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Credit card readers and added services can work hand-in-hand to drive revenue in updated self-serve bays.

September 28, 2012
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It can be tough, telling people goodbye. After years of seeing their faces and taking their presence for granted, it can be quite a shock when they suddenly disappear. In this instance, the mysterious missing persons are the pocketfuls of presidents. Yes, the various coins that used to litter purses, pockets and sidewalks. Plenty of people talk about the U.S. moving to a cashless society, but no one seems to be too worried about the coins.

Maybe it is because many adults remember rolling their eyes as an older family member recalled (always with a far off stare) what 25 cents would buy “when I was a kid.” Could someone really see a movie and get soda and popcorn for a nickel? It all seemed so preposterous. Yet, there is not as much eye rolling now that a Coke and a candy bar costs almost $3.

In the carwash market, many self-serve locations are also joining in on the coinless craze. This seems especially surprising considering that these businesses were known as coin-op washes in the not-too-distant past. Even so, change machines and coin slots are nowhere to be found at some renovated washes. Instead, cashless customers choose credit and debit for payment using electronic card readers.

Overhaul objective

When it comes to a self-serve renovation, adding functionality for the customer should be the goal, and the “obvious objective” should be to increase revenue, according to Tim Sater, director of marketing and regional sales, D&S Car Wash Equipment Company. Older washes with eight-position rotary dials and approximately six functions are being held back by their offerings and equipment. By adding more functionality to bays and sprucing up self-serve washes, operators are giving customers a better selection, more value and more of a reason to return to the self-serve bays.

These upgrades and new services also provide additional value when credit card readers are added. Drew Dressler, east regional sales director with D&S Car Wash Equipment Company, said his company advises owners to add more services to their bays to warrant credit card spending. The new services will provide customers with added value for the time that they spend in the bay and after swiping a credit card.

Credit cards

Credit card readers have definitely proven to be priority number one for carwash owners rehabbing self-serve locations. Sater stated that card acceptance is “far and away” the most requested product that owners want to add during a renovation. “We’re seeing … a variety of things, but first and foremost is credit card,” he said.

As credit and debit cards have become widely used over the past five years, there has been a tremendous increase in operators installing credit card acceptors in the bays. The reward for many of these forward-thinking operators has been a quicker payback. Sater noted that he feels the payback for card readers is shorter than for other major investments. While situations will vary by region and carwash, generally customers spend more time and money in the updated bays, and this can make a return-on-investment much shorter.

When a customer swipes his or her credit card, it starts a timer on the bay’s meter box. With some credit card systems, the meter will count up to a pre-determined amount of time, or even past that time, Dressler said. Some systems count down. There’s a minimum charge, and the customer has to go back and push the stop button when he or she is finished. The system will also have a pre-programmed maximum amount of time, and this can be selected and set in the system by the distributor or carwash owner. The bottom line is most people will spend more time in the bay by using credit cards.

Other additions

Once a credit card reader is installed, there are a number of new self-serve selections that will draw more customers to a wash and also motivate users to spend more once they are on-site. Some of the newest self-serve options are:

  • Handheld dryers;
  • Tri-gloss;
  • Tire scrub;
  • Tire shine; and
  • Bug off.

Sater revealed that the popularity of adding card readers is followed closely by the installation of handheld dryers. The in-bay, handheld dryers have proven very popular with customers, and many owners have installed these self-serve systems.

Tri-gloss treatment may call for additional equipment, depending on a wash’s configuration, according to Sater. If new equipment is needed, a carwash could add a low-pressure, wall-mount pumping unit for the tri-gloss with a trigger gun attached for application.

Self-serve tire scrub equipment is another product that has become more popular over the past couple of years. Sater said it basically consists of a specially installed brush meant only for use on a vehicle’s tires and wheels.

Finally, there is another automatic carwash service that now appears to be popping up in self-serve bays. Some washes have added bug off treatment, a service that traditionally has been in the domain of the in-bay automatics. Though it is not as prevalent as other options Sater has seen, it has finally become a self-serve possibility. Today, the product can be applied through a wand, similar to the tri-gloss treatment.

Dynamic duo

Once the new equipment is installed and marketed, owners should begin to see an upsurge in business. “There is a direct correlation between added functionality and increased revenue,” Sater said. “There’s no doubt about that.” And the acceptance of credit cards plays a big role in this success.

In fact, credit cards and new services can work together to push a self-serve bay to match the transaction revenue of an in-bay automatic. Dressler gave an example of an in-bay automatic with a transaction average of $8 to $9. In a properly equipped self-serve, customers may swipe their credit cards then use all of the different services. After pre-soak, wash and rinse, they move on to tri-gloss treatment, drying and wheel scrubbing. In the end, it is possible to spend as much as $8 or $9 in the self-serve bay, when, before, they would have spent only $3 or $4.


Once the upgrades are installed and the bays are open for business, an owner should work to protect his major investment. In the self-serve business, this means inspecting and maintaining the pump stand in the equipment room. Sater said the pump stand should be the focus of an owner’s attention and energy. “The pump stand is where most of the dollars are at,” he said. Owners should keep the leaks here to a minimum and make sure the oil is changed on a regular basis.

In the bays, most of the equipment is sturdy and self-sustaining. For proper operation, owners should make sure all hoses and wands are in good shape. Also, as signs and decals wear out and fade, they should be replaced, Sater recommended.

Dressler stated that an owner’s biggest concern should be keeping the bays clean, tidy and looking new. In addition, owners should make sure customers are getting a good product from each function. Operators should test the pumps and pressure to make sure that, when a customer comes in, the wash provides good pressure and the right amount of soap and product from brushes and wands.

This will guarantee customers a good experience at a wash every time they use it. “If the tire clean isn’t working right, you may have a problem,” Dressler said. “You’re going to lose them. You have to run it like a business.”

While the upkeep tasks sound simple, some self-serve owners do not follow the steps, and this leads to site neglect. Sater noted that customers today have more carwash choices than ever. “It goes back to providing value to the customer and living up to an inherent promise. When they pull up and put their money in the bay, their hard-earned money, they expect a good product and a good experience. And if they don’t, they’ll go right down the street to the next wash.”

Self-serve future

Today, self-serve carwash owners can recall their own old-timey paradigm. Back in the early days, customers did bring in $1 bills and use coins in the carwash bays. As the U.S. has morphed into a cashless society, carwash owners should have snapped out of this reverie and taken advantage of newer trends. In the end, it’s all about customer convenience.

Sater emphasized again that it is important to install credit card readers in self-serve bays because it is, ultimately, catering to what customers want. “Make it easier for your customers to do business with you. Nobody carries cash on them anymore,” he said. “They don’t have to have the cash on them.” Though the installation is convenient for the customer, it can also be beneficial for the owners because customers end up spending more using credit and debit cards for payment.

“We’ve seen this time and time again … a carwash is 10 or 15 years old with declining revenues for whatever reason,” Sater said. “Ultimately, when they rehab a wash like that and put in credit card, the revenues start an immediate climb. And we’ve seen an immediate bump and a continued bump in revenue for long periods of time after they install these upgrades.”

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