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Business Operations

Carwash lessons from across the pond

October 11, 2010
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Football versus soccer. Bloke versus gentleman. Pubs versus bars. Crisps versus potato chips. Differences between Europe and North America are plentiful and the world of carwashing is no exception.

For example, here in the U.S., all different types of carwashes dot the roads, but in Europe, standalone carwashes are not common and conveyors are of the minority. So says Matthieu Delhaize, owner of the exterior-only, 50-foot carwash Calinauto, located in the city of Villeneuve d’Ascq in the north of France. “In the USA, you’ve got a lot of conveyors. Not in France,” he said, where his competition is mostly rollovers and self-serve carwashes.

An IBA experience to mimic full-serve
According to Steve Robinson, marketing director of Mark VII Equipment Inc., the differences between American and European carwashes have a lot to do with how customers interact with the carwash.

“For example, in the United States,” Robinson said, “the customer stays in the car while it is being washed by an in-bay automatic (IBA). Whereas in many parts of Europe, the customer is required to exit the vehicle and the bay during the wash, and the bay doors close before the wash can begin.”

In this manner, the in-bay automatic carwashes commonly found in Europe mimic the full-service or “do it for me” experience of conveyor carwash customers in the U.S. There are very few places throughout the U.S. where one can find a similar platform. Some California IBAs include prepping before the wash, and there are a few “express” IBAs that imitate the express exterior conveyor carwash, but most American IBAs use automatic cashiers and very little personnel.

Colin Russell is involved with carwashes in the United Kingdom. He is currently working on a PDQ LaserWash 4000 IBA carwash on the small English Channel island of Guernsey. The automatic wash will become part of a carwash and detailing center. Like American full-serve conveyors, Russell said the plan for this center is to offer a coffee lounge area where customers can wait and watch their car through all stages of the wash. His carwash already offers a free loaner car for customers who want to get a full detailing wax and polish.

There is one obvious difference between European and American carwashes. According to Robinson, in some parts of southern Europe it is common for a rollover carwash to be installed outside in the open air rather than in a wash bay. In America, customers prefer their carwashes to be housed in buildings, although glass and see-through structures are becoming more popular.

The gas station affect
Russell said there are only 55,000 cars on the island of Guernsey and only four washes in total — the other three are on gas filling stations. He said that 10 years ago in the U.K., there were 25,000 petrol filling stations, which is where most of the carwashes were found, and now there are under 10,000. He said the proliferation of mega c-stores is a factor in the dwindling number of gas stations.

Another difference, according to Robinson, is that customers in the U.S. usually have to go inside to a c-store to buy a single carwash pass or prepaid package — offering up more c-store sales opportunities — whereas in Europe, paying-at-the-pump is more common.

Robinson said gas station carwashing is also viewed a bit differently. “Retail petroleum site operators in the U.S. generally make the carwash a more convenient purchase for the consumer to make,” he said. “The hours the carwash is open in the U.S. tend to be longer due to less regulation by local authorities.”

Marketing strategies also reflect the differences in the market “… because the bulk of the retail petroleum sites in Europe are operated by major oil companies, they tend to invest more in standardizing the on-site marketing of their carwash programs,” Robinson explained. “The U.S. retail petroleum market is now dominated by regional chains of all sizes; there is less consistency in their on-site marketing programs.”

But Russell thinks the independent operators are making a comeback. New investors, he said, are now looking at the huge potential for carwashing in the U.K. as the major oil companies continue to un-invest and downgrade carwashing priorities.

“As the number of cars increase, so will the wash volumes and with environmental agencies applying pressures to conform to legal requirements carwashing in a professional manner will become imperative,” Russell explained. “The independent investor market is beginning to come alive again!”

Are European carwashes green?
Although it is not a legal requirement in all counties of the U.K., water recycling is becoming increasingly more prevalent as is rainwater harvesting, Russell said.

As for Delhaize’s France-based carwash, which has been open a year and also offers up 23 free vacuum stations, they have a recycling system and spend about 50 liters of fresh water per car, he said.

According to Robinson, that’s the major European trend that hasn't caught on in the U.S. — the use of recycled water. “While some areas of the U.S. have experienced drought and/or high water costs and have mandated the use of reclaim, much of Europe has been required to recycle for years due to the limited supply and high cost of water. As an example, the average cost of a cubic meter of water in Germany in 2008 was $3.01 vs. just $0.74 in the U.S.”

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