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Business Operations

Who are your customers?

October 11, 2010
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From self-serve to full-serve to in-bay automatic and express exterior only, there’s a carwash out there for every imaginable type of person.

High maintenance, low maintenance, no maintenance; the industry has the American carwash consumer covered.

The trick is to understand what type of person your wash is attracting and to use the right marketing angle to reach that person.

The waiting room laden with free coffee and cable TV that brings in a full-service customer won’t necessarily attract the in-bay rollover consumer in a rush to get across town to pick up the dry cleaning before work.

Help yourself
Take the self-serve carwash user, for instance. These do-it-yourselfers are a unique breed — brave souls unafraid to take the wand by the hand and scrub away the dirt and grime using their own elbow grease.

At a self-serve carwash, operators are sure to see a myriad of vehicles.

Bud Abraham, president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems of Portland, OR, said RV’s, motorcycles and modified cars and trucks flock to self-serve washes when they discover an automatic wash is unaccommodating to their unusual mode of transportation.

But not everyone pulling into the self-serve bay drives an uncommon vehicle.

According to Lamar Beck, co-owner of the Goo Goo carwash chain, most self-serve customers are simply younger persons or those who take a special pride in their car’s appearance.

“They’re in love with the automobile to the point where they want to do it themselves — or they have some aftermarket accessories on them,” Beck said. “Their cars are jacked up or they’re low or they’ve got stuff on them and they want to take special care and do it themselves.”

A marketing edge
If anyone can point out the differences in professional carwash consumers it’s Beck, the man at the helm of a company overseeing more than 30 washes of every type.

Goo Goo’s operations can best be described as a conglomerate of washes — self-serve, express-exterior, full-serve and in-bays all bear the Goo Goo name. With more than a half-century of experience, Beck has seen his share of personalities drive through the carwash doors.

But one of the most important differences between a self-serve customer and any other type of carwash consumer, Beck said, is their marketing description. According to Beck, it is non-existent.

“I’ve never found anything that really reaches out to the self-serve customer,” Beck said.

These do-it-yourselfers seem to prefer doing everything for themselves, including finding and choosing the best wash in town. No billboard or TV commercial time needed.

The best thing the self-serve wash owner can do to attract these determined washers is to make sure the wash is well-lit and attractive, with plenty of signage at the location to help self-serve washers find their way to the bay.

Are you being served?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, full-serve washers want to sit and relax — and not just in their cars. Full-serve choosers want luxurious furnished waiting rooms where they can sip their cup of gourmet special-blend, decaf-espresso caramel roast.

“The professional carwash customer makes decisions based on the needs of their car and on convenience,” Abraham explained. “Some full-service customers do it just because they have a lot of money. The full-serve is convenient and these guys don’t care about money.”

Others choose the full-serve method because they want to relax and enjoy the experience.

Beck said his experience has shown not all full-serve washers are affluent.

“It’s really just someone that appreciates the value of a full-service wash and demands attention for his car,” Beck said.

If you ask Earl Weiss, owner of the Uptown Carwash chain in the Chicago area, marketing to this full-service consumer is usually all about exclusivity. According to Weiss, full-serves are in their prime when their market is primarily express-exteriors and self-serves.

“They (full-serve consumers) go to that one guy. So while that one guy may have less volume compare to exteriors, he’s gaining volume from the other people,” Weiss said. “There will always be a market for full-serve. You can only cut the pie up in so many pieces.”

To successfully market to these customers, Weiss suggested operators use high-end products and luxurious landscaping. Employees “dressed to the nines” and manual detailing and wipe-off also help give this customer the touch of class they’re looking for.

The fast, the furious and the fussy
The express exterior-only attracts the economical, convenience-driven customer for which America is famous. This is the same person who moments before lined up at McDonald’s for a cheap lunch and will later cruise by the pharmacy’s drive-thru.

But according to Weiss, who operates four exterior-only locations, these customers aren’t just convenience driven.

“The exterior-only customer fits somewhere in between [the full-serve consumer and the self-serve customer],” Weiss said. “Meaning that when it comes to the more detailed manual labor they like to do a lot of that stuff themselves, but they may also be looking to save a little money.”

Express-exterior customers might wash the outside of their car a few times a month by loading up on the conveyor, but will pull into a self-serve wash to vacuum and detail their car every now and then.

These customers are attracted to value. Give them a quick, quality wash for a good price and they’ll be happy.

Advertise the speed, price and convenience of the wash and you’ll have them lined up for days.

The in-bay way
For the most part, in-bay users want minimal human contact and are usually lured in by a deal tied to a gas purchase.

They’d prefer to have an automated cashier direct them into the bay and a traffic light to tell them when it’s time to exit. Most of these washers aren’t afraid to get back into traffic with a semi-wet vehicle.

To cater to these convenience-craving users, simply offer them a deal on a wash with gas.

The only mood-killer here is wait time. Make sure you have as many in-bays as necessary to keep business flowing during peak times.

And again, make sure to keep your in-bay clean and safe-looking. Consumers will be turned off if they think it’s a complete unattended disaster.

Mixing it up a bit
At some point all of these washers will cross over. Maybe not permanently, maybe not for more than one trial visit but, according to carwash consumer research, it will happen eventually.

Humans may be creatures of habit, but they also desire change every once in a while.

“I think they all cross over,” Beck said. “I’m talking about the self-serve customer, the full-service. The one that is least likely to crossover would be the one that wants to go to a touchless automatic.

“But there’s room for all these washes. People are worried about the new express hurting their full-serve or self-serve business, but there’s a market out there for all these washes and we haven’t even tapped into the market that is available to us,” Beck said.

To see more customers, make your wash as flexible as possible. Don’t rest on your laurels knowing that the do-it-yourselfers will find your self-serve; ensure that your wash offers as many options as possible to attract as many different types of customers as possible.

Whether it’s offering to prep an elderly woman’s vehicle before she enters your in-bay rollover, helping a first-time self-server with the wands and guns or offering an express lane at your full-service wash, giving the consumer a little bit of every carwash offering will help increase your bottom line.

Eventually, with proper advertising and good managing, the charity washers and the home washers will find themselves at professional washes. Then, and only then, will the industry truly have tapped all of its potential.

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