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The days of carwash change

October 11, 2010
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The mantra for today's consumer is "more for less." Customers today expect to receive more for their money, and with increasing gas prices and living expenses, people are beginning to become a bit more conservative about their spending habits.

How can a carwash owner compete with today's spend-thrift mentality in a market that has become increasingly competitive?

Over the past year, a number of inventive car-care owners have adapted, revamped and extended their business models in order to keep a competitive edge.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing® magazine spoke with several wash owners who have found that prosperity and success are reliant upon ingenuity, the ability to adapt, and a distinct awareness concerning what consumers want and what they will be willing to spend money on.

Full-serve to express wash - Chief's Auto Wash

Bill Consolo, owner of Chief's Auto Wash in Cleveland, said that had he not changed his wash model from full-service to an express exterior he might not be in the carwashing business today.

Consolo's wash opened in 1960 as a full-service operation. In 1988 and 1991 Consolo made unsuccessful attempts to switch his site from full-service to express washing.

After being met with resistance and failure, Chief's made one last valiant effort in the summer of 1997. As luck would have it, the concept stuck and Consolo was able to continue to grow his carwash venture.

Why it worked

Consolo believes the change-over finally succeeded for two reasons:

1. During their initial attempts, Chief's employees were still wiping down the cars. When the third attempt rolled around Consolo installed blowers at the vehicle's exit area that dried the car automatically.

2. With the first two attempts, customers still exited their vehicles and went inside to pay. Consolo installed a pay station at the entrance of the wash for the third attempt, so customers could ride through without having to leave their vehicle.

According to Consolo, in these modern times with all the gadgets and electronics in a person's car today, the customer doesn't exactly welcome the idea of having a stranger inside their space.

The express price is also more successful today than it was in the late 80s and early 90s because, according to Consolo, more people are leasing vehicles and are unwilling to spend $15 to $20 on a full-service cleaning when all they're really concerned with is how the outside looks.

Economical express

Chief's made the switch to express washing in June, not the busiest carwash season, so it was risky. According to Consolo, the drop in price was also a little scary. Chief's went from selling close to $10 and $8 packages to selling $3 and $5 wash packages.

However, the cut in price was also accompanied by a cut in labor costs. According to Consolo, his labor costs were 50 percent of his expenses before the change.

After the change-over his staff went from 10-12 people in the slow months and as many as 25 workers during the winter, to two or three workers and four during busy periods.

More than mediocre

When Consolo first made the change to express his $3 basic price brought in strong revenue. However, as the years progressed, Consolo began to add on to that basic wash with services like: tire shine, chemical tire applicator, stronger dryers, sealer wax, undercarriage, and heated fresh water.

As Consolo began to offer his customers a better express wash he found he could also increase the price without much customer complaint.

So today, his express wash has one price: $9. Consolo offers customers who feel that price is too high the option to purchase a wash book which can bring the price down to $7 a wash or even $6 if the individual purchases more than two books.

Customers can also sign up for a frequent washer program where they buy eight washes and get one free. That reduces the price to $7.88 a wash.

Evidently, customers are happy to choose Consolo's express wash; his busy days wash roughly 1,200 cars.

Jimmy Marlowe opened the Peachy Clean Car Wash in 1996, a business idea created and partially funded by his son Ben.

The junior Marlowe and his father built the Peachtree City, GA wash together, but the senior Marlowe ran it about 80 percent of the time.

Marlowe senior managed everything and his son and daughter-in-law worked the carwash solely on the weekends until he had an unfortunate accident and sustained a head injury that slowed him down quite a bit.

At 68-years-old it was time for Marlowe senior to part ways with his wash. Marlowe senior was looking to sell his business, but his son just couldn't bear the thought of losing the business he helped establish.

Goodbye and good luck

In the end, Marlowe Jr. and his wife bought out the business in order to keep the site in the family.

But before Marlowe Sr. said goodbye to his carwash, he spent about six weeks training his daughter-in-law, Terry Marlowe.

"He was very involved in the business and he passed down a lot of wisdom," Marlowe said. "I worked with him every day and he was pretty tough."

Customers soon realized that Marlowe Jr. and his wife took their business just as seriously as Marlowe Sr. as they began to make changes to the façade and management to increase customer satisfaction and profitability.

A woman's touch

The wash has also benefited from having a woman's touch. Marlowe said she keeps the carwash cleaner and tidier than Marlowe Sr.

To improve the overall look of the business, the Marlowes painted the interior, and added new comfortable couches and seating. They also put in TVs and updated a lot of the equipment that had seen its fair share of wear and tear.

"Jimmy used the equipment until you couldn't use it anymore," Marlowe said. "He wore everything out before he bought anything new."

Marlowe also changed the style of management at Peachy Clean. She said she has a more personal relationship with the employees and they seem to have responded to the change because they are willing to do more.

Old and new converge

Marlowe's changes to the Peachy Clean definitely reassured customers that their favorite wash would continue to operate at the same level or even better.

The things she did change were mostly additions to a strong foundation built by her father.

"He (Marlow Sr.) was definitely old school," Marlowe said. Beyond keeping things neat and becoming more in touch with the employees, Marlowe said she didn't have to change much as far as operating procedure because Marlowe senior ran a pretty tight ship.

An evolving carwash model - National Car Wash

National Car Wash (NCW), Nashville, TN, first started in the self-serve and touch-free markets, but began to adapt to a changing customer base this year.

Many believe that the typical self-serve customer's attitude about carwashing is as little as possible should touch a car during cleaning, and this was one of the reasons that the company started adding automatic washes that used only touch-free, pressurized systems.

Customer feedback

But during this year, officials with the company started to realize their customers didn't seem to shy away from the idea of using friction since most of the new equipment on today's market showed promising results and could increase volume on an express track.

"We feel our soft cloth automatics are producing just as much revenue as the touch-less did, which tells us that the customer isn't as opposed to the soft cloths as they used to be," said Johnny Jones, National Car Wash's president and chief manager.

While NCW oversees franchisee agreements to a number of operations, it often uses its wholly-owned sites to test new equipment or methods of cleaning.

The location tested for the new business plan has six self-serve bays, and one automatic that will now be converted to extend the length of the tunnel and include soft cloth materials.

The automatic had always been a touch-free style of washing, but soft cloth has now been included because of new friction technologies that seem to please the customer base around Tennessee.

"By the end of the year, we'll have three express tunnels for franchisees that are under construction right now, and probably two of our own," Jones said.

Jones, along with his son Tim Jones and co-owner Gary Tinch, are directly involved with the operation of the company and a portion of the carwash operations themselves, now at a total site count of 45.

Jones said he first started the business about 17 years ago, but really started to get the ball rolling 12 years ago through site growth and franchise agreements.

"Because people are not afraid of soft-touch, it's given us a much better product than we had before, and we provide free vacs with that, increasing our volume," said Jones. "To stay on track, we had to do this. We couldn't wait."

Hand wash to automatic - Lake Car Wash

Lake Car Wash opened in the late 1980s, but Tom Grady didn't take the reins until about three years ago. When he initially purchased the hand wash his goal was simply to improve the speed at which they processed cars.

What Grady found was that in order to compete with a growing carwash market he needed to move things faster than a hand wash would ever be capable of.

Moving to mechanization

Grady decided to invest $130,000 in Lake Car Wash, Lake Elsinore, CA, to automate and mechanize the site's wash process and double the vacuum capacity.

"We were getting a reputation with customers for being a very slow carwash," Grady said. "And now I never get any complaints that we're too slow."

Grady's site went from a hand wash that often times had customers lined up to the street, to an automatic wash that has cut down on time, labor and other expenses.

The money Grady spent went toward creating a new vacuum system, a new conveyor and the addition of a soft-cloth cleaning system.

For the most part customers have been happy with the location's changes. According to Grady, there have been some customers that were stubborn and stopped frequenting the wash because it wasn't solely a hand wash anymore.

But Lake Car Wash is very accommodating. Grady said that if someone wants their car washed by hand the staff will still do it.

The site has an area to the side of the automatic wash designated for hand washing. Grady has even installed drains to catch the dirty water and direct it to the site's clarifier.

Less means more

Besides pleasing customers and moving vehicles through the site quicker, automating Lake Car Wash also meant a 10 percent decrease in labor costs.

Grady said that with the new systems he was able to eliminate 10 to 15 positions and save himself considerable money on labor enabling him to keep his prices the same despite the large expenditure on the upgrade.

An additional benefit of the automation was that because customers' cars were being washed quicker it became easier to sell the site's express detailing options. The switch from hand washing to automatic washing has helped increase Grady's detail business significantly.

Consistent quality

Grady really took competition to a new level with his wash by doubling the size of his quick lube at the same time that he completed the site's move to mechanization.

"I wanted to provide more service and more value to customers," Grady said. Lake Car Wash is now able to offer additional maintenance services such as transmission flushes to its customers.

Not only is Grady processing cars much faster, but all vehicles are now washed with a consistency that pleases and impresses his customers.

Apparently, Grady's upgrades and competitive drive impressed his neighbors as well. In July, 2005 his wash won "The Outstanding Business of the Quarter" award from the city of Lake Elsinore, proving that some businesses that offer customers high-quality do get more in return.

Looks aren't everything, but they do matter - Spot-Not Car Wash

People are always told not to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to selecting a carwash many customers will go with the one that looks the best from a distance.

It doesn't make them shallow, it makes them discerning. It's obvious to any demanding consumer that if a carwash can't maintain its façade, the chance that it will succeed in maintaining their car is slim.

Fresh faced

Mark White, president of WhiteWash Incorporated, which is doing business with the Spot-Not Car Wash franchise, currently operates five Spot-Not carwashes in Missouri, with a sixth location planned for Kansas City, MO.

White recently invested $200,000 in his Independence, MO, wash which was built in 1987. He decided it was time to upgrade his facilities to give it a more modern-day look.

The Independence Spot-Not:

  • Was painted inside and out;
  • Received all new signage;
  • Received new wall-boards; and
  • Had new dryers installed in the automatic washes.

White said that he also just finished upgrading all his other facilities to the same level as the Independence location.

Clean competition

According to White, the carwash market and competition has been growing in Independence and his upgrades and renovations have helped him stay competitive in the emerging market.

"I don't know if I did it (upgraded facilities) so much to see an increase in business, I did it mainly to maintain the level of business that I already have," White said.

White's attention to appearance has helped keep his washes competitive and successful.

To stay competitive, White said that he's been concentrating on customer service and keeping the facilities clean, appealing and friendly.

White also installed noise reduction material and a fence to keep sound from the new dryers from disrupting neighbors. And, although the barrier serves a pivotal purpose, White noted that he stained it and fashioned it to fit in with the surrounding area.

A trend that pays for itself - Express Wash & Lube Depot

Over the past year, we've seen a number of carwash owners add pet washing bays to underperforming sections of a location, particularly in the self-service carwash sector of the business.

The Express Wash & Lube Depot out of Clair, MI, is a perfect example of a business that had, early on, heard the buzz about pet washing and ultimately decided to add it to their chain's offerings.

Rosie and Paul Dixon, owners of the car-care chain, added a self-serve pet wash this year in order to cater to the family clientele and generate a little extra income in the process.

The system itself

Recently the couple's Clair location was fitted with a pet wash system that allows dog owners to choose between regular shampoo, oatmeal treatment, conditioner, flea and tick shampoo, and even de-skunking solutions.

The tub is large enough to accommodate large and small canine breeds and has a triggered wand with a showerhead that provides heated water for the various wash and rinse options, Paul Dixon noted.

"I heard of a couple people in the industry were doing it, but as a result the carwash has done better so far," said Paul Dixon.

The first location of the chain that was picked for the pet wash experiment features two automatics, and three bays for self-serve washing.

While most systems go for around $4,000 per wash basin, it's not a huge money maker, but rather an incentive for new customers who may become regular carwash patrons.

The couple has been in the business for 30 years now, and co-owner Paul Dixon also is part-owner of equipment maker Hydro-Spray, a Columbus, OH-based equipment supplier to the region.

While business seems to be running smoothly for the wash and lube chain, pet washing will continue to be tested at the Clair facility and the canine cash makers may sprout up at more of the company's seven locations.

Expansion through invention - Village Car Wash

Len Knappmiller, owner of Village Car Wash in Rutland, VT, has been in the carwashing business for 12 years now, but recently improved his operation.

Knappmiller, who owns three carwashes and has a fourth in the works, invented what he calls the Tidy Car, a trash receptacle that is placed next to vacuum islands.

Generating extra income

Unlike normal trash receptacles, the Tidy Car requires a fee to use it.

"While receptacles are intended for vehicle trash, I was finding that people where using them for all kinds of trash, including bags of household garbage," Knappmiller said. "This resulted in less than an ideal appearance and high trash disposal costs."

The invention of the Tidy Car has cut down on trash costs, kept animals out of the receptacles and has his carwash looking better than ever.

The concept behind the payment accepting trash receptacle is that the cost of garbage disposal is offset by charging customers a small fee to get rid of their vehicle trash if they use the Tidy Car.

Depending on what you charge and location, a unit can pay for itself in about a year, according to Knappmiller.

"Customers have been using the receptacles at my sites from day one," Knappmiller said. "I expect to recover my initial investment shortly and then the revenue generated will be profit."

Patent process

For Knappmiller, the patent process was not difficult for his invention, but it took some time.

From the day he made his first prototype until he actually received the patent was between two and three years.

He also consulted with a patent attorney. The attorney documented the invention and helped him obtain a utility patent, which protects the function of the invention, as well as covering other aspects of the product.

This is more complicated than just a design patent, but it offers broader protection for a longer period of time.

Inventions of your own

While Knappmiller has helped his business, he offered some tips for other carwash owners who wish to patent a product:

  • If you have a good idea, do your research and make sure the product is not already on the market;
  • Don't disclose information to anyone without having them sign a confidentiality agreement;
  • Enlist the services of a good patent attorney.

Changing times, changing needs

For most people, change is difficult to deal with, and is often associated with risk.

However, with the competitive carwash market of today owners can't be afraid to adapt their offerings, their site and even their attitude to the needs of consumers.

Successful businesses of today either sink or swim, no one is wading around. The aforementioned carwash owners saw that there was room for improvement at their facilities and took action.

As the industry continues to expand and diverge wash owners will need to take stock of their surroundings, their competition, their customers, and their resources to determine if their business will stand the test of time, or they'll need to make some changes today to succeed tomorrow.