SPICEWOOD, Texas — “The clouds are starting to lift,” says Kevin Smartt, CEO of convenience store chain Kwik Chek Corp., referring to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on business at the chain’s 46 stores in Texas and Oklahoma.
Like convenience store operators across the country, Kwik Chek has been dealing with decreased trip counts and lower fuel gallons since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“But inside sales have been pretty resilient,” Smartt told Convenience Store News in a recent interview. “Some of our stores are barely down at all in same-store sales.”
The Spicewood-based retailer has seen large increases in average basket size somewhat offset the decline in trips as fewer people are traveling about in their cars.
“The winners are beer — larger pack sizes are up tremendously — cigarettes and OTP [other tobacco products], ice cream, and staples, when we can get them,” Smartt shared.
To buttress foodservice sales, Kwik Chek recently launched Family Meal Deals, which Smartt said are “starting to gain traction.” Family Meal Deals come in several different offerings, from chicken tenders to tacos, hamburgers, pizza, and more. Each deal costs less than $20 and serves a family of four.
The Family Meal Deals, and similar Family Kwik Packs that are available in the cold grab-and-go case, are ideal for customers who want to pick up a quick meal, bring it home, and then heat and eat it.
Kwik Chek intends to continue tweaking its family meal offerings, and most likely will keep them going after the current COVID-19 crisis, according to Smartt.
“One of the things we’ve learned from promotions during these challenging times is the power of social media,” the chief executive observed. “That’s something we’ll have to look at after the pandemic as an effective alternative way to reach customers.”
Another eye-opener for Smartt has been the way this pandemic has brought out the best in the company’s store-level and headquarters associates.
“We’re dealing with a high level of uncertainty on a daily basis. Our people have had to react calmly to whatever circumstances come up,” he said. “Times like these really reveal the stars and future leaders of your organization.”
Operationally, the company has faced “endless challenges.” Protecting employees, selling goods safely, installing social distancing floor markers, following new disinfectant guidelines, and following all of the different state, county and local restrictions have created a whirlwind, noted Smartt.
“Our employees, at the field level especially, have been so resilient to these changes. They’ve also done a really good job communicating back to us about local policy changes and in-store issues. We’ve had a good flow of information to and from the stores,” he said.
On April 27, the state of Texas announced a phase-in approach to reopening businesses. The plan allows restaurants, movie theaters and shopping malls to reopen at 25 percent or 50 percent capacity depending on the number of virus cases in that county. Stay-at-home orders expired May 1 for most residents. Come May 18, hair and nail salons are set to get the OK to reopen, with required safety measures.
Now that he can see a light at the end of the tunnel, Smartt conjectured that many of the activities adopting during the pandemic will have staying power.
“Contactless payment will be vastly accelerated. People will not want to touch as many things,” he said. “We’ll see an uptick in customers ordering via their mobile phones, as well as picking up their purchases curbside or at the dispenser. Operationally, sneeze guards will likely stay in place and distance markers to encourage continued social distancing.”
He also anticipates the emergence of new technology to reduce customer anxiety while shopping in-store, such as an app to activate a coffee machine from a customer’s mobile phone.
“The key is getting people driving again,” Smartt added. “I expect fuel prices to remain at historic lows for at least a year. Hopefully, that will encourage more people to drive.”
Reluctance to fly and diminished use of mass transportation may help boost fuel volumes and store trips, although that may be counter-balanced by more people working from home, he noted.