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When I think about the concept of free vacuums, I can't help but think back to the days when oil companies used to offer free carwashes with a fill up. Any way you look at it, you are giving away something for which the majority of customers are willing to pay. Why not at least put some value on using vacs and gain some profitability rather than using it as an expensive marketing tool to gain customers?
Free carwash, free vacs, free air
I see a direct parallel and think the ultimate outcome will be much the same. Oil companies used the free carwash as a marketing gimmick to get customers to fill up at their locations. As the push came for more profitability, carwashing came to be viewed more as a profit center rather than a marketing tool.
Today, many oil company sites rely on their washes to enhance profitability and would no more give away a carwash than give away gas. In fact, many once gave away air, but most now charge to fill up your tires, along with your tank.
Free vacs are used mostly in the express exterior platform for much the same reason as the free carwash was. EE operators need volume and other than discounting their already low wash price, they offer free vacs. While this may be one way to entice customers to try the wash, I see this as a very short-term approach to increase volumes. The EE concept relies on a high volume of washes to make money. It is difficult in our industry to make money without additional profit centers to enhance revenues. By offering free vacs in an EE, the operator is sacrificing one of the few available profit centers.
Are free vacs a threat to the industry?
In response to a perceived or a real threat, some full service or flex serve operators have decided to offer free vacs with their exterior packages. I believe in some cases this choice may also affect their bottom line by making the addition of free vacs a more attractive alternative to a full service wash than just an exterior wash in addition to sacrificing revenues rather than increasing volume. It also may cost them additional space on their lot as well as the addition expense for equipment.
In reality, the free vac offer along with an exterior wash is more of a threat to in-bay automatic locations than a full-service or flex-serve operation. The majority of customers that choose a full or flex-service wash are not interested in cleaning their own interiors. While they may choose an exterior-only wash on occasion, they may not be any more likely to make that selection in order to vacuum their own vehicle for free. If that is the case, why even offer it?
While it might attract a new customer or two, the potential of tying up additional space on your lot and perhaps increasing traffic at times and making full or flex service customers wait longer seems like a high price to pay to combat the free vac competition.
It seems to me improved on-site marketing and educating your customers on the value of your services is a better alternative for the full or flex service operator than free vacs. Offering a free vac or reduced wash price may be a valid marketing concept for a start-up exterior wash but in the long term, to remain a healthy operation, the operator must work to develop marketing ideas and promotions which do not sacrifice revenue.
The future of free vacs
I believe the free vac concept will go the same way as the free wash. Eventually operators will realize they can enhance their bottom lines by charging for use of vacuums while not sacrificing the volumes they need to be profitable.
Eventually someone will develop new or improved marketing concepts and programs to educate customers on the value of the wash. That is what will keep customers coming back, not giving away profit-center revenue.
A few bankruptcies and tight finances will probably expedite that process.
Ron Holub has been involved in the carwash industry for almost 30 years. He has been a chemical manufacturer and distributor, GM of a carwash chain, VP of Marketing and Sales for a major carwash chemical company, manager of the carwash division for an international chemical company and currently is the Tunnel Product Manager for CSI, traveling coast to coast working in the tunnel market. He can be reached at email@example.com.