The Little Green Button That Could

Anthony Analetto, President, SONNY's/The Car Wash Factory

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What if there is an opportunity, or dire need, to reinvent your entire business model? Need-based reasons are painfully obvious. Few stand by and board up their business without a fight. But whereas an average business expends tremendous effort to hold onto what it had, an extraordinary owner scans the horizon for the next opportunity to exploit.

Normally, it’s rare to stumble across the extraordinary. However, having just returned from The Car Wash Show, the industry’s largest annual trade show, it seems 2013 is the year of the extraordinary. One after another, successful in-bay automatic operators are reinventing their car-wash business, not because their revenue is tanking, but because they want to grab the opportunity before them. It all starts with a little green button, bought for a couple of dollars, that’s creating a revolution in unattended car washing. Let’s take a look.

Push the Button

I first came across this latest trend at a car-wash conversion project in Michigan. This in-bay automatic operator was retrofitting his site to an Xtreme Xpress tunnel with gated entry, but he had an unusual request. He wanted customers to pull up to the pay station, enter a code to get the wash they purchased and then, for added safety, drive through the gated entry to a large stop sign before entering the conveyor. Right in the middle of this sign that also instructed the customer to put the car in neutral was a little green button that says “Start.” With one push, the roller fires, and the car is pulled through the conveyor.

Having customers push a button to start the wash has been popular at petroleum stations with tunnel washes throughout Canada for many years. The button, however, is near the auto attendant, not in the middle of a stop sign after the gate. Concerns that throughput would be hindered were obliterated when, less than a month after opening, this tunnel washed more than 500 cars in a single day, absolutely unattended, without a glitch. Five hundred satisfied customers, able to purchase tire dressing and every conceivable extra service, went through a 3-minute wash.

It’s no secret that the slow throughput and wash quality limitations of inbay automatic rollover car washes have eroded their popularity in the market. It’s equally no secret that the dramatically higher throughput of a conveyorized car wash traditionally required more labor. Is it possible that simply repositioning a little green button eliminates that challenge? Sometimes small innovations deliver a dramatic impact.

There’s a Catch

Ask yourself: Where would today’s c-store industry be if nobody had ever turned around the soda fountain and let customers serve themselves? But before running out to get a quote on swapping your inbay for a mini-tunnel car wash, know that as with most things, there’s more to the story. Unfortunately, labor isn’t the only barrier to car washing becoming your largest profit center.

Being able to easily wash 500 cars per day is meaningful only if you have a plan to attract, satisfy and retain the necessary volume of customers to reach that target. It demands a marketing plan and the ability to deliver a superior customer value. Clean, dry, shiny and fast isn’t actually enough. The in-bay operators at the show looking to convert to mini-tunnels are adopting two other pages from their stand-alone express-exterior car-wash competitors’ playbook: They’re planning to add free self-serve vacuum stations and offer a budget base wash.

Many rollover operators—freestanding, self-serve and petroleum alike—have seen their revenues erode as expressexterior tunnels have entered their markets. Going head to head to compete for the same customers with the potentially superior value proposition of one-stopshopping may or may not make sense on a case-by-case, location-specific basis. It will be interesting to watch how this evolves at next year’s show. It was great to catch up with so many colleagues at the convention center in Las Vegas. I’m excited to see where everyone’s plans to reinvent their business model will lead the industry next year when the show moves to Chicago.

Good luck, and good washing.  

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