Before Their Time, and Now New

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

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In-bay automatic to mini-tunnel conversion, while certainly not new, is suddenly a main topic of conversation in car washing. In preparing for this article I searched for “innovations introduced before their time.” Reading about Kane Kramer’s introduction of the first digital music player, introduced in 1979, on my iPhone, I had to chuckle. The IXI System (as it was called) even had plans for a music store where people could download new music via a phone line. Although Apple has acknowledged Kramer’s role in the creation of the iPod, the former is the world’s most valuable company, whereas the latter went bankrupt in 1988.

I suppose it’s reasonable that something not exactly new appears new after being introduced years earlier. The question is: Why? What’s changed in the marketplace that’s fueling the popularity of mini-tunnels? What’s different about the technology behind today’s mini-tunnels that makes them so exciting?

Changing Customers

On Thanksgiving, in a hurry to pick up a couple of items, I stopped at a grocery store, one I had never shopped before, while running errands. Barely crossing my mind that it might be closed for the holiday, I parked, went to the front door and was shocked to find it locked. No problem--I hopped in the car and went a quarter of a mile up the road to the store I normally shop. Part of me applauded the other store’s decision to close. Part of me was annoyed that I lost precious time.

Another part of me was amazed that I decided to abandon my preferred grocery store without even thinking—in an effort to save less than 5 minutes. Have you ever tried a competitive grocery, pharmacy or any other business to save time or money?

Of course you have. So have your customers. The primary interest in mini-tunnels is coming from operators with high-volume in-bay automatics. Being attacked from multiple sides, many previously strong in-bay sites have seen wash volumes drop. For some, express-exterior tunnels have entered their market, siphoning off their business. Others have seen customers driving away rather than waiting for a wash with even a moderate line. At an already proven in-bay automatic location, it’s no surprise the operator is looking to reload with a mini-tunnel able to process a sustained 40 to 50 cars per hour, with every extra service available. In an evolving economy in which customers change purchasing decisions to save minutes, these operators ensure the success of their business by installing a wash capable of capturing every penny when traffic spikes on the first sunny day after some bad weather.

Changing Attitude

Offered as a freebie with a fill-up, the washes from mini-tunnels of the past, mainly installed and operated by the oil companies, rarely delivered quality on par with the professional car washes of that time. Fast-forward to today and the story has changed. Independent operators, focused on the customer experience and faced with dwindling profit from gas and c-store operations, are investing in car washing as a key profit center, not a side business. Armed with equipment and chemistry advancements that can deliver absolutely clean, dry and shiny cars with no prepping, in 35 feet or less, this group is leveraging new tools to become serious competitors to other car-wash operators in their markets.

Start With a Clean Slate

Can a mini-tunnel fit in a 35-foot bay? Absolutely. Is it the same as reloading an in-bay automatic with a newer, faster rollover? Absolutely not. Upgrading to a mini-tunnel to improve wash quality and throughput is a new business and, as such, it demands careful planning from a clean slate. How many cars are currently being washed? How many gallons of gas are being pumped? How many transactions are being run in the store? What is the traffic count in front of the site? Evaluate everything, including what else you could do with the property. Offering your customer base a modern mini-tunnel wash experience can draw new customers to your property and add tremendous incremental revenue. Just make sure to do your homework first.

In many ways, the original mini-tunnels were introduced before their time. I have no doubt, however, that they’ll be altering the way cars are washed for years to come.

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