A huge increase in demand for H-E-B’s curbside service has caused the Texas grocery giant to change how it schedules pickup times and drove one San Antonio software developer to come up with his own solution to find available slots. 

An H-E-B spokeswoman said Tuesday its stores will add more customer pickup times to keep up with demand during the coronavirus pandemic but now will limit users to selecting a pickup slot within a seven-day time frame.

“To make more time slots available, customers will now only be able to place orders no more than seven days out,” said H-E-B spokeswoman Julie Bedingfield. “In the long term, this change will allow us to serve more customers, sooner. More time slots are expected to open throughout the day.” 

The curbside service allows H-E-B customers to shop online for groceries at their favorite store and select a pickup time, when H-E-B employees will bring out the items and load them into customers’ cars.

Next-day or same-day curbside pickup costs the customer an extra $4.95 f0r a personal shopper fee. Curbside service for an order placed more than two days out currently is free. Home delivery orders include a $5 delivery fee. H-E-B also notes on its website that curbside service and home delivery products “may include a modest price increase to cover your online order fee.”

Noticing San Antonians were already having trouble finding curbside pickup times, local freelance developer Brandon Howard said he decided to create a tool to help people find available slots at stores near them.

The 36-year-old created a free online search tool that allows users to search their zip code to find which H-E-B stores within a 100-mile radius have time slots available for curbside service. The site tells the user the address of the store and the date of the available slot.

Howard, a Midland native who now lives in San Antonio, posted the tool to the San Antonio channel on the social media messaging board website Reddit.

“I just saw an opportunity to make the process of finding a time slot more efficient and implemented it,” Howard told the Rivard Report on Tuesday, a day after posting it to Reddit. “I’m not adding to the functionality of what [H-E-B’s] site already does, I just made it simpler” for people to search multiple stores quickly.

The tool works by connecting to H-E-B’s application program interface, the part of its server that receives requests and sends responses. An API acts as a guard or a middleman, looking at information being requested and “deciding” what information is allowed to leave a server. 

“When you’re going through the curbside process online, you get to a point the site tells you the availability at various stores, so I just intercepted the request from their browser and sent it a zip code – and it returns the info … to the user, so I’m just connecting them to information that was already there,” Howard said. 

Brandon Howard Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Shortly after posting the tool, Howard began getting flooded with feedback – both from users applauding the tool and from users questioning the legality of it. 

“When a user goes to heb.com there might be an implied acceptance of a contract by the user – in this case there might be an implication that the user would use heb.com in accordance with its Terms of Use,” commented one Reddit user with the screen name Enroxorz. “Now, whether HEB cares or not is up to them, but if they do they can bankrupt [Howard] with legal proceedings if [he] does not adhere to the cease and desist that may happen.”

H-E-B’s terms of use require users to get written consent before they “mirror any portion of the Service, or otherwise incorporate any portion of the Service into any product or service.”

Most website owners and API owners do not want someone to use their APIs without knowing how he or she is going to use them, said San Antonio attorney Stephanie Chandler. Chandler specializes in business law and intellectual property. 

The collection of data may have value and they don’t want a competitor to piggyback off the value they created, Chandler explained. The safest way for a data miner to access information without the potential of a lawsuit is to ask a business before accessing their API, Chandler said. 

“The best-case scenario is always if someone reaches out to the correct people at a business if they want to develop functionality that ties into their web-hosted applications,” she said. “This allows for the data to cleanly flow, maintain accuracy and avoid issues.”

H-E-B customers can always visit heb.com and type in a zip code to see which stores near them have available time slots, Bedingfield said.  

The company declined to comment further on Howard’s search application.

Howard said he’s not worried about the legality. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in affirming an injunction granted to analytics company HiQ against professional networking site LinkedIn, said in September that scraping data from a website doesn’t violate anti-hacking laws as long as the data is public.

The courts have yet to decide the merits of the litigation, however, and the 9th Circuit judges noted that LinkedIn could seek other legal remedies. In addition, a final ruling in this case might not apply to Texas. Still, Howard said this case gave him confidence he wasn’t doing anything illegal.

The positive feedback Howard has received has been very moving, he said, and made him feel he’s done something to help the community.

“The most touching comment I received was from a woman on Reddit who is a pregnant immunosuppressed person,” Howard said. “She said to me, ‘This tool may have saved my life’ – it’s been a lot of that, a lot of positive messages.” 

As a freelance developer, Howard said he’s probably written 500-plus data mining tools and hopes this tool will help his fellow Texans during the pandemic. 

H-E-B’s curbside service “helps maintain social distance, and I’m glad to help people get access to its services,” he said.

Disclosure: H-E-B is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...