Pacific Profile, Pt. 2 PC&F Washes Up

New West Coast convenience store giant transitions car washes to friction

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

[Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series highlighting Pacific Convenience & Fuels, San Ramon, Calif., the one-year-old convenience store giant that purchased nearly 600 stores from ConocoPhillips in 2008.] SAN RAMON, Calif. -- With more than 120 ProWash car washes across six western states, Pacific Convenience & Fuels has truly embraced the business. The retailer operates self-service washes at more than half of its 235 company-operated stores, as well as a half-dozen full-service locations.

"When we choose a facility, car wash is one of [image-nocss] the variables we think about," said Sam Hirbod, president and CEO of Pacific Convenience & Fuels (PC&F), in an exclusive interview with CSP Daily News. "How will a car wash work in this corner? Otherwise we may not do a car wash at all."

It's a business about which PC&F, San Ramon, Calif., is decidedly bullish. Car wash, one of the retailer's largest revenue generators, represents "eight figures" on the bottom line. And it's on the upswing.

"As full-service washes increase their prices, certainly our consumer base grows," said Hirbod. The bulk of PC&F's sites are split between California, Colorado and Washington, and feature touchless and friction equipment from Mark VII Equipment Inc. and Ryko Manufacturing Co. The retailer is also hiring a full-time car-wash manager to focus on growing the business and expects to have one in place by end of the first quarter.

"Being in a market place like the Northwest and Colorado, which are two of best car-wash markets in the country for obvious reasons of weather, we want to deliver a very high-quality, timely, good wash for consumers at a fair price," said Hirbod.

For PC&F, that means adopting a new approach to car washing. After testing both touchless and friction technology in several of its markets, the retailer is embracing the latter.

"I believe that touchless was a fad that came and went," said Hirbod, who considers friction washing a more-efficient, less-expensive, and thus more profitable technology. Two-thirds of PC&F's ProWash car washes are currently touchless. The chain is slowly transitioning to Ryko friction washes, with 50 sites slated to change over in 2010 and another 50 in 2011. The retailer plans to keep 10% to 15% of its washes touchless, particularly in markets where friction technology is not yet accepted by consumers.

With the transition to friction, PC&F will introduce a wax service, which will increase the average car-wash transaction by $1. The high-end wash will grow to an average of $9. On the promotions side, PC&F offers a loyalty program where customers win a free premium wash for every five washes purchased. Premium wash customers also can earn a free fountain drink or coffee.

The retailer's transformative plans for car wash extend beyond hardware and marketing. It aims to bring soap titration in-house and is moving to a private-label, environmentally friendly soap by the end of 2010. "Anywhere that we can find efficiencies, synergies in our business, we're trying to learn more about what vendors do to see where we can create more efficiencies for ourselves and savings," said Hirbod.

Read more about Pacific Convenience & Fuels' retail empire in the January issue of CSP magazine.