By Bruce Horovitz
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Back in the spring, before Kevin Smartt became NACS chairman but after COVID-19 had begun menacing the nation, he was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Smartt had the option to testify online or in person but chose to testify in person because he thought it might have more impact.
Smartt, who also is CEO of Kwik Chek, flew to Washington, D.C., from Austin, Texas, knowing that there was a very good reason why all the airports he passed through were so empty. But he had a point to make, and he wanted to make it in person. So he walked into the U.S. Senate chambers wearing a face mask, which still was not a common action at the time. On that particular day, he recalls, he was almost the only one in the Senate chambers wearing one.
“The whole experience was surreal,” said Smartt. “But everyone saw that the NACS team member was wearing a mask. And that was perfect.”
Sometimes real leadership is demonstrated by simple action. It can be pushing legislatures on important industry issues or it can be just showing up. And during a pandemic, it can be simply wearing a face covering because you know it’s the right thing to do for everyone’s safety—just as NACS advises all c-store employees and customers to do.
That one act was symbolic of the person Smartt is—and of the critical moment that he has taken the chairmanship reins at NACS. Perhaps never in the 59-year history of NACS has the organization and its many thousands of retail and supplier company members globally faced so many concurrent challenges—from the pandemic to industry consolidation to rising direct store operating expenses (wages, utilities, credit card fees) to the difficulties and expense of keeping up with new technologies. In this highly volatile and historic moment, in Smartt, NACS has a steady hand at the wheel.
With COVID-19 as a driver, Kevin Smartt said he has three key goals as NACS chairman over the next year:
- Improve technology across the board at c-stores
- Highlight the good things that c-stores are doing for their communities
- Attract and hire a deeper talent pool within the industry that’s more technology-centric
“We’re still in the middle of COVID-19, and we’re not done learning from it,” said Smartt. His advice to NACS members is to stay clear, focused and realistic on what’s ahead for 2021—including the strong possibility of many more months of face masks, social distancing and vigilant sanitation efforts. “I wouldn’t want to be the first retailer to stop using any of these things in order to save a little money. It’s hard to make predictions on what’s yet to come from COVID-19, but I don’t foresee any of these things changing any time soon,” he said.
“The timing is very opportunistic for our industry to lean forward in technology.”
Framework for Success
Smartt has success written all over his resume. Since 2001, when Smartt and his former business partner, Doyce Taylor, acquired Kwik Chek from its founder, the chain has more than doubled in size. The Spicewood, Texas-based, customer-service-focused chain has 47 locations spread across Texas and Oklahoma and more than 400 employees. The chain is widely recognized for its fresh and better-for-you food offerings and for its cutting-edge and industry-leading advancements in technology.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Smartt is also chairman of Conexxus, the nonprofit, member-driven technology arm of NACS that’s dedicated to developing and implementing standards, technology innovation and advocacy for the c-store and fuels market. Conexxus members collaborate on key industry tech challenges, and their group efforts can often reduce the cost of IT ownership.
Smartt has helped to make Kwik Chek an industry leader in technology in everything from mobile payments to digital offers to loyalty programs. But now, as NACS chair, he’s looking out for the entire c-store industry. “We’re at that point where mobile ordering and contactless payment should be on the forefront of every retailer’s mind,” he said. “My role is to be a voice for the industry and encourage retailers to take a look at certain things.”
Because of the pandemic, many c-store customers are demanding fewer touchpoints to make transactions. So, to better compete with the drugstores and grocery stores that also are working to eliminate touchpoints, c-stores have to embrace and implement technology that encourages everything from online ordering to home delivery to curbside pickup, said Smartt.
Kwik Chek, for example, has developed a mobile loyalty app where customers can pay for their fuel right at the car without even touching their wallet. Customers simply scan their phones. As a result, Smartt said, “Our numbers have skyrocketed during COVID.”
COVID-19 is continuing to impact the industry—and Kwik Chek—in ways that would have been unimaginable just one year ago. All c-store retailers now have to think strategically, Smartt said, particularly as they design, build and open new stores. In new Kwik Chek stores, for example, the designs include hand-washing stations that don’t require customers to step into the restrooms.
Technology advances are critical for the c-store industry Smartt believes, but not all technologies start strong, and a test and learn environment is critical. For example, Kwik Chek’s app sends customized coupons to customers after analyzing their spending habits. But for a relatively small c-store chain like Kwik Chek, “Analyzing data is still a challenge for us,” Smartt said. “We have more data than we know what to do with.” As a result, Kwik Chek’s app now allows customers to pick from an array of coupons instead of serving them only specific offers. “That’s more efficient because we still get data to see who uses what,” he said.
Additionally, the skill set of the c-store industry’s labor force needs to evolve to be comfortable with technology, Smartt said. “We need to hire great people and build a strong bench,” he said. Much of that talent pool will need to be more “tech-centric,” and this workforce may need to be more capable of responding to customer interactions that are more remote—like home delivery or curbside delivery.
Among the key technology projects that NACS and Conexxus will continue to work on during the next year is a method that standardizes the age verification process right at the point of sale. The project, which is particularly critical to c-stores, includes ID validation, age calculation, procedures for non-supported IDs and the ability to keep verification anonymous, so that personal information is always protected. Some 90% of Americans support a nationwide standard for age verification, according to a NACS poll taken in March 2020.
With sales of everything from beer to tobacco products to e-cigarettes, the c-store industry has always been a leader in selling age-restricted products, said Smartt. “We know, better than anyone, how to do it responsibly, but this is a necessary next step,” he said.
A Spotlight on Giving Back
Smartt’s ambitions for NACS stretch well beyond technology. He has set a goal for NACS to do lots more public crowing about all of the philanthropic and community service efforts in which c-stores are involved coast to coast. “NACS can be the voice that lets people know how many millions of dollars c-stores spend annually in giving back to their own communities,” he said.
In the community arena, Kwik Chek has set a stellar example over the years. In collaboration with Exxon Corp., for example, in a multi-year program, Kwik Chek sponsored thousands of eighth-grade students in Northeast Texas to visit the Texas A&M University campus in Commerce, Texas, to attend college classes and meet college students. This was an effort to demonstrate that higher education is an attainable goal in a community in which most adults do not attend college. This program has increased the number of rural, first-generation college students attending Texas colleges.
Smartt’s also intent on better-explaining to NACS members all the ways they can be helped by NACS. “Networking connections between retailers is part of the true magic that NACS offers,” he said. “Our challenge, as our industry shrinks, is to continue to tell that story.”
This article is excerpted from the January 2021 issue of NACS Magazine. Read the full interview here.
Bruce Horovitz is a freelance journalist and a national media training consultant. Contact him at email@example.com.