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Self-serve

Profile in success: Lifestyles of the rich and sudsy

June 18, 2012
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It's the last thing you'd expect to see — a regal Rolls-Royce or a buxom Bentley pulling into a self-service carwash. The combination of "carriage trade" and coin-operated carwash stalls can be a confusing clash of cultures. Yet this clash is a common sight at Joe's Car Wash, a 24-hour self-serve wash located in the Midtown neighborhood of downtown Houston.

Richard Watson, co-owner of Joe's, said the stalls of his wash receive frequent visits from luxury cars made by Bentley, Rolls-Royce, BMW and Mercedes Benz. "We've got a tremendous amount of carriage trade," Watson said. "A lot of our customers come in … driving high-dollar, expensive cars. They are customers that don't want anybody messing with their car, so they use our carwash."

Cleanliness and traffic counts
Attracting this high-dollar carwash clientele was no accident. Watson explained that one part of his carwash's success is location and one part is his dedication to having a spotless facility. "I'm a perfectionist by nature; I don't leave anything to chance," he said. "Our carwash is spotlessly clean, and I don't mean spotlessly clean occasionally. I mean it's high-pressure water hosed."

The regular cleaning routine at Joe's includes a thorough wash two or three times a week with a high-pressure water hose. Also, the walls of the stalls, which are all high-glazed tile, are cleaned once a week with acid soaps, and the vacuum cleaners are regularly polished. Further, the site is blown clean every morning by employees using heavy-duty blowers. "We're just on top of it," Watson said.

This constant cleaning lets the wash put its best foot forward for the passing traffic in Houston. The wash is located on a downtown street that boasts a traffic count of 38,000 cars per day. This allows the seven-stall business to average about 1,500 washes per week, and sales can surge to 2,500 washes per week in the spring. During the spring rush, Watson said the wash is often "busy all day long and half the night."

Watson opened the carwash in 1962, and he previously owned a dozen washes. He ended up selling every carwash except for Joe's. "I kept this one because it was on prime property. The property that this carwash is on, when I bought it and built it some 45 or 50 years ago, in 1962, I paid $47,000 for the property [and] it's 16,000 square feet. That same piece of property today is worth $100 a square foot," Watson stated.

Because of current real estate costs, the wash will never have any self-serve competition in the area. "You can't build a coin-operated carwash on that type of property and make a cash flow … and so we're sitting in a very, very unique spot where we don't have any competition," Watson said. "I don't think we'd ever have any competition as far as coin op is concerned."

Customer concern
Watson's son, Micah, operates Joe's, and there are two other employees on the payroll. When a customer is on the property, employees follow the old adage that the customer is always right. In fact, Watson teaches employees that the only thing a customer cannot do while using the carwash is touch an employee.

"If (a customer has) a bad attitude, you say, 'Yes sir. Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.' If he's got any type of complaint, I don't care even if you know it's nefarious, we give him free carwashes or free vacuum cleaners or whatever it is," Watson said. "Our job is to part that customer from his money, and to make him want to come back and do it again. And that's how we run our business."

The wash also utilizes lighting to help keep their customers safe. The property uses high-intensity canopy lighting that is now popular at many gas stations. "I've got lots of lighting," Watson said. "Our electrical bill runs about $1,100 or $1,200 a month because I'm a fanatic on light … light is an enemy of criminals."

Adding equipment
Watson said the carwash has been rebuilt half a dozen times since it opened in the early 1960s, and he has used the same equipment supplier for over 40 years. One of the newest additions to the wash is credit card acceptance in the self-serve stalls. Adding the card readers increased business by 30 percent, and it helped Watson maintain the business during the economic downturn.

Hose dryers were recently installed in the self-serve bays as well. Watson noted that they have proven to be very popular. "It looks like that's going to be a major, major good thing for our business once the economy turns around," he said.

Even so, the carwash's 10 vending machines have not proven as successful. "We don't do the business we would like to do with our vending products," Watson stated. "The reason for that, we are next door to a large auto supply house, and our customers walk across the street and they buy all sorts of stuff."

Currently, the wash includes six vacuum cleaner islands, and the business charges $1 for four minutes of vacuum time. Watson is working with his equipment supplier to add credit card acceptance to all vacuums. The challenge will be installing the card readers without tearing up half the carwash's concrete to put in data lines. In fact, the vacuums may have to be connected to the network using satellites.

Watson is not sure that credit card acceptance will actually increase the money made from vacuums. Instead, he is interested in converting them to credit card so that, when a customer comes to Joe's, he or she will not need cash at all.

Police cooperation
When it comes to security, Joe's has "cameras from one end of the carwash to the other." Yet Watson said he is not sure that the cameras do much to actually secure the business.

Instead, Joe's increases security by offering free carwashes to police vehicles. Watson estimated that Joe's washes 200 Houston police cars per week. "[We've] got cops in there all the time, and our cop friends tell us that the only time … they're going to ever follow up on somebody they see on that camera is going to be accidental," he said.

Police officers have told Watson that Houston averages 1,500 to 2,000 calls a night reporting crime, and the police department simply does not have the resources to respond and pursue suspects from every call. "If we get the license plate, and then if they stop them for something else … then they'll pull them up," Watson stated.

Luckily, Joe's currently experiences little vandalism. Watson said about once a year someone will come in and string some of the vending machines. When this happens, the wash puts timers on the machines so that they all cut off at 10 p.m.

Enduring a drought
One washing challenge that Joe's recently endured was a severe drought that affected Houston and central Texas last summer. "We didn't have any rain for five months," Watson remembered. "To my mindset, I'd like for it to rain every week, especially at night."

The drought proved challenging for the wash because when there's no rain there are no dirty cars. Watson said there are regular customers that visit the property once a week, but over the summer they were coming in every other week because their cars were not getting dirty.

The city left carwashes alone during the drought and allowed them to operate unimpeded. Even so, enacted water restrictions prevented Joe's employees from following their regular cleaning routine. Also, the city stopped all businesses from watering their yards and shrubbery during the drought.

Price points and expanding
One challenge Joe's faces in the future is preserving the $1 price point. Watson recalled that $1 originally paid for five minutes of wash time. Currently, the wash charges $1 for two minutes and 25 or 30 seconds. "I never did want to get rid of the $1," he said. "Eventually, we'll probably end up having to go down to where it's $1 for one minute … at some point and time."

Though Joe's currently offers only self-serve washes, Watson and his son are toying with the idea of adding hand washing and detailing. "There's not a question, I think we'd do a tremendous business with the hand washing. I'm just not quite sure that I want to deal with having to have a bunch of employees," he said.

The future of self-serve
When it comes to the future of self-serve carwashes, Watson is not very optimistic. I think … the only reason that we're doing the business that we do is the location and the cost of the real estate. And nobody can compete against us. But my mindset tells me that these are dinosaurs on their way out."

Watson stated that automatics and short tunnels are the future of the business and "there's some serious money to be made." With the short tunnels, owners can afford to pay high-dollar prices for property. Still, finding the perfect carwash real estate will be a challenge.

"It's a two-edged sword, because if you find a very, very good location that you can afford to buy, usually it's in the marginal areas of the city," Watson said. "You build a high-dollar carwash that's doing a lot of business, and you've got 15 competitors in about a year or two within five miles of you."

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