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How to use RFID

This technology allows carwash owners to keep better track of customers and guarantee better services.

December 30, 2013
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In-bay automatic carwashes throughout the country are employing RFID technology in order to implement and strengthen customer loyalty programs. This technology allows carwash owners to keep better track of customers enrolled in these programs and ensure that they are consistently given the proper services outlined in those plans. RFID also shows that your wash employs state-of-the-art technology which makes customers more likely to consider you their go-to carwash.

What is RFID?

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. RFID is used in various industries ranging from traffic management, such as toll roads, to day-to-day business operations such as using company identification cars for building access. RFID chips can be as small as a grain of rice, which appeals to most customers as they are unobtrusive display in their vehicle. RFID also allows for wireless non-contact tracking of information – meaning a customer doesn’t even have to roll down their window in order to have their chip scanned. In the carwash industry these chips are usually placed inside a sticker which is displayed on the windshield of the car enrolled in the program.

A RFID reader located at the entrance of the carwash will read the RFID information stored in the chip when the customer comes to the carwash. Most contemporary carwash controllers are programmable with RFID technology – with many manufacturers offering the technology as a base option with their carwash systems.

The information you load in the chip will tell the RFID reader what program the customer is enrolled into and the system will perform the appropriate service.

Why RFID? 

While not universally employed it is estimated that nearly 20 to 30 percent of carwashes are actively using RFID technology.

RFID technology allows you to easily keep track of not only who-gets-what in your enrollment programs but also keeps track of how often those enrolled in the program come to your carwash. Having this information will help you better determine which plans are your most and least popular. This information will also help you in marketing your programs to your customers – as these programs are the best way to ensure repeat business.

You might choose to offer an unlimited program, which the customer would pay a monthly or yearly fee to enjoy unlimited washes at your location. You could offer unlimited washes of your various packages at different price points. You could also charge any add-ons to the account on file. The RFID would keep track of this information so you don’t have to. You could also offer a number of washes for a certain price – the RFID technology would keep track of the number of washes the customer used under that program and would ensure that customers would not be able to exceed any limits under the terms of the program.

RFID also allows for implementation of customer incentive programs. You could offer free washes after a customer reaches a certain benchmark – like a buy 10 get one free program. This, like the other programs, will keep people coming back. The RFID chip could keep track of those benchmarks so neither you, nor the customer, has to. This ends the hassle of punch cards or identification numbers that a customer has to remember every time they visit your wash.

RFID allows for customers to use these perks while the wash is unattended. Sure, it is always a good idea to have staff available in case there is a problem with the technology, but RFID allows customers to use the wash when it is unmanned if you decide you want your carwash to be open 24-hours. The RFID reader will work with your controllers in the same way it would work for a customer using any other payment method.

RFID is also a great way to for fleet accounts to maximize use of your services. RFID will allow you to associate multiple chips with one account. It helps make fleet accounts safer – no cards to transfer from vehicle to vehicle means less chance of losing them. In addition you could also offer family plans.

Preventing thefts

There are other ways you can utilize RFID at your in-bay automatic carwash.

You can get door locks that read RFID chipped cards. These locks are typically stronger than doors that use keys and because each RFID is unique you can keep track of who accesses a door and when. It also disables people from stealing or copying keys. Each employee would have their own identification card specifically linked to a unique ID.

RFID tags could also be affixed to items of potential value which are often the target of thieves. For example, steel grates are often stolen and sold for scrap. If the grates were tagged using GPS-enabled RFID it would be easy to track them down. Some grocery stores actually use RFID technology to keep track of their shopping carts, alerting store security when they leave the property zone. 

Ensuring repeat customers

There are more uses being discovered for this emerging technology every day. If utilized to its maximum potential RFID is a great way to ensure repeat business and prevent loss.

RFID technology has become ubiquitous in our daily lives from our cell phones to our thruway (or highway to our West Coast readers) EZ-Pass. College campuses are equipped with this technology and college ID’s are now loaded with the RFID technology. Some gas stations even use RFID as a payment method. There is even an RFID chip in your passport, so it’s no surprise that the carwash industry has started adopting this technology.

Brad Metcalf, regional sales manager of Innovative Control Systems estimates that 20 to 30 percent of carwashes are using the technology for, mainly, customer loyalty programs.

“RFID technology can be used in several ways. First and foremost to create loyalty programs at the carwash site by providing unlimited washing for a monthly fee,” Metcalf explained. “Another popular use is a limited format. [The] credit card is billed monthly for fleet accounts or special club promotions. These are very popular with police cars, taxi cab companies, municipalities… Not only does this create loyalty, but it is more secure than passing fleet cards from vehicle to vehicle.”

Southland Auto Wash has been using RFID technology since 2006, starting with four Southland carwashes. Southland Auto Wash President Mark Ellis says the technology is especially helpful with fleet vehicles. Ellis said one fleet of service vehicles has about 20 or 25 vans tagged for Southland’s systems. In this company’s case they pre-buy a certain number of washes and Southland is able to provide them with a report at the end of the month detailing the number of washes used so they can adjust accordingly for the next month.

“You don’t really need RFID for any of this stuff to work,” Ellis said. “What RFID does, though, is makes it possible to identify a vehicle without a person either verifying a license plate or something like that.”

Southland Auto Wash also uses the RFID for their Unlimited Wash plan and employee washes.  

Ellis explained that adopting the RFID technology made it more realistic for the carwash to better offer fleet service.

“Customers really like it,” he said. “Most customers are very happy to have an automated system.”

Ellis is also thinking ahead to other ways he can utilize the technology. He says Southland has thought about implementing time of day specials or day of the week specials. Southland is also looking at personalizing their system so tag holders can have a more customized wash experience.

“We try not to forget that fundamentally we’re a carwash,” Ellis said. “Our goal is to put out a great carwash and provide good service.” 

Unlike Southland Auto Wash some carwashes are just beginning to test RFID in their market.

Quick Quack Car Wash is currently testing a loyalty program using RFID at one of their locations. Travis Kimball, partner and chief marketing officer at Quick Quack Car Wash said they anticipate the technology will roll out in all of their locations in the near future.

“We will use it exclusively with those customers who purchase an unlimited membership with our top wash package,” Kimball said. “We will provide them with an express lane where they can bypass any line of cars waiting for cashiers or pay stations.”

Kimball said the idea behind implementing RFID technology was to provide an incentive for customers to enroll in the top wash package and enable faster processing of vehicles.

Keeping the people

Evan Porges, general manager and vice president of Prime Shine carwash explained that the controller platform used by the company does not support RFID technology and the layout at their locations only provides for one queue lane which makes it impossible to have an express lane without building one specifically for RFID use. However Porges raises a very interesting philosophical question: Does the use of RFID provide the same customer service experience as humans?

“We do have a very active ‘unlimited’ program with about 7,000 members and processing is done by scanning [the customer’s] barcode,” Porges said. “This does give us an opportunity to offer a human interaction as well as an opportunity to ask for a wash enhancement.

Most carwashes do not exclusively rely on either RFID technology or people – though they certainly exist.

Operators of PDQ Car Wash said, via Twitter, they “keep all locations staffed, because nothing beats RFID for convenience, but nothing beats humans for customer service.” They also said attendants are still an integral part of their business. The attendants help out if there are problems with the RFID technology or if a customer needs to replenish their account. The attendants are also still needed to assist non-RFID customers.

Maureen O’Connell, vice president of Jett Express Car Wash, said a concern of hers is the misuse of RFID tags. She says she knows a lot of customers with  tags who transfer their sticker from one car to another.

“What I’m waiting for is license plate recognition,” O’Connell said. “The technology is there, they just haven’t implemented it into [this industry]. I know that it will come.”

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