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Business Operations

Reinvent your carwash

April 04, 2011
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Spring is in the air: New blooms are blossoming, the days are getting longer, and everyone is in the mood for spring cleaning. It only makes sense that now would be the perfect time to renovate your carwash or detail business.

“An updated carwash site can evoke much the same feeling in customers that a new car model does — a sense of comfortable familiarity, combined with excitement over improvements in style and functionality,” according to Marcus McLaughlin, a member of the marketing team at Belanger, Inc.

He continued, “Since carwash customers want to recapture that ‘new car feeling’ with their vehicles, they appreciate facilities that embody that same spirit of renewal — they see these washes like an old friend, made over with a sharp new look and dressed to impress.”

Don’t get left behind!
Impressing your customers isn’t the only reason to invest in updating your business; you also want to avoid allowing your competition to get the best of you in the technology department.

“Don’t get left behind!” cautioned Trent Walter, general manager of National Pride Car Wash Systems. “Over the years, many carwash owners have chosen not to invest in new technology, signage or building improvements. The local market has responded by building new carwashes in the territory and gaining market share and/or a majority of the customer base,” he explained.

“The days of simple carwashes with limited choices, outdated marketing and no personality are long gone,” Walter stated. “Per the American way, customers want choices, the ability to use multiple forms of payment and the excitement of flashy signs and colorful chemicals.”

Walter also stressed that renovating your business should not be a onetime event — but “rather a way of sustained existence and profitability.”

“In highly competitive markets, one has to set one’s wash apart, market it to the customer in unique ways,” Walter said. “Offering the latest technologies and creative marketing draws new and locks in existing customers. The active practice of modernization and renovation will lock one’s place in the market for years to come.”

Curb appeal
The first step in any renovation project is to assess the wash’s curb appeal, according to the experts who spoke to Professional Carwashing & Detailing. Ask an employee to snap a few pictures of your carwash and then sit down to analyze the photos. Ask yourself a few questions about the outward appearance of your building and property, such as:

  • Does your paint look faded?
  • Is signage clearly visible from the street and easy to read?
  • Are shrubs and bushes neatly manicured and cared for?
  • Are employees on the property in uniform and standing “at attention”?
  • Is equipment visible to the customer and, if so, does it appear well cared for and in working condition?

It’s also a good idea to take a few pictures of any local competition and point out their strengths in order to more fully realize any weaknesses at your business.

The wash bay experience
“While a new street sign will often create an immediate, measurable increase in business, other site improvements are necessary to produce sustained gains in wash counts, dollar averages and visit frequency,” explained McLaughlin.

“Curb appeal is hugely important in attracting customers from the street, but the wash bay must live up to the expectations set by the exterior signage, landscaping (including condition and cleanliness of the lot) and a visually striking, well-maintained building.”

According to McLaughlin, the wash bay experience is vital to the operator’s success precisely because it is so immersive.

“Depending on the wash format, the operator has a captive audience for three minutes or more,” he stated. “An impressive bay is largely self-promoting, because it rewards the customer with more than a clean car. They get reinforcement and validation, too — constant reminders that they made the right choice by using this carwash versus just any carwash.”

For instance, Walter said every operator — regardless of whether he or she owns/operates a self-serve, tunnel or automatic carwash — should consider the opportunity to enhance their chemical application.

“Over the years, chemical manufacturers have focused on the development of soaps with vibrant colors and refreshing smells,” he explained. “These advances appeal to customers’ senses and make them feel better about the wash package purchased since the customer can ‘see the results.’”

Walter suggested operators should contact their local chemical suppliers to find out what new fragrances and colors are available. Also, ask your supplier for samples to determine which chemicals suit your customers best.

But, don’t get lazy and think colorful triple foam can do it alone, cautioned McLaughlin. Today’s customers are looking for “light, bright and airy washes — after all, how can they expect a dark, dingy bay to produce a truly clean car?”

McLaughlin continued, “They also want to see equipment they can trust with their car — machinery that is solid, stable, quiet and smooth-running — and which inspires confidence in operation.”

Invest in new equipment to save money
As always, the operator’s main motivations for purchasing new equipment are to improve the wash result and to increase profitability through higher wash counts, greater dollar averages and cost-saving operational efficiencies, McLaughlin said.

“Because automated wash equipment is designed to reduce labor requirements, better-designed equipment requires less labor and produces a more consistent result in less time,” he explained.

McLaughlin said operators can minimize labor expenses from entrance to exit by considering only a few investments in new technology. These include:

  • Automated vehicle prep with medium pressure reclaim water
  • Touchless wheel cleaners that follow the car
  • Automatic tire shiners
  • Targeted drying systems with top, side and general-purpose dryer designs.

Labor isn’t the only expense that operators should be monitoring closely. According to Walter, the cost of natural gas, electricity and water/sewer services continue to rise.

“Absorbing the increased costs can be difficult or result in a price increase passed onto the customers,” Walter said. “One should take time to evaluate utility costs and what options are available to help reduce them.” He named a few, including:

  • Installing a high-efficiency boiler to replace a conventional unit;
  • Investing in a reclaim unit to collect weep, rejected water from the reverse osmosis unit or other wastewater in order to fight fresh water costs and subsequent sewer charges; and
  • Improved water heating or softening technology to improve wash quality.

“Finding, planning around and eliminating utility waste will help save thousands of dollars, as an efficient carwash is a profitable carwash,” Walter explained. “If one is having trouble determining what to do to help eliminate waste, contact the local service agent and work with them to come up with cost effective solutions to save money.”

The ‘head turn’ effect
After making any renovation, whether it be simply painting a bay or updating equipment, the operator should be prepared to call attention to the improvement.

“There are many ways to market changes,” Walter insisted. “One can consider advertising in local papers, customer appreciation days, print media and radio spots.”

By identifying the target audience, Walter said operators can get more bang for their buck. For example, “If one’s wash is in a small community, marketing in the local sports program may be more effective per dollar than newspaper ads. In larger markets, one may find it more cost effective to use signs and banners in front of high-volume streets.”

Whatever you do, make sure you draw attention in some manner. Walter cautioned operators that many changes or additions to technology can be overlooked due to lack of signage or general instructions on how to use the new equipment or feature benefits.

McLaughlin agreed: “We’re seeing that today’s customer is value-driven and will naturally reward operators who invest in their washes to provide a better wash and more pleasant experience.”

“Simply put, when the customer feels he or she getting more for the money, the operator is well-positioned to get more from the customer — more washes more often, and more money for every wash,” he said.

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