What fairy tales don’t tell you about is the groceries. Stories about princesses don’t mention that once you’ve kissed the prince, fallen into his arms, accepted his golden ring, and moved into a tidy three-bedroom home in South Austin to share car keys, bath towels, and your deepest dreams—you will also share a refrigerator. Every week, that refrigerator will empty. Every week, someone will need to fill it.
In the early spring of 2022, I got engaged, moved in with my fiancé, and took responsibility for the household groceries. I did this for practical reasons (my job had more flexibility), for pragmatic reasons (I was better at shopping), and for aspirational reasons (I wanted to thrive in domesticity, sautéing onions like Ina Garten, braiding lattice pie crusts like Martha Stewart). But I miscalculated. Domestic labor wasn’t notable for its flourishes, but for its ceaseless repetition. Week after week, we ran out of milk.
This was how I came to use H-E-B Curbside, a grocery-pickup service launched in 2015. For the convenience, you’ll pay 3 percent more for each item than you would in the store. You’ll also often pay a $4.95 service fee if you need same-day pickup, though H-E-B temporarily eliminated that during the COVID-19 pandemic for orders worth more than $35. Curbside works like this: You shop online through heb.com or the store’s mobile app, pay with a credit card, and pick up your order in as little as four hours. Just pull into the designated area of the H-E-B parking lot, and the bags arrive at your car. No shopping. No lines. No waiting.
The first week I used Curbside was like magic. It took twelve minutes to place an order. Twelve minutes! I spent $173.91 on 44 items, slightly less than my usual $200-per-week average. The difference came in avoiding impulse buys and mistakenly replenishing peanut butter rather than jelly. My fiancé grabbed that first order on his way home from work, and voilà! The chore was done. There would be future time savings, too. Each week, I could automatically reorder from my cart history. I no longer needed to make a grocery list—my order was the list.
That customer experience was designed by H-E-B Digital—a team of more than one thousand tech workers in San Antonio and Austin—and it mirrors offerings from retail giants such as Walmart, which first deployed grocery pickup in 2013. Since it launched Curbside in 2015, H-E-B has expanded in the delivery and pickup space. In 2018 it acquired Favor, a delivery service known for staffers wearing blue tuxedo T-shirts. A year later, H-E-B debuted its mobile shopping app.
To more efficiently meet demand from people like me, as well as those ordering home delivery (for a flat $5 fee), H-E-B has opened five e-commerce fulfillment centers across the state. One of the newest is a 50,000-square-foot fulfillment center in the Austin suburb of Leander. It sits just across the parking lot from an H-E-B store. But unlike with the store, customers will never see the inside of the Leander center, or others like it. Instead, orders are packed in the centers and delivered to stores, parking spots, or doorsteps. H-E-B has also begun developing automated micro–fulfillment centers to meet demand for curbside pickup and delivery. Those centers feature robotic bins filled with various grocery items—either chilled or not chilled. The robots race along overhead grids and drop down in front of workers, who pluck items from one bin after another, transferring the items to bags to fulfill customers’ orders.
Futuristic as that may seem, H-E-B isn’t alone in boosting its technology to meet more customers at the curb. Kroger, for instance, in July opened a 350,000-square-foot Dallas warehouse that can fill an order in six minutes.
This move toward online grocery shopping predates the pandemic, but our lives during lockdown seem to have accelerated demand. H-E-B customers increased their online grocery spending by 27 percent between 2019 and 2021, according to a recent survey. H-E-B declined to share sales data or offer any comment for this article, but if its pickup business is in line with national trends, it seems likely that Curbside has continued to grow even as shoppers and diners have increasingly resumed in-person purchases. In July 2022, American consumers spent $3.4 billion on curbside pickup. That was a half-billion dollars more than they spent in July 2021, according to a survey by Illinois analytics firm Brick Meets Click.
For food-delivery companies such as DoorDash and Instacart, reports suggest the pace of sales growth has slowed this year compared to the pandemic-fueled boom times. But those companies still report that sales are growing. Uber, for one, said its Uber Eats division brought in $13.9 billion in the second quarter of 2022, a 7 percent increase over the same period last year. So it seems that our collective taste for convenience is here to stay. Even if my taste for it quickly began to sour.
In July, two months after I started using H-E-B Curbside, I found myself waiting for my order with rising impatience just ten minutes after I’d arrived to pick it up. Over the weeks, other flaws in my perfect domestic solution had begun to show. Bags of green avocados sat on the counter, unripe for days. The tiny street-taco tortillas I mistakenly ordered, missing the product description, languished in the fridge. And now this. Waiting. Where were my groceries? I watched heat ripple off the blacktop from the cool of my car. Minutes later, a teenager brought around a cart. He placed six bags into the trunk, working quickly—work I had chosen not to do.
In that parking lot, it dawned on me that ordering groceries online had been no small change, but rather a seismic shift in my behavior as a consumer. Alone, in my car, I had no responsibility to make chitchat. I didn’t have to wave to my neighbors or say hello to strangers. I was isolated, intentionally. The financial transaction was changed too. I paid for my groceries long before I saw them. I did not have to experience shopping—the choosing and sniffing and selecting. With the swiftness of a click, my chicken breasts became one step further abstracted from the creature that once walked and clucked. They just arrived in plastic bags.
In his 1977 book The Unsettling of America, author and farmer Wendell Berry warned against such convenience, calling it “a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.” Was he right? As I drove home, groceries packed in the car, I felt no better than if I had fought through crowded aisles myself. Shopping complete, other tasks rushed to mind, lists of everything else I hadn’t yet accomplished. Then, slowly, a new thought arrived. Perhaps the problem wasn’t the groceries. Perhaps it wasn’t the store. Perhaps the problem was the mindset I cultivated there—the rushing, the striving, the pressure to buy perfect things, to cook perfect things. Using Curbside didn’t relieve the pressure I put on myself. It heightened it. If I could be better—faster, more efficient—I should be better. The problem, I realized, was me.
So often, convenience saves us time at the expense of an opportunity to grow. Modern conveniences—H-E-B Curbside, Uber Eats, Amazon Fresh—eliminate our discomfort, but they also eliminate an important signal. Our discomfort can be useful. It can tell us when to become brave, when to have a hard conversation with our spouse, when to have a hard conversation with ourselves.
In the end, my discomfort made me so uncomfortable that I had no choice but to grow. The challenge wasn’t optimizing grocery shopping, but releasing myself from an idealized picture of perfection. I couldn’t be perfect, even with a personal shopper. Instead, I could learn something more important—to accept help. To release the pressure. Now when I go to H-E-B, I go into the store, say hello to strangers, and take my time, searching for ingredients to cook with love on Saturday afternoons. I have time to do that because I’m not cooking thirty meals during the workweek, as I once was. I let my fiancé win an argument, and I relinquished control of the kitchen. Today we subscribe to premade, packaged meals from a Snap Kitchen location that’s just across the street. Plus, they deliver.