The American automobile industry, despite all of its current troubles, has usually done a pretty good job of evolving. The big-finned boats of the 1950s gave way to the sports cars of the ‘60s as every male tapped into his inner motor speedway daredevil. When OPEC’s oil embargo hit in the 1970s, the industry adjusted by producing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. As soccer moms came onto the scene in the 1980s and ‘90s, the traditional four-door vehicle evolved into the mini-vans and SUVs of today, though admittedly with much less fuel efficiency.
But while automobiles have evolved, there’s a good chance that the vehicle wash system used to clean them down at the corner convenience store or filling station has stayed the same since the Clinton Administration. Sure, you installed it way back during the Great Millennium Bug Hoax of 1999, and it’s been a faithful servant that has stood by you come rain or shine (hopefully more of the latter than the former). There’s been a couple maintenance hiccups along the way and it’s starting to look a little rough around the edges, but overall, it’s an investment that has paid for itself many times over.
Guess what? That washing workhorse you’ve relied on for so long may be in need of some TLC. With advancements in wash and computer technology, building construction, signage, entry systems and ancillary wash services, savvy car wash operators have many opportunities to give their in-bay automatics a face lift. This can consist of a completely new system that offers the benefits of a new 21st-century communications system, or a smaller retrofit that can include a redesigned bay that removes any guesswork by the customer when positioning a car in the wash. In the end, there is a retrofit opportunity for all operators looking to upgrade their wash equipment, no matter what size the project or budget.
What Retrofit Is For Me?
So, you ask, if my wash is working and people are still coming, why do I need a retrofit? There are many answers to this question, only some of which may have to do with the actual in-bay wash and its equipment.
The main reason people replace anything—be it a computer, microwave oven or car wash system—is that it’s no longer working up to its original standards and the maintenance costs to keep repairing it are becoming prohibitive. With car wash systems, any downtime they experience because of maintenance problems is a drain on the bottom line, because any revenue lost when the system is out of service is revenue that can’t be recouped. If this downtime is causing you to lose too much sleep and, more importantly, too many dollars, then a completely new system may be the best alternative for operators. A new system will immediately offer a fresh new look to a site, along with the operating efficiencies new technology brings. In addition to the new look, a new machine will more than likely provide you with additional ways to increase your revenue per car. However, most manufacturers offer several options for operators not quite ready to invest in a new machine. These options will buy time until it their machine is ready to be replaced.
Recent evolutions of in-bay automatics have been designed to eliminate the need for steel treadles on the floor that the driver needs to negotiate before the wash can begin. The experience of pulling into and out of the bay can be very trying for many drivers and create a negative feeling toward the wash. Most operators claim that an important part of their wash process is the ability to offer their customers an open, inviting wash bay. The absence of these treadles, or any floor steel for that matter, makes it easier to enter and exit the bay, improving the throughput at your site. Many manufactures have developed upgrade kits that allow operators to take advantage of this technology without taking on a major expense.
In addition to easing operational concerns, the new-and-improved in-bay systems also offer the prospect of ancillary profit centers because they are able to offer services such as super-sealants and triple foam, and wheel-blast applications that older systems may not be able to offer. These new services are a great source for increasing your ROI on each wash. The new wash, however, must not eliminate any of the options that current customers have come to expect.
Another reason to consider a retrofit is simple aesthetics. When you installed yours so many years ago, it gleamed, but after all those years of use, thriving in the harsh environment required to clean those thousands and thousands of vehicles, it is may be beginning to look a little rundown. In fact, studies have shown that a driver will often choose a car wash by its outward appearance, mainly how clean its windows are and how clean and open the bay looks. Thus, simply replacing fiberglass covers and signage may bring you back to that fresh new look your customers desire.
Hand in hand with the aesthetics of the site is awareness of what the competition is doing. When you built your in-bay it might have been the only one in the neighborhood, a bright, shining beacon to the passing driver. But now there might be newer, shinier car washes down the block, or even on the opposite street corner. The operators of these new sites have a built-in marketing advantage since they can advertise their “newness” to prospective customers. Some of these new arrivals may also have installed a tunnel system, which can wash a lot of cars, which means the in-bay operator needs to highlight their quality of clean and the services they offer that differentiate themselves for their competition. There also may be a need to play “keep up with the Jones’s,” as your competition may offer triple foam, and you don’t. Adding a triple foam kit may be an easy way to even out the playing field with the new site next door.
Another consideration are the changing demographics of the area in which the wash is located. Again, when you built the wash, your site may have been on the edge of town. But in the ensuing decade, a new subdivision and shopping mall have grown up around you (along with the arrival of a few competitors) and that wash you installed back then to handle 8 to 10 cars an hour is incapable of the wash speeds needed to handle the increased traffic. The need to upgrade may be necessary simply to handle the increased capacity that growth has brought to your area. This is a good problem as growth tends to lead to higher wash volumes, which is always a good thing!
Steps to Consider When Upgrading
When you decide to retrofit your wash system, you have to take the thoughts and attitudes of your customers into account, as well. If you’ve been at the site for a number of years, many of your customers may have become regulars, comforted by the knowledge that when they want or need to get their vehicle washed, you’ll be there to provide the level of service they’ve come to expect. Keeping your customers front of mind, here are some things to consider as you move forward with your wash upgrade or retrofit:
- Advance Notice—For most people, change can be bothersome and comes complete with a whole array of uncertainties, whether real or imagined. So when you decide to do a retrofit, you need to make sure that your customers are aware of your plans and keep them abreast of any developments along the way. A good rule of thumb is to let your customers know at least a month in advance—via signs that are posted in easy-to-read areas around the wash, in the store or at the pumps—that you will soon be installing an upgraded wash system, one that will deliver the wash quality they’ve come to expect, while also offering new services that will enhance their wash experience.
- Prepare for Upgrade—When the time comes to install the new equipment, communicate to the public as well, letting your customers know that the wash will be out of service for just a couple (hopefully) days. To ensure that there isn’t excessive downtime, the operator needs to work with a supplier that can deliver the equipment and installation expertise that will lead to a smooth and seamless transition to the new system or retrofit upgrade. The support of local representation is critical to ensuring all issues are addressed prior to any work being done.
- Spruce Up Site—You wouldn’t put a new $1,000 stereo system into a rusted-out Ford Pinto, so why put a new wash system into a bay that is showing its wear and tear? Use the occasion to not only retrofit the wash system, but also the area surrounding and in the wash bay itself. This can mean repaving and restriping the parking lot, installing new bay doors and windows that offer an even more comfortable look to the customer, clean or repaint the interior walls of the bay, make sure the concrete floor is in good condition, touch up the building’s exterior and maybe introduce some new landscaping to the site. These steps will contribute to a successful site upgrade.
- Grand Re-Opening—Once the bay has been retrofitted the really heavy marketing needs to begin. A Grand Re-Opening celebration to mark the new-and-improved car wash is a natural at this point. With this, the customers need to be told that while the equipment and system is new, they can expect the same great service. Therefore, a new system cannot be more complicated to operate than the old system it replaced. The customer also needs to be told why the new machine is better. Many, upon hearing all of this, might actually be inclined to pay a slightly higher fee for a wash, knowing that they are probably getting a cleaner car in a more time-efficient manner. This is a great opportunity to build and grow any loyalty program that may be offered.
When you are changing the style of wash through a retrofit, it is imperative that you explain precisely to the customer why you made the change and how the new style of wash will give them the type of service they expect.
Computer and communications technology is constantly evolving and it’s no different for the car wash industry. In the early days of in-bay automatics, communication between the wash and the operator was orchestrated by a technician that would come in and read the oftentimes confusing and time-consuming diagnostic code to figure out what the machine was doing. This evolved into LCD screens and printers that produced a written description of how the machine was performing without the need to read code. Stage three in this evolution was the introduction of pagers, which allowed operators to remotely stay in touch with their equipment, however if they owned five sites they would have to find enough belt space to accommodate five separate pagers.
Today, the technology has evolved to the point where communication between the wash and the operator can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, from E-mailed text messages to full Web server and browser capabilities that allow all of each machine’s diagnostics—things like shift reports, wash patterns, equipment breakdowns, etc.—to be stored for historic reasons. In reality, the same computer technology that allows people to shop online can now allow the car wash operator to check up on his or her sites in real-time, from anywhere in the world that an Internet connection is available.
Chances are, an in-bay automatic that was installed in 2000 does not have this communications capability, making this another important reason to consider a retrofit. The new efficiencies offered by the improved communication technology are many and varied: from remote programming of wash speeds and patterns to gathering up-to-date information for specific wash considerations. The new system must also be able to efficiently communicate with the wash’s entry system, allowing the operator the capability to remotely tweak the wash packages being offered. These real time efficiencies help operators focus on more important issues, like developing creative marketing campaigns to help increase the ROI of the upgrade.
Remote monitoring also eases the burden on operators who have many sites, meaning that trips to 15 or 20 locations to check on the car wash are no longer necessary. And if there are maintenance warnings or alarms at any of the sites, they can be fed back to a centralized Web site or sent to the operator or other maintenance personnel via cell phone text message. This centralization not only makes it easier to respond to maintenance emergencies, but also anticipate any that might happen in the future when wash patterns and equipment usage are considered.
When considering the technology in a new in-bay wash system, it does not only concern Internet communications. The technology/functionality behind the new equipment being installed must also be considered. It sounds simple, but one of the first things you need to do is make sure that the wash new equipment, including the pump station, fits into your existing wash bay and equipment room. The new equipment must also be compatible with any existing ancillary equipment that will remain. Many times these issues are assumed and can lead to additional expenses and delays. Proper planning can help reduce these unwanted expenses.
As mentioned earlier, the new equipment must not only be easier for the customer to operate, but also be easier and less expensive to maintain; it makes no sense to install a new system that is more complicated than the one it is replacing. The spare parts of the new system should also be similar to the ones needed for the old machine; this will also ease maintenance concerns. This will also help reduce any change-over costs that may be incurred with a retrofit.
Making the decision to retrofit a site is an exciting one for the car wash operator. But in order to make the most of a site upgrade or a new in-bay automatic car wash system, the operator needs to make sure that the change doesn’t end up hurting his business. Every time you change something, even if it’s with the best intentions, it’s an opportunity to lose a customer.
Communication is the key—communicating with your customers that you will be installing an upgrade or a new wash system, choosing a system that allows easy communication between the machine and the operator, and then letting the customers know the changes to your wash are ready to roll and will be providing them with an enhanced wash experience. Ensuring that any surprises for the customers are kept to a minimum is critical.
These simple steps will greatly reduce the difficulties that typically occur when retrofitting a wash bay, allowing you to focus on what you do best—washing cars and providing an excellent customer experience.
David Dougherty is the Senior Product Manager for In-Bay Automatics at PDQ Manufacturing, Inc., De Pere, WI. PDQ Manufacturing is recognized as the technological leader in vehicle wash systems, providing superior quality, outstanding support, and products that contribute to its customers’ profitability. Brands include WashTools Conveyorized Tunnel Systems, LaserWash® In-Bay Automatics, Tandem® RiteTouch Vehicle Wash Systems, Access® Customer Management Systems and MaxAir™ Dryers. Products are sold and supported worldwide through an extensive distribution network. For more information, visit www.pdqinc.com or call (800) 227-3373. David can be reached at David.Dougherty@pdqinc.com.