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RFID: Faster and stronger

How today's scanning systems provide quick convenience for customers, enhanced security for owners.

August 27, 2012
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It is the best of times and the worst of times. Customers are so excited about the quality wash and service a location offers that they are literally lined up. Every entrance lane is stacked with dingy vehicles of all colors and sizes. Truly, being knee-deep in dirty cars is a great experience for a carwash operator.

Then, he or she notices the first drive-by. The driver slows, the blinker flashes, but, when the long lines come into view, the car instead speeds up and heads down the street to a competitor. As the car flashes by, the wash owner frowns and thinks, “If only there was a way to speed up the payment process.”

Speed it up!

RFID systems are one option when it comes to increasing the processing pace of a carwash. The scanners and accompanying bar codes are convenient for carwashes and carwash customers because they keep customers from having to stop and interact with on-site equipment, according to Richard Carpenter, director of product development with Unitec. A customer with a RFID tag simply drives up to the entrance, is scanned and is admitted.

George Pawlik, national sales with XpresSystems Inc., said most washes today use RFID technology for unlimited wash loyalty programs. These programs have proven popular because many customers do not want to stop and look at all the menu choices on every visit. After setting their preferred wash level and paying in advance, the selection “pressure” has been relieved so getting a carwash is always a pleasant — and speedy ­—­ experience.

One benefit that conveyor sites often see using RFID is that the system helps draw more customers to the site. If a wash is using the unlimited or subscription model, the subscription customers help the wash appear busy and attract more business, Carpenter noted. Though the wash is bustling, the automated system keeps lines short and throughput high.

Who wants them?

Today, RFID can be used in both the tunnel and in-bay automatic markets. RFID technology has several marketing applications besides unlimited wash programs, and the tags can be used for programs that are not tunnel specific. In fact, Carpenter has even seen interest from the petroleum market.

Pawlik agreed. “RFID systems can be used with tunnels and automatics,” he said. “We believe there are many opportunities to increase carwash sales and sales in c-stores.”

In-bay owners must be careful because unlimited programs that benefit a conveyor may end up being a hindrance for automatics. Though in-bays want to stay busy, they generally do not offer the accelerated throughput of a conveyor wash. “It could be problematic for an in-bay if the site’s always busy … customers paying full price would tend to go elsewhere,” Carpenter stated.

Loyalty rewards, fleet accounts

One way RFID tags can be used is carwash loyalty rewards. Carpenter described it as an “electronic punch card” where a customer who, for example, buys four washes then gets one free. Carwash club members can also receive different discounts or certain special offers, such as a free wash on their birthdays. Here RFID is particularly handy because these are the types of programs that an owner will want tied to a specific vehicle.

Instead of magnetic cards and carwash codes, a RFID tag should be securely affixed to one vehicle, and it can monitor when that vehicle is washed. This prevents four washes in the same day by all the cars in the customer’s neighborhood to earn a free wash, Carpenter said. For loyalty programs that are points based, loyalty club members can also be given certain perks that are tied to only one vehicle or the vehicles within a single family.

Finally, RFID can help a carwash land and quickly process fleet washing business. Local law enforcement agencies or other companies could negotiate a fleet account agreement with a carwash operator and then receive a bill each month for usage at a discounted rate, Carpenter stated.

Security before

Before the widespread use of RFID systems, it was more difficult to monitor unlimited and group wash plans. Carpenter said one technology owners utilized was video footage. Though it was far from foolproof, washes would use video systems and make customers aware that all transactions were being recorded. “The mindset is, if you’re being watched, you may be less inclined to abuse the system,” he said.

Another option was setting frequency limits. Here, an account could be set up so that it would apply only once a day or three times a week. Limits would be put on the account that would prevent a customer from quickly earning points or getting a free wash pass on the same day. The problem with this plan was it still did not prevent account credentials from being passed to friends and neighbors to build up usage, according to Carpenter.

Security after

Now, RFID barcodes and scanners control and prevent the abuse of wash programs, Carpenter stated. Where previous systems used magnetic cards or numeric codes that opened up programs to abuse with drivers using a personal vehicle, RFID technology ties the wash only to a single customer or a fleet of vehicles with barcodes.

The RFID windshield tags are the main way to make an unlimited or fleet program secure. Ideally, these tags should not be easily removed from a car, Carpenter noted. In fact, most operators require that their personnel adhere the tag to a vehicle. The tags are not something a wash should mail to customers and expect them to apply to a vehicle. That is the main objective of RFID, control, so that program identification should be secured to a specific vehicle and not to a person’s wallet.

Total recall

The information that the system saves when a barcode is scanned actually depends on the vendor and the equipment or product a carwash selects, Carpenter said. If you look at the application, there are two components — the media and the program. The media, the RFID tag with a number encoded on it, does nothing more than identify the customer. All that does is allow the system to recognize the customer or the vehicle.

The second part of the application is the marketing program which will be vendor specific. So once the tag identifies the customer, there are certain rules that can be applied and certain data that can be collected. “When the customer enrolls in the program, if you capture his contact information, his email address, things like that, whenever the account is used, it’s foreseeable you could send off an email saying, ‘Thanks for your patronage,’” Carpenter said.

This email notice could also provide another layer of security for a wash program. For instance, if a fleet customer receives an email and realizes that they did not use the wash that day, then it becomes apparent someone has used the account without permission.

For operators, the ability to scan and save information means different reports can be generated that show usage by customers. If it is an unlimited program, a report could show the customers that are using the wash the most and run calculations based on the monthly fee and the amount of usage. Information can also be used to calculate the average ticket and figure out how much revenue an owner is actually realizing per wash, Carpenter stated.

“So you can look at a number of different things, but it’s all dependent on which vendor you use and what level of data is recorded when the account is set up and also when the account is used,” Carpenter said.

POS interaction

When purchasing a RFID system, owners should note that interaction between RFID and point-of-sale (POS) systems is vendor specific. While there are some third-party systems on the market that are made up of only a RFID system, there are others that are completely integrated with a vendor’s POS system, Carpenter explained.

Typically, if the vendor that provided a POS system is also providing the RFID component, it will be completely integrated. But if a RFID component is purchased separately, it often will not fully integrate with the POS system. “It’s like running two POS systems on the site, one for RF customers and one for the other cash, credit, other types of magnetic stripe programs,” Carpenter said.

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