A presentation at Alamo Celiac San Antonio on 24 February 2009
Michael Dagerath, Manager of Product Development.
H-E-B is very committed to being a part of the community. I think you are going to be surprised and pleased at a lot of the activities that are going on to support those seeking to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets. You’ll be hearing from different parts of our organization tonight. We’ll start off with Product Development Manager Erica Hanchey, discussing the Own Brand (or H-E-B branded) products that H-E-B is currently developing that are specifically gluten-free products. Next, you will hear from Davia Cunero, Director of Consumer & Sensory Research, talking about how we qualify our Own Brand products. Then Lori Harn and Rob Morton with Procurement, responsible for the selections H-E-B makes among brands, will tell you what is going on from that perspective for gluten-free products. Victor Rodriguez, Manager of Customer Relations, will be next. When you call H-E-B with a question, it is either Victor or one of his partners who you are talking to at H-E-B. And finally, Shelley Parks from Public Affairs is here to discuss briefly what H-E-B will be doing from a Public Affairs perspective to communicate to our gluten-free customers and communities. 2009 is a significant year for H-E-B and gluten free!
Erica Hanchey, Product Development.
The H-E-B brand family includes Hill Country Fare, H-E-B , H-E-Buddy, and Central Market.
We are developing a brochure that describes for you our standards for gluten-free products, how you can identify products in our stores (particularly in our brand portfolio) that are gluten-free items, and gives you information about how to contact us to ask questions about products. Brochures may be available as early as late March.
Identifying gluten-free products
How can you identify products in our H-E-B stores that best suit your needs?
The Own Brand gluten-free icon is a brown rectangle that says “Gluten Free” and has a wheat symbol with a line crossed through it. When you go into an H-E-B store now, many of our products are not going to have the gluten-free icon on them. It doesn’t mean they are not gluten free; it’s because we are in the process of rotating our packaging through our inventory and updating our packaging graphics to make sure that as many of the products that qualify for gluten free have the gluten-free icon on them. Over the course of the next several months you should gradually see more and more products in your stores that have the gluten-free icon. So, if you look tomorrow, don’t expect to see a wealth of products with the icon, but it is an active project that we are fully engaged in. As we develop new items, we are including the icon on those products that qualify.
What’s coming up?
What is H-E-B’s definition of gluten free? A gluten-free item contains no wheat, barley, rye, triticale, or any triticum species such as spelt or kamut, and the residual gluten must be less than 20 parts per million (ppm). Typically oats would not be allowed. The only exception H-E-B would make would be if the oats were certified to be gluten free. This definition should suit your dietary needs to avoid gluten. The products on the shelf with the gluten-free icon will be following this definition. We have been provided with assurances from our manufacturers through our technical documentation and through their participation in this program that the products are meeting this standard.
Anne (Anne Barfield, Chair, Alamo Celiac San Antonio) was kind enough to assist in educating our team regarding concerns with preparation and sanitation for gluten-intolerant and celiac people so that we can make sure products are safe. I greatly appreciate Anne providing that guidance because it jumpstarted our product qualification process.
There’s a lot happening in 2009. As the weeks roll by, go to your H-E-B store and look for the gluten-free icon. Talk to the store leaders about your needs and the types of products you are looking for.
Davia Cunero, Director, Own Brand Consumer & Sensory Research.
Qualifying H-E-B products for market
Our team is charged with being the voice of the consumer to the rest of the Own Brand team, an advocate of what you want, need, and expect in a product experience. We conduct research in three broad areas and ask a lot of questions to help bring the right product and package to market, so that you have the best overall experience.
What is it? It is scientifically based research focused on all five of your senses!
If I’m talking to you about a product, I really want to know the taste, the smell, the appearance, the feel and, believe it not, the sound that works for you – because if you’re eating a cracker, there’s a certain crunch you want to go with it, there’s a bite that you want, a flavor that you want, a look, and a mouth-feel.
All of your senses are involved in how we evaluate a product or package. When we talk to the consumer, some of the things we are going to be looking at include:
We also do consumer research, which is also scientific and systematic, but it is a little different than sensory research in that we are asking how you think, feel, and perceive the world. This helps us design products, packages, and communications (TV, print, radio) that attract you and make you more willing to shop at H-E-B, try our brand of products and buy again and again. We do research on:
Cooking Instructions and recipe development
We develop, review and refine cooking instructions for our new products in our test kitchen. We use consumer stoves, sinks, ovens, microwaves – not commercial. So we’re using the same equipment that you might. Cooking Instructions that are consistent and repeatable for you are an important part of our research process; it is critical that when a product comes to you that you know how to prepare it and feel confident about the process. It is also important to provide recipe ideas for you and your family to take the worry and fear out of meal preparation.
Who is in our testing?
We test our products with our own partners, with customers in the stores, and sometimes with specialized consumer panels. The specialized panels are made up of pre-screened, “hard to find” individuals from specialized consumer groups (our celiac panel is one of these). All help us develop better products.
I would like to extend an invitation to you to become part of our new specialized celiac panel. If, after answering some questions, you qualify to become a panel member, you will be contacted by someone in our group to test products.
Dear Alamo Celiac Chapter member:
We value your insights and opinions and believe you can help us develop the best products for you.
H-E-B’s Consumer & Sensory Research group would like to invite you to be part of a specialized Gluten-Free panel made-up of consumers who regularly purchase and use gluten-free products and would be willing to evaluate gluten-free products that are being developed to sell in our stores.
So, if you would be interested in participating and helping us develop great products, please use the following link to conect to a Web browser for details on how you can qualify to be part of this new program: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=_2b2bcGoDDoDCodIqXbpuZtQ_3d_3d
If you have any questions about this program, please contact Kathryn Hernandez at 210-938-8908 or by e-mail at Hernandez.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Davia R. Cunero
Director, H-E-B Consumer & Sensory Research
Robert Morton, Director of Healthy Living, Procurement.
We are working to improve our programs for people with specialized health conditions, not only with what we are offering within our own brands, but also in what we are doing at shelf with our regular branded items. One of the things that really struck home with me when I was visiting stores and walking the aisles with Anne was how difficult it was to find the items. Some of you are veterans; you’ve already been experiencing this for some time; you understand what it takes to locate the products, but others, who are recently diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, who are brand new, who have never been involved in this type of situation before, how are they going to locate these items on the shelf? Who are they going to talk to? Where are they going to get their information? That’s really what this is all about. H-E-B is totally committed to being that source of information – as much as we can be as a retailer – to ensure we are providing guidance for customers in our stores and out in the community.
Lori Harn, Baking Desk Business Development Manager, Procurement.
In the baking aisle, I am responsible for the current assortment of flour, baking mixes, spices, sugar, and cake mixes. You’re probably asking “Well, that’s all well and good, H-E-B, but I need this product, and this product, and this product, and where is it?” You’re probably going to a health food store or buying things online, trying a lot of different avenues to get you what you need because there just aren’t a lot of options out there for you right now. We appreciate and understand that challenge. Part of my job is to get the right products to meet our customer’s needs, in a timely manner, and to offer them to you at a good value relative to what our competitors might be able to offer.
Customer feedback is important when we are considering items to bring to market. Calls to our Customer Service hotline, your e-mails – those are things that pop up on our radar screen as opportunities. We’re getting a lot of requests; there must be something going on here. The other thing we look at is trends. When you come to our stores, what are you buying? What are the types of things that maybe weren’t purchased years ago but now you’re buying more of them? Gluten-free is one of those things on our radar. If you look at some of the items we have added to that 8-foot gluten-free section that we have, we’re seeing growth in unit movement. So we know there is a definite need out there. Our challenge is: how do we look at all of the different food trends going on and get that to our customers as quickly as we can and in the right way.
There are two ways we do that today. First, as we are bringing new items in, we listen to you, listen to our suppliers, and look at what’s out in the marketplace. We’ll try to bring in items that maybe we don’t know much about or maybe they’re new from a gluten-free perspective, and we’ll put those in gluten-free sets in stores and see how they perform. As they increase in sales, we’ll move them into the section adjacent to the flour section which has baking mixes, baking ingredients, things like baking powder, where we house a lot of our gluten-free products. That’s where a lot of your Bob’s Red Mill items are, where a lot of your other items are that are not found within the gluten-free set. There are a lot of ways we are bringing items to market in a lot of places in the stores. I think it is really important that we do a better job of communicating that to you. But most importantly, your feedback is vitally important to us. Part of our job is to understand your needs and get you things as quickly as we can.
Erica and her team have been working very hard on some H-E-B items that we can bring in that are gluten free. When we launch those items, many of them will be in the baking aisle. When we announce these products, you’ll want to go down the baking mixes aisle because that’s where you’ll see a lot of the new Own Brand gluten-free items.
There are a lot of different ways that we decide which products to put on our shelves. As you can imagine, it’s a very dynamic environment. We’re getting hundreds of products presented to us on a weekly basis. We listen and we evaluate all these factors in deciding exactly what to put on the shelf.
The perennial question is “Do you take all of the gluten-free products and put them into one section, or do you integrate them into the sets and tag them or highlight them in some way?” There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The issue you run into if you try to segregate them in one section is that the number of items that are coming into the pipeline is growing at a very rapid pace, so what eventually happens is that we don’t have enough room for them to have their own section. Also, on top of that, I think it makes sense for new celiacs to be able to go to a gluten-free section and find items there; however, to someone who’s a veteran, maybe you’re looking for the latest gluten-free cereal, you might want to go to the cereal aisle and look there. So, it’s a question that goes back and forth, and we wrestle with it continually.
Let’s talk a little bit about our strategy to identify gluten-free items on shelf. We’re going to be using tags and icons to help customers locate the items that they need. We’re still working on different ways to do this, because eventually between having gluten-free, fat-free, lactose-free and sugar-free and all these different “-frees”, you have thousands of tags all over the place, and no one really knows what they’re looking at or how to identify products. We’re trying to find the best way to take that to shelf and have it be noticeable but not obtrusive. We’re working on a new version that will have it off to the side. We’re going to test that soon, and if it seems to be working we’ll start rolling it out in the March time frame.
The second piece of our strategy has to do with assortment, which refers to what we have on our shelves. We want to make sure we have relevant brands, brands that you are looking for. We also want to make sure that we address areas of opportunity. We recognize that we don’t know everything there is to know about gluten-free products; you guys do. So we’re trying to find out what are the items we are missing, how can we ensure that we have those, what are the top items nationwide, what are the gaps – where do we not have the items that the population is looking for. And then, lastly, we are going to look at customer information. How are we letting you know that we are doing this? And the population in general? That will be through Web site activity, in-store signs, and a brochure. These will give information about what icons, what tags to look for, where they are located in the store, who to talk to, how to go to the Web site, and that sort of thing.
The good news is that we are already moving forward with some of this. We have 8-foot sets in many stores now. We are in the process of refreshing these sets, going through and taking out the items that are not performing, bringing in new items that we hope will perform and be more relevant for you. We are adding new items. We are introducing three new brands, including Schär, one of the top-performing gluten-free brands in Europe – we are one of the first retailers within the state to have Schär. These additions are very exciting for us. Also, we are requesting a minimum 8-foot set in all new stores and in stores that are being remodeled, subject to size restraints in small stores. This is very important, as the number of stores with the 8-foot set will rapidly grow.
In terms of our overall item analysis, which includes all of the items outside of our special gluten-free sets, we’re in process of detailed analysis of what those items are. We gathered information from various data sources showing the top-performing items in all of the gluten-free categories, identifying the items we are missing with the intention of bringing those in whenever possible. So far, we have identified about 200 potential opportunities which we are considering bringing in right now. It will be a big challenge to squeeze as many of those items in as we can. The important thing is that we are doing a lot more to discover the items we are missing and how quickly we can bring them to the shelf.
Our shelf tag strategy, essentially, involves calling out the gluten-free items on the shelf using gluten-free icons. The important thing to focus on here is what is tagged. The goal we have is to make sure we are not tagging anything, obviously, that puts anyone at risk. We want to be sure that we are very careful about what we apply the tag to. Our criteria are that any national brand items that call out gluten free on their label may be tagged. If a vendor comes to us and says “Oh, our item is gluten free” but it doesn’t say that on the label, that is, they are not making that claim publicly themselves – we are not tagging it. We just will not do it. It doesn’t matter how much they assure us that it is gluten-free, we’re not going to jeopardize H-E-B’s credibility or put anyone’s safety at risk. So, only those companies that have gluten free called out on the packaging will receive the tag.
Common sense rules are going to be used with regard to the items chosen. Various retailers have started putting gluten free on a lot of their packaging on their private label items for single or simple ingredient items. They’ve got it on everything, things that are obviously gluten-free (e.g. frozen peaches). H-E-B has chosen not to take this approach. We will be tagging items that are not as obvious and could be “mysterious” to our shoppers. The items to be tagged will be multiple ingredient products and ones that contain questionable ingredients such as modified food starch, dextrin, etc. This approach will allow H-E-B to not clutter up the shelves with needless information. So we are going to use common sense and ensure that what we do tag is meaningful and makes sense.
On the H-E-B Web site there’s going to be a gluten-free page. We hope to include a list of gluten-free items by store. We are still exploring whether it can be done. We would like to be able to have on the Web site the ability to go to the gluten-free page, click on a particular store number, and see a list of all the gluten-free items that are actually in that store. So you’ll no longer have to go to a store and take a chance that they’ll have it nor will you have to do your own detective work. You’ll be able to tell exactly what’s on the shelf from the list of items. Now, there will be some stores that will have more, some stores that will have less, but at least you will know what is at that particular store. I think that’s going to be really helpful.
In addition to the information pamphlet and brochure, press releases will bring this to the community, making sure everyone is aware of what we are doing. Also, communicating with the medical community, making sure they understand how they’re involved with this. That’s often the first source of information that people use when they are diagnosed. And then also, pharmacists, which is also an important point of contact for people who are brand new to the condition.
Victor Rodriguez, Manager, Customer Relations Department.
Our eight representatives provide customer service: we receive unsolicited feedback and resolve customer concerns and questions about anything related to our stores and products. We are on the opposite end of the phone listening to our customers. The ways to contact us range from store-specific comment cards to be found at each store to a dedicated 1-800 number (1-800-432-3113) with hours of operation Monday through Friday from 8 am to 5 pm with an after-hours voice messaging system. We can be reached on heb.com through our contact desk link: http://www.heb.com/welcome/contactUs.jsp. We can receive letters at H-E-B Customer Relations Department, 646 S Main Ave, San Antonio TX 78204.
At each store, we value your comments; we receive over 10,000 annually which are shared with store leaders and upper management. We receive over 60,000 customer phone calls per year. You can send us an e-mail through heb.com – comments, suggestions, questions, recipe ideas. We will either respond to your question or forward it over to the appropriate managers for review and follow up. We receive over 500 letters annually. We use a program called Survey to document every call, every question, every concern. We provide reports for upper management. They like to find out the pulse of our customers. What are they asking for? What is something that is very interesting to our customers? What do they like? What do they dislike?
My team has the majority of the answers to frequently asked questions. There are some questions, though, that we will have to research, because we want to make sure that we are providing you with the most accurate information possible. So, there are times when we will get with our experts in Quality Assurance, our Own Brand team, our Procurement team, vendors, to research your question to make sure we are providing you with accurate information. Our turnaround goal is to provide 24 to 48-hour response to customers. One thing I want to stress, if you have the UPC code this really assists my team. With it we can tell you within a few seconds if a product is gluten free.
Shelley Parks, Public Affairs.
I was diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago, and at that time it was very difficult to find anything in any stores in the United States, and if you did, it wasn’t edible. They have made such progress in six years.
I’m one of you. We’re a captive audience. We don’t have a choice. In order for us to remain healthy and lead active lifestyles, we are going to have to remain gluten free. They are not going to find a cure; there’s not going to be a magic pill. We know that, and it’s hard to take sometimes.
The one thing I find really interesting is – the sweets are incredible, that’s one thing that gluten free does not have a problem with – but it’s the basics, such as when you are trying to watch your weight, and one piece of bread has 150 calories and is about this big. I really, really believe that with H-E-B behind us, the corporate team, the Own Brand team, and all the experience that they have, that we’re going to be able to come up with products that are Texas made and Texas approved by you all. Who wouldn’t want to be on a team that could eat and then tell people whether it was good or bad? I urge you to sign up!
My role in this, besides being a cheerleader and a passionate person because I live it every day, is to get the word out to other celiacs and other people with gluten intolerance. They don’t always come to the meetings. Maybe they’re scared, maybe they don’t have time.
We need to get the word out. We’re working with heb.com, and they are going to have a gluten-free section. I would also like to have a gluten free H-E-B My Space or Facebook page for Texas, for all of the organizations. I want to have blogs, people being able to talk to each other, people with the same issues whether you’ve just been recently diagnosed or whether you have experience you can share. Also, have a recipe box. And I’d like to have a Request Box, a place for you to say “I’ve heard about this product” or “What about something like this?” There won’t be any guarantees, but we’re going to listen, and we’re going to try it. Wouldn’’t it be funny if you were the ones to recommend it and then ended up taste testing it?
This is an initiative that is very close to my heart. I want all of you to be involved, and I want to get every other celiac support group in the state involved. Let’s turn this into a community effort that turns into a statewide effort. So, I will be doing gluten free at heb.com and hopefully you will have a link to it on your Alamo Celiac Web site.