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African American women shopping in health food storeWhen it comes to consumer behavior, the research is clear: If they want to succeed, companies selling to consumers need to attract their attention, affection, and commitment; put them in a great mood, perhaps by offering them something for nothing; and help people make their decisions easily and in a way that causes them to feel smart and informed. It may be clear, but few companies are applying these lessons as effectively as a regional grocery store chain in Texas, H-E-B.

To start, H-E-B gets its regional customers excited and entranced by playing on their shared identity of being from Texas. This option might be less effective in other regions with a weaker sense of identity, but in Texas, the idea that H-E-B is just like its consumers—big, brash, unafraid, and unabashed—garners it substantial attention and affection. Then once it has people in its stores, it gets them to engage and commit to actually buying, by adding tear-off coupons to its displays. Rather than just seeing a sale sign, customers must undertake the action of tearing off a coupon. This action is not particularly strenuous of course, but the simple move increases the chances that shoppers will follow through on their already committed effort by completing the purchase.

In addition, H-E-B sets up an appealing and enjoyable atmosphere that seeks to put shoppers in a better mood. In particular, a plethora of coupons give buyers an additional item for free after they purchase. People simply love things for free, so the constant reminder of how much they can get, seemingly at no cost, enhances their moods. As if that were not enough, H-E-B also gives away lots of free samples. In addition to food samples, to keep shoppers’ blood sugar levels up, it specializes in wine samples. Because alcohol releases dopamine in people’s brains, just a small sip of a nice Zinfandel can leave shoppers in a better mood.

The entire operation seeks to make it easier for consumers to buy the products they want and feel pleased with their purchases. H-E-B has avoided loyalty cards and instead simply offers all consumers in the store the same deals on the same items. Thus, shoppers do not need to remember to bring their store coupons or stick their loyalty cards in their wallets before they leave for their grocery run. The fresh food displays also offer obvious highlights of their freshness: a constant smell of rotisserie chicken near the deli display, a guacamole prepping station featuring chefs carving out the avocados right in front of shoppers, sushi chefs working away in the center of the store.

As a result, even though H-E-B remains a regional chain, with limited name recognition outside Texas, its ranking on a recent “consumer delight index” placed it on par with such well-known customer favorites as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

Source: Roger Dooley, “The Smartest Supermarket You Never Heard Of,” Forbes, January 28, 2014, http://www.forbes.com