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Full-serve revival

October 11, 2010
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In an era full of quick fixes and dollar stretching, selling a full-serve carwash to the average customer can be somewhat of a challenge. For starters, they tend to take a little longer. They also cost a bit more. But thanks to innovative technology and marketing proficiency, full-serves across the country are managing to stay alive and prosper.

We spoke to three successful full-serve carwash owners to find out how they’re managing to weather the storm. From making the customer see the value in the full-serve model to focusing on customer service, these operators have the solutions your full-serve business needs.

The value proposition
Clayton Clark is the chief operations officer of Bubbles Enterprises, a chain of washes in eastern Texas. Clark said in order for a full serve to survive and prosper, it has to consider each customer’s viewpoint.

“All customers,” he said, “are looking for good deals, with that being said, making the customers feel good about purchases is extremely important.”

Indeed, it’s important for customers know the wash they’re getting is worth every dollar. Purse strings have been drawn, knotted and double knotted, and the threshold for “being had” is low. Customers need to know that a more pricey full-serve wash will benefit them because it will fill-in-the-blank.

“We sometimes do not think about how hard it is for a customer to part with $15 out of their pocket just for a carwash,” admitted Clark. It’s more important now than ever to let them know that spending a little more will also pay off in the long run and in order to do that you have to get your message across to customers and get them on the property. According to Clark, marketing is key.

“We are marketing our facilities on social media to better try and educate customers on what’s new at our facilities and using giveaways and promotions to drive business. We are also very aggressive in detailing discounts and promotions during the summer months,” Clark shared. He also suggested that full-service washes look into extending rain check or clean-car guarantee programs for an extra day at no charge, to build up a nice rapport with customers.

Tom Hoffman, Jr., CEO, of the Hoffman Car Wash chain of full-serve washes throughout upstate New York, said they use direct mail, radio, TV, bill boards and emails to market their washes to their customers. They also offer up carwash coupons (books of tickets) which are a great way for their customers to save money too.

Full-serve headaches and cures
Along with running any type of business, there are a few headaches that come along with running a full serve. Hoffman said managing labor, vacuum and window quality, express detailing and managing production are the top concerns. It’s important to have a maintenance program in place that checks over every single aspect of the wash on a set schedule. One delay during the day will make a car go elsewhere.

Don’t forget to “maintain” your staff, too. Give employees plenty of breaks, opportunities to hydrate and rehydrate to make sure they’re not suffering, especially when it’s a warm day. After all, their smiling face is the face of your carwash.

They must also be trained on how to property greet customers, how to dress, and how to interact with other employees. An unkempt employee may make a customer wonder how they feel about cleanliness in general. Also, check weather reports daily to anticipate a busier day and then have the labor on hand to back up the demand.

Finally, take it a step further and offer incentive programs for every staff member. From cashiers and greeters who can up-sell your services, to preppers and finishers who can build rapport with the customer, ensure quality service and suggest additional purchases.

Consider innovative technologies
As for equipment, Tom Frietsche, tunnel product manager for Mark VII Equipment, Inc., said to look at equipment that integrates multiple functions onto individual platforms requiring shorter conveyors and less chemical usage. For instance, Mark VII has a high-pressure arch that eliminates the need for tunnel prep as the top and side booms extend and rotate to clean the front and back while fixed manifolds wash a vehicle’s sides. He also added that engineered placement of focused nozzles can provide a complete and efficient drying with no labor.

“Tunnel equipment is not becoming a commodity,” Frietsche noted. “Though they may be based on standardized designs, every tunnel is customized. Nothing will increase car counts better than a great quality wash at a reasonable price without a wait. With the correct design, a conveyorized tunnel wash will out perform all other types.”

Gary Pendleton, a Santa Monica, CA-based owner of four full-serve carwashes all with c-store/gift shops, and one self-serve carwash and two quick lubes, said it’s important to maximizing what you already have at your wash and to not lower prices just to bring in more customers. “Spend your time and money training your personnel on how to wash properly and efficiently instead,” he said.

Down, but not out
Pendleton said they are focusing on providing a quality service, efficiently. “Which,” he said, “is so important during these critical times.”

Pendleton admitted that full serves are facing an uphill battle. According to the full-serve operators he’s spoken with on the west coast, the consensus seems to be that business has dropped about 40 percent. In fact, many of his customers have been purchasing the less expensive exterior only wash packages in recent months.

But he is not without hope. As he pointed out, self-serve sales are down, too. Pendleton is also prepared to fight for his business. He’s started to consider unique marketing mediums to draw customers in, like text messaging and receipt advertising.

To make up for the loss in volume, Pendleton said he is focusing on membership incentive programs in which a membership is paid for an unlimited amount of washes. Hoffman said they’re doing this as well. Once a customer comes in and gets great service and gets used to visiting that wash, they will keep from going to another wash.

“For the last eight months, we’ve been really building up our membership program in which each member has to pay a $40 to $45 fee per month,” Pendleton explained. “We get about 2.2 visits per month per member, so that’s not too bad at all as we’re still averaging about $22 per car.”

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