|Just when you understand the car wash business, it changes. First were the days when fuel retailers set themselves apart from the competition by offering customers a free wash with a fill-up. Then as gasoline margins declined, marketers found they could turn those car washes into moneymakers.
But now that car washes are common sights at retail fueling locations across the country, the business is changing again. Once the difference between two competitors was who had a car wash and who didn’t. Yet when both competitors have car washes, the differentiator becomes who has the better operation.
How do consumers decide which operation is better? Car wash equipment manufacturers report that two simple factors are on the minds of the motoring public. First is the basic presentation — cleanliness, lighting, signage, convenience. Second is the desire of consumers to have choices. Unlike years past when touch-free washes were the only game in town, friction washes have now carved out their own clientele. And the ability to offer value-added services, from wheel scrubbing to bug busting, can help set a site apart from the competition.
“The market is now split with 70 percent touch-free and friction gaining a 30 percent share,” said Steve Robinson, the rollover business unit manager for Denver-based Mark VII Equipment, which manufactures both types of washes. And at AUTEC Car Wash Systems of Statesville, N.C., national sales manager Joey Stilley confirmed that acceptance of friction washes is growing as consumers “realize that ‘soft touch’ is a better description of today’s technology.”
Because touch-free and friction washes are both considered acceptable choices, AUTEC offers petroleum and convenience store marketers “either soft-touch or touch-free equipment, or combination units that incorporate the best of each type of system.” Product manager Doug Roush of Ryko Manufacturing Company in Grimes, Iowa agreed. “In every market you’ll have some consumers who want a friction wash and others who want touch-free,” he said. “An increasing number of marketers are opting to have both — that is, one touch-free and one friction, side by side.”
Just as retailers learned that attractive c-stores and fuel islands are a “must,” today the same lesson can be applied to car washes. It’s not enough just to have a car wash to be different from the competition. Now that wash must look better than the one down the street. “Freshening up your image and achieving a unique look are important in setting yourself apart, along with the basics of maintaining a clean and well-lit operation,” said marketing manager Tami Wessley of PDQ Manufacturing in De Pere, Wis.
Making consumers feel safe is a prime consideration in the designs of Oasis Car Wash Systems of Galena, Kan. “To do that,” explained marketing director Troy Wade, “we leave the bay very open so that customers won’t feel claustrophobic and intimidated. If the bay looks safe, consumers are more likely to use it.” Oasis also provides marketers with the option of installing a glass building as the bay. Not only does the unit look open and inviting from the street, he added, but “the wash actually becomes its own billboard.”
Whether or not the building is glass, after installation “it’s up to the marketer to make sure the surrounding area matches the feel of the bay,” said Wade. “That means setting the mood by keeping everything well-lit and clean. Depending on how busy the wash has been, the floors and windows should be cleaned at least once a week — not to mention clearing out any foreign matter that might prevent your machine from running well. The impression for the consumer is, ‘If it looks nice, it must do a good job.’ Then you need to reinforce that impression with signage throughout the property and in the store.”
When car washes were simply offered free with a gasoline fill-up, fuel retailers had little incentive to keep the washes squeaky-clean and replace old or inefficient equipment. But today the dynamic has completely turned around. “Now, instead of offering a discount on the wash when your customers purchase fuel,” Wade said, “it’s become just as popular to lower the price of gas with the purchase of a car wash. In fact, when retailers run a well-executed car wash, I’ve seen cross-marketing such as offering discount coupons on popular store items in the store when you purchase a wash.”
Consumers who believe that nice-looking car washes do a good job, Wade advised, can likewise be sold on the idea that having a choice of good wash packages is a value. “One of the biggest marketing tools to come along a few years ago was multi-colored foam and paint conditioner. Visually it has a great impact, which is pleasing to the senses,” he said. “And you can take advantage of product branding by offering options like Rain-X or Amour All. Having these types of packages lets you increase the sale price of the wash and increase profit.”
Unlike the old days when free car washes were an afterthought, today an attractive and well-run car wash can open the way to commercial as well as consumer sales. “If you’ve got a good operation,” Wade pointed out, “then local businesses can become a source of dependable income. You can pre-sell to fleets in your area or to local car rental agencies.” Volume discounts can help generate commercial accounts, as well as offering local businesses the convenience of one monthly invoice.
Another lesson that retailers can transfer from the c-store to their car washes is the concept of seasonal marketing. “Since you can change what chemicals you’re running, depending on the season, you can customize the wash cycles to fit,” said Wade. “For example, in the winter you can run the undercarriage wash longer or do more than one pass over the area.”
Yet the one truly unique aspect of car wash marketing remains the same. Operators must still make the most from their best wash days, when the sun is shining and consumers are ready to brighten up their cars, trucks and SUVs. “So speed is just as important as reliability when choosing a car wash system,” Wade said. Oasis equipment is made to automatically wash all sides of a vehicle, which the company says can increase throughput up double the industry average — or like having two bays instead of one.
Mark VII’s Steve Robinson agreed that aggressive maintenance is vital. “A lot of petroleum sites and their store personnel tend not to give the car wash site enough attention,” said Robinson. “But it needs to be cleaned on a daily basis and checked to make sure there are no obstructions in the bay.” Neglect means lost revenue because, he added, “If the wash looks like it isn’t getting regular attention, it leaves the impression of a dirty bay that’s not going to clean the customer’s car very well.”
To maintain a good reputation the car wash must, of course, deliver a clean car. Here geography becomes a factor. “It’s always harder to clean a car during winter, with some states using magnesium chloride and others putting salt on the roads for snowy conditions,” Robinson said. “That means you need to pay attention to the wash chemicals you use. And then during the summer, cars aren’t as dirty but bugs can be a real problem.” To address the need, Mark VII offers a Bug Buster option.
Proactive marketing goes hand in hand with proactive maintenance. Store clerks should be provided incentives to cross-sell the car wash. And prominent signage throughout a site sends a message to consumers that the car wash is run equally as well as the c-store and fuel islands. That message is important since the car wash is often located on the far corner of a property. Without the support of good signage — from window banners to pump toppers — Robinson said that “consumers might not even know the car wash is there unless they pull right up to it.”
Sweating the details — aggressive maintenance, cleanliness and lighting, effective signage — will help fuel retailers differentiate their car washes from competitors who also have washes on their sites. After taking care of those basics, Robinson agreed that offering your customers the choices they want is the next step. “Touch-free and friction both do a good job of cleaning the car, but I’ve seen friction making a comeback,” he advised. “Just take a look at the competition in your area and then make yourself different.”
For example, Robinson said, “The latest thing on the market for upselling your customers is a total surface protectant, which is a special type of wax for sealing and protecting the paint. You can easily get an extra $1 to $2 by offering that option.” Another wash package that can set a retailer apart is Mark VII’s hub scrub option. “You can add a wheel brush to your equipment, while the rest of your system remains touch-free,” he said. “It’s a unique combination that becomes another way to get an extra dollar.”
Now that car washes are no longer giveaways but have become high-margin profit centers, Robinson urges marketers to include the washes in their loyalty programs. “With today’s point-of-sale technology and entry systems,” he said, “you can do anything from prepaid cards to the traditional every-tenth-wash-is-free promotion. Every retailer I know who has tried a loyalty program has seen their revenues increase. If you don’t do it, you’re leaving money on the table.”
The payoff, added Robinson, is a car wash profit margin of 65 to 75 percent, compared to the 25 or 30 percent attainable on store items. “I’ve seen petroleum and c-store operators get a positive cash flow for a newly installed system in less than a year,” he said.
In turn, high margins and healthy throughput ensure enough revenue to offer ongoing incentives. “Something we’ve seen operators do,” Robinson stated, “is use the incentives to build car wash traffic on the slow days of the week — Tuesday through Thursday — such as offering discounts, having a Ladies Day, or offering a free cup of coffee with purchase of a wash.”
Enjoying the Experience
When it comes to cars, however, customers can also be swayed by emotion. “If you want to offer choices that distinguish your car cash from competitors,” said AUTEC’s Joey Stilley, “then soaps are one of the best ways to get an advantage.” Offering scents such as pina colada, bubble gum and baby powder provide a memorable customer experience.
Further, by making the car wash a family experience, marketers unleash a powerful dynamic. “Never underestimate the power of a child,” Stilley advised. “Just look at the kids during the wash. They’re bouncing all around the car, looking at the colors and the flashing neon lights.” Mix together sights and sounds and smells, he said, “and you’ll see kids putting pressure on their parents to use a car wash that has these types of features. You just have to add some sizzle with the steak.”
To offer customers a memorable experience, Stilley agreed that glass buildings “are one of the best ways to get noticed and achieve results.” When car washes were freebies, fuel retailers often placed them out of the way and behind the store. “But the building needs to be visible from the fuel islands,” he said, “because in many cases the car wash is an impulse purchase. And that means it must be convenient — easy in, easy out and no three-point turns to enter the wash.”
Petroleum marketers can further profit by turning car washes into a community experience. With many municipalities and counties now implementing water management regulations, car wash fundraisers at private parking lots can run afoul of the law. “Charity washes are environmentally unfriendly,” Stilley pointed out. “There’s no way to recycle the wash water and it gets discharged into the city water system.”
Not far from AUTEC’s Statesville headquarters, authorities in Raleigh, N.C., have instituted a car wash certification program. With drought conditions affecting the Southeast, officials are requiring car wash operations to have proper nozzles and water reclamation systems. Churches and charities, however, can turn to properly equipped car wash locations for their fundraisers.
“Entry systems are now being made that can accept token notes into the dollar bill acceptor,” Stilley explained. “So you could give a $2 discount on the tokens. Or perhaps you could assign a code to a particular charity and then, every time a customer punches in the code during a designated time period, you could donate 25 cents.”
So that no one misses out on the car wash experience, Stilley recommended that marketers let their own employees in on the fun. “Sell your own employees on the machine,” he suggested. “Make it fun by having an employee meeting where you let them wash their cars, as you explain the features, benefits and the maintenance requirements. If they’re excited about the car wash — from personal experience — then they’ll be more effective in selling it to store customers.”
Like other equipment manufacturers, AUTEC believes that car wash sites must be kept scrupulously clean and in top working order. For one thing, Stilley noted, 60 percent of car wash customers are women — who won’t put up with dingy, dark or defective washed. “Every morning the store manager should wash his or her own car,” he recommended, “to make everything is working properly and the machine is performing up to standard.”
Sites that wash less than 1,000 cars per month should be serviced once a month, Stilley advised, and those that wash more than 3,000 vehicles each month should be serviced every week. For its part, AUTEC offers a remote intelligence system to help marketers stay on top of maintenance issues. “Cameras let you pull up the car wash site on a computer screen to see inside the bay and check the surrounding area,” said Stilley. “You can also be alerted to fault conditions such as when the entry system needs quarters or receipt paper.”
Ultimately, marketing is an education process. “Explain to customers that they have the options of touch-free, soft touch, or a combination of both,” Stilley advised. “These days, it must be the latest, greatest thing in order to get someone’s attention. But if you get them to your car wash the first time and then deliver a superior product, they’ll come back.”
Branded for Success
According to Doug Roush of Ryko Manufacturing, marketing is also a branding process. “The overall branding of the entire site is essential,” he said, “from signs on the car wash itself, to the menu, to the sign on the road. For example, custom signage with backlit images is a great way to get noticed. Even details like the colors of your brushes and covers, to create a striking color scheme, are important.”
Ryko offers a number of different colors for the eyes — plus wash chemicals in a variety of scents to delight the nose. Among the choices for triple foam are raspberry and bubble gum. “These sensory perceptions give your customers something that’s recognizable, which they can associate with your car wash,” Roush said. “Consumers enjoy the complete experience, so they keep coming back. And the kids ask for it specifically — or tell mom and dad they’ve come to the ‘wrong’ place that doesn’t have the sensory experience they’re used to.”
Since new technologies are always being introduced, it behooves marketers to keep an eye on new options for differentiating their car washes from the competition. “We’re starting to see a lot more petroleum and c-store operators installing compact conveyor systems,” Roush said. Ryko’s compact Rocket is only 45 feet long yet the conveyor action enables the unit to process more cars than an in-bay system, while taking up the same parcel of land.
Therefore marketers who want more throughput and are considering two side-by-side in-bay units could boost volume even more by installing two mini-tunnel units in the same amount of space.
Yet the best investments are sometimes the simplest, said Tami Wessley of PDQ Manufacturing. “Freshening up an existing facility by painting, new signs and resurfacing the driveways can go a long way,” she pointed out. “Then make sure the car wash equipment has a modern look, it can perform the different marketing features you need and is compatible with your other business systems.”
And sometimes simple marketing techniques — the ones that retailers often forget — can yield the most results. “There are several easy, low-cost activities that can help you maximize your exposure,” Wessley explained. “Cross-promote with area businesses like video stores, hardware stores and ice cream shops. Sponsor a school newspaper or host a fundraiser. Contribute editorials about car care to local newspapers. Even offering coupons through neighborhood door hangers is still an effective way to get the word out.”
In fact, Wessley continued, “Some of your most effective marketing techniques can be done right onsite. You’ve already got a customer at your location. So get creative with daily specials, banners, windsocks, hot air ‘dancing’ characters, window clings and bag stuffers. And always remember the power of loyalty programs.”
PDQ offers an Internet-based Wash Access Loyalty System, Wessley noted, which “allows customers to purchase car washes right from your Web site. They can even print out a card for their wallets. And as a retailer you get the tools to keep in direct contact with your customers.”
In a day when competitors are just as likely to have a car wash as you — because they face the same need to make up slim fuel margins — success means “doing things for the car wash that you’ve always done for your station and c-store,” concluded Wessley, “and that’s taking care of the onsite basics, and then differentiating yourself by finding out the choices your customer base wants and giving it to them.”