Millions of people use Smarte Carte products and services while traveling and shopping. Mark Devaney writes about a company that has success in the bag.
The next time you struggle with your bags at an airport, remember the name Smarte Carte. Chances are you won’t have to; you’ll see it at your favorite mall, water park, ski resort or theme park. That’s because Smarte Carte products – which include baggage carts, lockers and strollers – are in more than 1,000 airports, train stations and bus terminals, as well as in shopping centers and entertainment facilities around the world. The company’s luggage carts serve travelers at nearly 200 airports in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Italy, Germany, Turkey, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean. They can be found at six of the 10 largest airports in the world.
“At Smarte Carte, we work with our customers to determine the service agreement that best meets the facility’s needs, and offer a variety of service options that include concession, direct purchase and lease agreements,” says Ed Rudis, president and chief operating officer. Based in St. Paul, Minn., Smarte Carte, Inc., has more than 1,300 employees in 11 countries on five continents. Rudis adds, “Airports, architects and property managers can depend on Smarte Carte to develop creative solutions that meet their needs.”
The Wheels Get Rolling
In the late 1960s, Jim Muellner of White Lake, Minn., was hired to streamline the first airport baggage carts then being manufactured by Hughes Industries of Littleton, Colo. Hughes Industries later went bankrupt, but Muellner, recognizing the potential of the product to make traveling more convenient, purchased the patent for the design of the cart.
The airports in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles were the first to welcome baggage cart services. Oakland and other airports followed soon after. By the 1980s, Smarte Carte had refined its product to offer the best service to the traveling public, and had modified and improved the cart-management unit as well as the baggage cart itself. By the mid-1980s, Smarte Carte had placed baggage carts in more than 30 airports, and by 1989 had added change-making capabilities to the cart-management unit to improve customer convenience. The 1980s also brought expansion into international territory. By 1990, Smarte Carte had 87 airport operations.
In 1992, the company recognized the increasing concern with security at airports and formed Smarte Carte, Inc., to develop and grow the locker business. The company’s success in airport baggage cart management encouraged it to extend operations into shopping malls across the country as well.
In 1993, Muellner cashed in on his success and sold the company to New York-based merchant bank Castle Harlan, Inc. By 1995, Smarte Carte had operations in more than 115 U.S. and 11 international airports, offered locker services in 226 locations and retail carts and strollers in more than 190 facilities. In 1996, the company was sold to Haas Wheat & Partners, Inc., a private investment firm known for its strategic investing in leading companies in niche markets. This allowed Smarte Carte to set aggressive international expansion plans and provide domestic customers with more advanced services and equipment. Finally, in 1998, Smarte Carte was sold to BLUM Capital Partners, LP, based in San Francisco.
As the number of air travelers increases every year, airports look to Smarte Carte to help them minimize congestion and get people and their belongings through the terminal quickly and efficiently. With dozens of patents to its credit, Smarte Carte baggage cart systems are the most advanced in the industry. Each cart is constructed of durable stainless steel, and its three-wheeled design offers stability and easy steering. The carts can accommodate luggage of all shapes and sizes, and cart models that are pushed or pulled are offered.
The Smarte Carte cart-management unit (CMU) keeps baggage carts available and makes rental easy. The CMUs accept credit cards, display multilingual instructions, accept and give change in most currencies, and provide a reward to travelers when they return carts.
Through technology such as Smarte Carte’s SMARTE PLANNER® cart-management software, airports can improve operational efficiency and traveler convenience. SMARTE PLANNER® integrates cart units into one management system that allows the electronic tracking of baggage carts. It also quickly diagnoses the status of equipment operation from a remote location, and generates statistics on cart usage and revenue.
On a Stroll
It’s no wonder that strollers are a popular guest service at malls, especially since families with young children comprise just under 40 percent of the total customer base for malls. Smarte Carte strollers and mall carts are available at more than 335 shopping centers, zoos and amusement parks in the United States and Canada. A perfect match for malls, zoos and amusement parks, Smarte Carte strollers – which are available with single, double or infant seat designs – are heavy-duty, with a large package capacity and comfortable molded plastic seats. Smarte Carte strollers can be found at two of the world’s largest malls: West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Smarte Carte is currently testing a new stroller product at 13 malls across the United States. The strollers involved in the test are molded into the shape of blue- or gold-colored bears named Smarty Bear™. Like Smarte Carte’s line of traditional self-serve strollers, these strollers can be nested together to save valuable floor space. “The Smarty Bear™stroller was developed based on feedback we have received from customers indicating the demand for a fun, eye-catching stroller product,” says Rudis. “The idea to offer a product that is appealing to kids makes sense for malls because it will keep the kids happy and the parents shopping longer.”
Always focused on growth, Smarte Carte is placing a major emphasis on its newest generation of electronic lockers called Smarte Locke® Magic Touch®. The system includes a color touch screen display that allows guests to choose their own payment options (coins, bills or major credit cards) and enjoy conveniences like keyless entry, graphical operating instructions and the option for multiple entry with one rental payment.
Smarte Locke’s sophisticated security system provides remote surveillance and auditing capabilities through a centralized computer. Some state-of-the-art-technology features that can improve the image of a facility include the ability to reenter lockers when PIN numbers are lost, to gather statistics on locker usage and revenue, to open locker doors instantly in an emergency and to reduce theft through computerized auditing of transactions.
With Smarte Locke® Magic Touch®, the company plans to expand its locker business into new markets such as amusement/water parks, ski resorts, hotels and convention centers – places where people already use and pay for lockers. Currently, the company operates electronic locker services at more than 100 transportation centers in the United States and around the world, as well as approximately 15 major amusement parks (including several Six Flags and Universal Studios parks) and 19 ski resorts (including Aspen, Vail, Stowe and Park City). The company also maintains mechanical locker services at airports, train stations, bus terminals and other facilities worldwide.
Its Own Customer
Smarte Carte operates as a concessionaire in the airports, train/bus stations, shopping centers, amusement parks and ski resorts where its baggage cart, locker or stroller services are available. That means the company provides the equipment and staff necessary to maintain its services.
“In a sense, we are our own customer because we have to operate and maintain the equipment in order to provide our service,” said Rudis. “Our profits are directly affected by how efficiently we can manage the service.” As an example, Rudis explains that if cart/stroller dispensing units or lockers are not designed to be as user-friendly and convenient as possible or are not operating properly, Smarte Carte loses rentals.
“If we frequently have to replace wheels or entire carts, our costs go up. That’s why we build them to last,” says Rudis. “We build our products to meet our own quality standards and performance standards as well as our customers’ standards.
“Domestically, our growth strategy is to increase usage at existing locations by developing more user-friendly technology, as well as developing new applications and markets for all products,” says Rudis. “What we can do for airports, malls and other facilities is turn their cart, locker or stroller service from a cost center into a profit center for the facility. Internationally, we have plans to expand baggage-cart and locker services to transportation facilities in Europe and Asia, as well as expanding locker services to amusement parks and ski resorts around the world.”