foods. In Georgia, we had the delightful Publix chain, as well as Kroger and Ingles. Here in huge San Antonio, HEB is pretty much the one place to shop. From what I’ve seen, HEB wants you to shop there… and only there. And they sell everything, just like another chain we all know about that wants to be all things to everyone.
I understand that not all HEBs are created equal. I don’t much like the HEB closest to us, though. It’s huge and the two times I’ve been there, it’s been really crowded and obnoxious. In fact, it reminds me a lot of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a store I haven’t set foot in since the early 00s. I walk into HEB and am assaulted by the smell of fresh cinnamon rolls. It smells good, but entices me to eat things I shouldn’t. The lighting is very bright and the decor is bare bones. There’s a lady handing out sushi samples while another is offering tastes of Smirnoff Ice. There are people everywhere and no matter where you turn, you’re bound to obstruct someone’s shopping progress.
My senses overload as I try not to get in anybody’s way. Forget about enjoying a leisurely shopping experience. Our local HEB is the supermarket equivalent to a crowded interstate, with people just wanting to cruise on through but repeatedly hitting traffic jams. I am annoyed as I end up in the section of the store with fucking board games and Barbie dolls in it, as if I’m at Target or something. If I wanted to shop at Target or Wal-Mart, I’d fucking go there.
We pass in front of the cash registers on our way to get some of the sushi we tasted as we first came into the store. A guy who works at HEB sees us and incorrectly figures we’re ready to check out. He tries to direct us to a lane. That annoys me, since the way the store is laid out means that a person could start their shopping on either side. They could start on the “drug store” side and pass the freakin’ toys and hot bar, or they can start on the “food store” side, where all the produce and shit is. The meat area requires that one walk through an entire section devoted to raw meat, cold cuts, and non highbrow deli cheeses. But if you want grated Parmesan cheese not made by Kraft, you have to go to the deli area, which is in another section of the store.
As we were walking out of the store yesterday, I noticed they were selling grills! $499 smoker grills, mind you– the type you might buy at Home Depot or Lowe’s, not one of those little aluminum foil jobs meant to be used once or twice. Who buys grills at a supermarket? I guess somebody must. Otherwise, why would they be selling them? But do they have to have so many? They have enough grills in the above picture to cook ribs for a whole lot of Texans.
In the above photo, you can see that they’re also selling garden stuff… Soil and trees, and plants, and shit… same stuff I saw for sale at Home Depot just twenty minutes prior to our food store stop. Again, why would I buy these things at the grocery store? Especially when I can go to Home Depot with a minimum of fuss?
I’m sure some people love HEB. But for me, it’s too much like a Wal-Mart, a store I loathe, not just because of its business practices, but because shopping there is too complicated. It takes too long to wade through all the stuff I don’t want or need. Some people like one stop shopping, but I, for one, like stores that don’t try to be all things to all people… and don’t take forever to get through. I don’t like stores where I feel like I’m holding someone up because I want to look at a label for a minute. You’d think in a really huge store that wouldn’t be a problem. But it has been one every time I’ve set foot in HEB. In fact, the first time I went to HEB, it was so Bill could get a money order. There was a really long line of people, all of whom had business… business that probably should have been handled somewhere other than a grocery store.
Our local HEB is like a cross between Wal-Mart and Shopper’s Food Warehouse, a chain we used to frequent occasionally when we lived in the DC area. I disliked Shopper’s Warehouse for the same reasons, if I recall correctly… though at least they weren’t trying to sell $499 grills in their parking lot. In fact, HEB has in common with Wal-Mart the whole “stomp the comp” mindset, that means running out of town everyone who might be a competitor.
I know everything is big in Texas, but I hope to find a smaller, less complicated place to shop for food at some point. Unfortunately, I have heard from many sources that HEB pretty much corners the food store market in this area… They do have a nice Central Market, which is like Whole Foods, but is still owned HEB. It’s not that close to us, but might be worth the drive. Maybe I can at least avoid the smoker grills there.