Retail Foodservice

H-E-B, James Van Der Beek and the Livestream Before Christmas

Why the San Antonio-based grocer is going all in on live shoppable events
James Van Der Beek, "A Very Texas Holiday"
Photograph courtesy of H-E-B

San Antonio-based H-E-B waded into new social commerce waters for a traditional grocer this year with the launch of a weekly, shoppable Facebook Live cooking series. Last week, the retailer, named WGB's Grocery Business of the Year in 2020, added some star power to a brand-new shoppable seasonal event, dubbed "A Very Texas Holiday with H-E-B."

The 75-minute event, hosted by actor James Van Der Beek, featured a cookie-making demonstration from gymnast and Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles, presentations from the Houston Astros' Alex Bregman (making potato latkes), Texas chef and Roots Chicken Shak owner Tiffany Derry (preparing Hot Egg Nog), and a closing demo from Women of Today founder Camila Alves McConaughey. Interspersed were conversations with H-E-B employees highlighting their favorite H-E-B products and opportunities for live viewers to win $250 H-E-B gift cards. 

Giovanna Dimperio, senior director of digital marketing, social media and content at H-E-B, talked with Winsight Grocery Business about how the event came together and why—and where—H-E-B sees value in live-streamed shopping events.

Christine LaFave Grace: We've seen live-streamed shopping events grow in international markets, and this year some big U.S.-based players, including Walmart, are giving them more attention. For H-E-B, what kind of an opportunity do they represent? And how does as big an event as "A Very Texas Holiday with H-E-B" come about?

This all started for us last year. As COVID hit, we saw this impacting our customers in a lot of different ways. When we had to shut down our Cooking Connection stations (in stores), we saw that there was kind of a gap—more customers were now cooking at home, but they didn’t have the same kind of resources to ask the same questions. So when our digital team was looking at, “What are some of the common search queries that we’re seeing?” we saw everything from, “How do I chop an onion?” to “How long can I keep chicken breasts in the fridge?” And we realized that there was a need of, “How do we make sure that people feel armed and empowered to cook but also can ask questions?”

So we started in November of 2020 live weekly cooking classes that we held via Zoom. And we would send out ahead of time, to those who had registered, the recipes and the shopping list where you can add everything to your curbside order, and they would join us and cook. What was really great that we started seeing that people were really interacting with the chefs. And we would answer questions live and on air. So if you were baking along with us when we made holiday cookies and you said, “Chef Charlotte, my dough doesn’t look like yours,” we relay that question to the chef live, and she might say to the camera, “Hey, Christine, maybe try to add a little bit more water; you might find that that makes the dough better.”

We created this two-way dialogue through these classes, and we saw a huge success from both an attendance perspective and in the interest and engagement from our customers. And then in July, Facebook had an opportunity to test their live shopping feature. We tested it with something that was a little audacious called the Grilling Open, which was a 12-hour event to celebrate all things grilling.

Throughout the day, we showcased all kinds of different things you could grill, from doughnuts to pineapple to brisket, and we created a participatory interactive angle with our customers where they could ask questions that would be answered or find ways to win gift cards by answering trivia along the way, and once we saw that that was so successful, that it was something that customers really enjoyed, we transitioned all of our cooking classes to be Facebook Live shopping classes.

We’ve done about 20 of those now on Facebook; we do them every week. Not only can customers join the same way that they could from a Zoom class and ask questions the same way, but also we make everything shoppable, so that as the products are being featured, whether it’s a mixing bowl and a sheet pan or fresh herbs, customers can click right on those and purchase those.

What kind of experience were you looking to deliver with A Very Texas Holiday in particular?

Texas is a diverse place with lots of different traditions, lots of different ways that people celebrate the holidays, so we really focused on, “How do we make a heartwarming holiday special and provide some wholesome entertainment in your news feed while teaching you about different departments at H-E-B, the different products that we have, and also how different people across the state—whether it’s Camila McConaughey or Alex Bregman—are celebrating the holidays?”

Customers expect to be able to shop how they want to shop, when they want to shop. So we wanted to make it really easy to have a forum to be part of a conversation and feel like you’re part of the action; that’s really big with live shopping. And then you don’t have to work hard to find the things that you found and liked.

What about the ROI from an initiative like this? A live-streamed hourlong shopping event may put H-E-B in a place of its own in grocery, but that’s something that demands a whole lot of time and resources to plan. What kinds of returns do you see?

We are a pretty forward-thinking place—we’re lucky to have the ability to test, learn, innovate and be first to market. We are a small regional grocer, but we are really interested in what’s next and what our customers are interested in. While I don’t have any (ROI) numbers that I can share with you, what I can tell you is that both on the engagement rate and the view-through rate that we see, we are really impressed with how many customers are engaging with this content and then how long they actually choose to watch it. We see people go back and watch the videos later, so you get kind of a long-tail effect—Steakhouse Date Night is one of the most-viewed ones on YouTube.

How do we keep finding ways to help them feel like they’re part of the program just like they feel like they’re part of the stores in their community? How do we continue to be where the customer is expecting us and where we can provide some help and entertainment?

Finally: James Van Der Beek—how did that partnership come to fruition?

That’s a great question. James moved to Texas a couple of years ago and I think just started shopping at H-E-B on his own and was on our radar as someone who was a customer, and we had a mutual connection and started a conversation. Last year we worked on something together—we worked with him last December on adopting a local family in Austin. We saw some really not only positive reactions from our customers but also James is really embracing being a Texan. Knowing that we needed a great narrator for our holiday story, we asked him, and he was a good enough sport to say yes.

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