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Writing for express exterior-only washing

February 17, 2006
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Writing for express exterior-only washing
Bill Consolo

Traditional full-service, as it has been known for years, is slowly, yet inexorably going the way of the dinosaurs. The central problems with full-service are threefold; namely labor, labor and labor.

For most operators, good employees are hard to get, hard to train, hard to motivate and even harder to keep. Most cannot get minimum wage labor and as a result pay more for minimum-wage-quality labor.

Of those that can find minimum wage labor, most are in or near large cities with access to plenty of recent immigrants. Much is made of the need to keep the cost of labor as a percentage of sales at or near 35 percent.

In reality, many operators are finding themselves paying 45-50 percent or more, and at the same time they have been seeing annual wash volumes decline steadily year to year.

At some point, this vice of lower volumes and rising costs has to force the question, "Is it time for me to sell the wash or make a change over to exterior-only or flex-serve?"

To sell or to convert

My carwash facility was at the very same crossroads in 1997. We had twice previously tried to make the switch, in 1988 and again in 1992, with disastrous results and each time returned to full-service.

However, by 1997 there simply was no choice. This time the results were dramatic and immediate.

We dropped the price to $3 and $5, and our volume went from 36,000 to 101,000 the first year with labor going from 55 percent down to 14 percent — a winner to be sure.

Since then, we have steadily added services, reinvested heavily in our 45-year-old facility, raised our price to $9 for the "works" (the only wash we offer) and still kept our volume at 90-100,000 cars a year.

Could we also adopt a flex-serve format offering traditional full-serve and detailing services in another building away from the express exterior and pick up the interior cleaning needs for 20- or 25,000 cars a year?

Of course we could. The far bigger question is do we want to?

The answer for my partner and I is a resounding "NO."

My father always taught me "pigs get fat and hogs go to slaughter." For us, the slaughter equals giving up the tremendous freedom that we now have to spend time with our families or doing just about anything else we'd like to do, in trade for more profits.

The problem with full-serve

All of this is not to say newcomers to the industry should not consider full-service, but only that they should not consider traditional full-serve.

This is defined as a customer pulling up, getting out of the car and being sold services by a greeter/salesperson.

Then they walk up a hallway, pay a cashier and walk out and wait for their vehicle.

That format is extremely obsolete and very wasteful in that it minimizes, rather than maximizes, hourly wash volume most notably on one's busiest days.

The most readily apparent symptom of this is when an operator sees car-length gaps between vehicles which make it necessary to run a 90-car-an-hour line speed in order to wash 60 cars an hour.

The number one rule of carwashing is: no matter what type of carwash you operate, when you are at your busiest, you should be able to run vehicles "bumper to bumper" (i.e. no gaps between vehicles.)

This creates a situation whereby vehicles spend less time in the wash cycle, rinse arches and air dryer(s).

Depending on one's equipment package, this can lead to an increased dependency on labor for vehicle prepping and drying as equipment is asked to do more than it is capable of.

Looking at the numbers

For traditional full-service carwash operators who find their wash volume slipping and competition increasing, the old percentages of doing 90 percent full-service and 10 percent exterior need to change and change dramatically.

If one is to get control of labor as a percentage of sales and to regain lost volume, it is essential to move the exterior-only option printed in small letters at the bottom of the menu to the head of the board in the biggest font possible.

At the same time, the price difference from exterior-only to full-service needs to be increased to the point where one can get their full-service to exterior-only ratio down to 50/50 or 40/60.

The only way to regain wash volume is by offering a low-priced exterior wash that can effectively undercut the price charged by in-bay automatics and petroleum station washes.

Furthermore, it must be heavily promoted and prominently displayed. In this way, you force the customer to ask himself, "I got full-service last week. Do I really need it again?"

When the price difference is small, most will opt for full-service. Only when the difference is large (at least $5.00 or more) will that question even come to their mind.

Given the existence of greeters/service writers, once you get customers on the lot, you can spend time informing/cajoling them into buying more than the $6 exterior wash that drew them in.

However, you can't sell them if you can't get them on the lot. In addition, as a tunnel operator, you have the ability to provide a better wash and less wait than an in-bay automatic.

Labor intensive

There are several factors that one needs to consider before determining whether to go with a full-service or exterior-only format.

For me, the first and foremost issue is labor. Can you get it? Can it get to you (i.e. public transportation)?

Do you as an operator have the patience, the desire and the skills necessary to spend time training and hiring and dealing with the numerous headaches that inevitably come with the necessary labor?

I have six full-time employees that work in three-man teams on alternate days. Hardly a day goes by without some type of drama; request for advances, etc.

Now imagine a labor force of 15-20 and 30+ during the busy season.

Oh, and don't forget about the 200-300 W2s at the year's end. Some work for as little as a few hours. Others work days.

Hire 10 people today and if one is with you a month later, you've beaten the odds.

When new investors would ask me about the quality of labor, I used to joke about scraping the bottom of the labor barrel. Towards the end of our full-service days, I would have replied that we were now looking under the barrel.

Being a carwash employee is usually only a tough job on busy days. Probably 50 percent of the job is spent just waiting and working very little.

It's hardest because there is no guarantee of hours. Some weeks they may get 60 hours and the next week 30 hours and some are inevitably laid off in the slow season.

From full-serve to sanity

The success of a full-service wash is entirely dependent on quality interior cleaning. Cleaning the outside of vehicles is a picnic compared to cleaning interiors.

The Achilles heal of interior cleaning is, of course, windows.

Cleaning windows right requires a dedication and skill sorely lacking in most carwash employees and if you do those badly, then the rest of the wash is all but inconsequential.

Having been a full-service wash for many years, I've had my fill of labor. The decision to go with full-service, exterior-only or flex-serve needs to be asked in light of one central question.

How involved do you plan to be?

Full-service, and to a slightly lesser extent flex-serve, are management intensive. Sure the revenue per car and possibly even net profits are higher, yet so is the amount of time and energy required.

Express exterior is a breeze in comparison and can be as profitable or perhaps more so, allowing you the time to relax, spend time doing things you enjoy and save something you may consider to be more valuable than money — like maybe your sanity.

Bill Consolo is the owner of Chief's Auto Wash and Chief's Manufacturing & Equipment Co. in Cleveland. Consolo can be contacted at