Is Your Car Wash Relevant?

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

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Fast, consistent, easy, predictable value: Meeting that benchmark is the bare minimum for remaining relevant to customers. And things are getting tougher. If you’re able to survive by delivering good prices and convenience, competitors are looking to meet or beat your price while also offering a better shopping experience. You’re up against high-end branding, superior customer service and engaging loyalty programs, and I’m not talking about your c-store—I’m talking about your car wash.

The advent of express-exterior tunnels washing well over 10,000 cars per month has taught us something: As disposable income in a market decreases, volume at these washes often skyrockets. Customers seek to maintain the appearance of their vehicle longer by washing more frequently. Now that gas prices are topping $4, we’re seeing a surge in interest from in-bay operators looking to retrofit rollover automatics with mini-express tunnels. Technology has advanced to deliver labor-free wash performance on par with a full tunnel in only 35 feet. But investing in the firepower to deliver 50 spotless cars per hour without having a marketing and operational strategy in place is a potential recipe for disappointment.

A Superior Experience

Petroleum sites have a distinct advantage for leveraging gas discounts. There’s a lot of emotion when a customer hits “yes” to a car wash and the pump rolls back 10 to 20 cents. And the numbers work. With a 10-gallon fuel purchase, it will cost you $1 or $2 to generate a $5 to $10 incremental profit from the wash. This strategy has produced significant numbers for some; hence the demand for faster throughput. But wash quality and throughput are only one part of the equation. Successful sites start by delivering a superior customer experience, and here are a few of the tactics they’re using:

  • Free Vacuums: The hallmark of the express-exterior format, free vacuums have been proven to increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and wash frequency. Rather than customers grudgingly inserting the customary $1 for 4 minutes, many automated attendants can be retrofitted to dispense a free vacuum token with the purchase of any wash or just the top package.
  • Branding: How the car wash is packaged plays a vital role in establishing a customer’s belief in the safety and quality of your service. It costs very little to create and promote a distinct brand with professionally designed and coordinated signage at the wash, pumps, in-store and on-staff with of buttons or other uniform enhancement. If your car wash looks like an afterthought, it doesn’t matter how well it works—the customer won’t believe it.
  • Wash Quality: Nothing matters if you don’t deliver a clean, dry, shiny, consistent product with the extra services your market demands. Equipment, detergent and wash material innovations are available to deliver a quality wash. Tire shine, wheel cleaning and total body protectant services can be added to in-bay automatic and mini-tunnel equipment packages. Adhere to preventive maintenance schedules and work with your suppliers to dial in wash quality specific to site conditions.
  • Throughput: Watching 300 to 500 cars pour through a miniexpress tunnel in a day inspires daydreams of incremental revenue. Before considering this format, conduct a careful demographic analysis, pro forma and site plan options for the upgrade. Sure, both a rollover and a mini-express tunnel fit in the same 35-foot bay. The former, however, has a capacity of about 100 cars in an eight-hour day, and the latter can take nearly 500 cars. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Confirm you have enough space to handle the volume at a price that fits your investment objective. Otherwise you’ll frustrate your customers and your potential to maximize an investment in a mini-express tunnel. Today’s crop of rollover washes dramatically cut wash times with improved quality. Miniexpress tunnels, however, require additional labor, management, training and marketing. Potential volume and profit are remarkable, but not without strategy and work. As with most things, the harder you work, the luckier you get.  

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