Kum & Go Chief Information Officer Levon Hooks (right) accepts the Technology Leader of the Year award from Convenience Store News Editorial Director Don Longo.
DES MOINES, Iowa — The convenience channel has been accused of being slow to innovate and embrace new technologies. Often, c-store retailers take a wait-and-see approach and follow cues from competitors — quick-service restaurants and Amazon Go, to name a few.
However, not all c-store operators are tech hesitant. Kum & Go LC stands among this group, and it is the Des Moines-based retailer's commitment to its customers and associates reinforced through technology that especially makes the company stand out, earning it the Convenience Store News 2021 Technology Leader of the Year award.
"We have a real commitment to use technology as an enabler to drive efficiencies in our stores, and to enable our customers to come in with greater access," said Kum & Go Chief Information Officer (CIO) Levon Hooks, who accepted the award on behalf of the company at CSNews' 2021 Technology Leadership Dinner & Roundtable, held Oct. 5 in Chicago.
"If you visited our stores over the past 12 to 18 months with COVID, we looked for opportunities to have a more touchless environment," Hooks noted. "That's our commitment not only to our store associates, but also to our customers to drive excellence through technology."
When it comes to innovation, Kum & Go is always looking for opportunities to drive efficiency, and drive improved or increased customer engagement and experience, according to Hooks, who joined Kum & Go in August 2020 and was drawn to the organization by its collaborative culture.
"As we look at innovative technologies and how we can use them to better enable the experiences across our organization, that is the driver of our long-term strategy," he explained.
While some retailers take cues from outside forces, Kum & Go looks internally for innovation inspiration. As Hooks noted, the company pairs its drivers for success with innovations that will help Kum & Go execute its short- and long-term strategies.
"I don't think we necessarily look at one industry, like a big-box, to drive our thought process. It is more internally," he said. "For example, we are revamping our food program. With that, we will need to engage our customers in a different way with our new food model. We are now looking at how we can use technology to enable that engagement."
Currently, Kum & Go is piloting the new food model at stores in Omaha, Neb., Little Rock, Ark., as well as in its hometown. By the middle of next year, it hopes to have 100 stores with the program in place, along with significant technological support to drive success.
Among the tech initiatives Kum & Go has rolled out recently are employee-focused platforms, including Branch, a mobile app scheduling tool, and Crew, a digital communication platform. Both have received high marks from the chain's associates.
"There has been a fantastic response to these programs because they allow for greater communication. This is an example of our ability to use technology to increase our communication across our store ecosystem and provide consistency in the communication channels that are being used," Hooks said.
With these tools in place, there's no limit to the amount of communication that can be spread throughout the organization very quickly, the CIO noted, adding that while Branch and Crew are its most recent solutions, Kum & Go continues to evaluate other programs.
In the Customers' Hands
As for improving guest experience, the company rolled out a mobile app this spring, with several enhancements still to come. Through the app, customers can order curbside and view the products Kum & Go has available in-store. They will also be able to order items from its new made-to-order food program through the app.
"You have access to our products — not only food, but in-store items. [You] make a selection and actually move very quickly through the process of ordering," Hooks said.
Mobile fuel pay is another example of Kum & Go's ability to innovate around guest experience and provide innovations to its customers in a very quick timeframe.
"When you think about COVID — or you are in an area with cold climates, like we are — the ability to pay for fuel from your phone and all you have to do is go outside to pump it, it's a greater convenience for our customers and that is what we are looking to provide," he pointed out. "We have received very positive feedback about the app. Our customers are enjoying the convenience. It creates greater efficiencies for our store associates. It's all gone very well."
As evidenced by the already-planned future enhancements to its mobile app, Kum & Go is not ready to slow down when it comes to moving the technology needle.
Looking forward, grab-and-go technology similar to Amazon Go's "just walk out" frictionless platform is something to keep an eye on, according to Hooks. Customers would use a mobile app to enter the store, shop, and pay for items all from their phones — avoiding the checkout line and speeding up the trip. It's something Hooks is excited to see come to the channel.
"It allows for us to continue to provide efficiencies to our in-store associates, as well as creates a significant customer experience in terms of your ability to come in quickly and get back out, as everyone is in that time crunch," he explained. "And when you start to talk environmental things around with COVID, [there's] the ability to go in and get your products and not necessarily have human intervention to proceed."
Kum & Go is also making moves around utilizing data, according to the tech executive. "Kum & Go has become a much more data-driven organization; how we provide data to our user base to provide greater insights to the decisions we make across the organization," he said.
Data, along with its mobile app and new food program, are top on the retailer's to-do list.
"Those are at the top of our initial tech agenda, as well as whatever we can do at the fuel dispenser to provide greater convenience to our customer. There are a couple of different technologies we are looking at … that will allow you to — whether you use the app or potentially at the dispenser — place an order for in-store items for curbside pickup," Hooks shared.
Kum & Go views technology as a revenue generator as opposed to a cost center.
"That gives us great flexibility to tie technology back to our business strategy, as opposed to just keeping the lights on," he said. "We look at technology as how we can grow our organization. As a technologist, that is really exciting; to know you have a seat at the table and you are driving value for the organization, instead of being in a support role."
With tech-savvy people in leadership roles, Kum & Go's technology curiosity continues to grow.
"We are looking to use technology to stand out in our industry," Hooks said. "Technology enablement is an important part of what we do going forward."
That includes tech playing a key role as Kum & Go expands its footprint. With stores planned for Grand Rapids, Mich., and Salt Lake City, the retailer will use technology to reach customers in these new markets.
"It's really exciting to be in an organization that values technology and continues to grow," Hooks said. "All of this work is really driven by an excellent technology organization, and the members of our organization work tirelessly to come up with really innovative ideas to drive our success as well.
"Although we provide strategic direction from a leadership perspective, we have a ton of collaboration [between] our business partners and our technology organization that drives the success we have had so far," he added.