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Carwash secrets of the world

October 11, 2010
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When times are tough, it’s easy to imitate the ostrich or the snail. Retreating back into ourselves (or burying our heads in the sand) is an appealing alternative to confronting our fears and the future hardships we might face. But for business owners, a cowardly recoil back into your own company is usually not an option.

Instead, carwash operators coping with a recession must approach the world boldly, looking for solutions and ideas wherever they turn. It’s not enough to examine your own business very closely; you must also investigate other carwashes, their operations and policies, and the changing consumer base.

That’s why Professional Carwashing & Detailing has scoured the headlines and the globe for articles and reports of successful washes outside our boundaries. The languages and cultures might be different, but the fundamentals are still the same. As it turns out, washing a car in Dublin, Sydney or even South Africa is still washing a car.

Ireland
Earlier this year, an assembly delegate in Dublin, Ireland, made a push to close commercial carwashes in light of a water shortage in the area. It would seem the Emerald Isle was on the verge of not being so green.

The delegate, Mary Upton, said washing a car at a time when some citizens didn’t have enough water to make a cup of tea was incredulous, and her push succeeded. For three weeks in January carwashes in Kildare County were closed.

Which makes the opening of Green Point Car Wash, only an hour away from all the hubbub, all the more impressive. At a time when local government was waging war with professional washes (a bit unfairly, considering they use far less water than other industries like hotels and restaurants), Green Point was celebrating its grand reopening.

Within three months, The Kilkenny Advertiser was reporting that business was thriving after being reorganized by new management and redirecting its services to “economic conscious” car owners.

Ireland is itself still reeling from the global economic recession, and Green Point’s operators are especially cognizant of this fact. This hand wash and detail center offers a full detail package for €70 (about $85), which is a competitive price in their market area. Carwashes start at €5 (about $6) and include a wash and wax service for €8 (about $9.50).

But price isn’t the only way Green Point is staying relevant in today’s economy. The main facility has been remodeled to attract new customers and the business has taken care to appeal to customers of all types.

Formerly a pale yellow two-story building with remnants of its service station past (like an old fuel pump hanging out in front), today the building stands in neat order. It has been repainted a stately green and has new windows and doors. (You can see photos on the business’s website, www.greenpointvaleting.webs.com.)

Management has also taken great care to make sure its customers are comfortable while they wait for their vehicles. Free coffee and tea is offered in a cozy waiting area. And let’s not forget convenience — Green Point offers a simple loyalty program. Buy four washes and get your fifth free by using their card system.

The lesson here is simple: To stay in the green on the Emerald Isle (or anywhere else for that matter) you need to offer a good service for a fair price, and stay neat and clean to attract the best customers.

Australia
Water shortages may have plagued Ireland for a brief three-week period in January, but that’s nothing compared to Australia, where severe drought has been troubling the entire continent for over seven years.

Carwashes here are wielding a double-edged sword: Government restrictions prevent residents from washing at home and direct them to carwash businesses instead (hello long lines!), but water is still at a premium and operators know they could very well be next on the chopping block.

That’s why the best research on water usage and treatment in the carwash industry is being conducted in Australia. In mid-2008 the Australian Car Wash Association (www.acwa.net.au) received a $244,000 grant from the State Government’s Smart Water Fund and said it would use the funds to research the efficiency of present and possible future water-saving technologies.

At the time, ACWA Manager Peter Maine said the group would focus on using recycled water for commercial carwashes, which would be the first of its kind. The Association commissioned environmental consultants Ecowise to conduct tests, which are still being analyzed.

A short while later, the organization created The Car Wash Water Saver Rating Scheme to help operators prove their conservative use and treatment of water. In fact, the International Carwash Association’s own WaterSavers program, a marketing directive, is very reminiscent of the ACWA’s. The main difference is that the ACWA’s program has two levels of membership (indicated by the number of “stars” the business earns) and has received accreditation from the country’s Smart Approved WaterMark, which is part of a national initiative and is equivalent to a product rating on washing machines, etc., in the country.

As this issue was going to press, the Association was preparing to launch a national community education and public relations campaign related to the Rating Scheme. And in April, the ACWA partnered with Australia’s Department of Environmental and Resource Management’s new ClimateSmart Business Associations Program to create a sustainability program to show members how to save water and other resources.

When the collaboration was announced, Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones visited Hoppy’s Handwash Café in Norman Park, Australia, which is itself an eco-friendly carwash that uses a closed-loop system to recycle and reclaim water, as well as capture rainwater for use in the wash.

In a statement released by Jones’ office after the event, she expressed her wish that professional carwashes work hard to prevent contamination of stormwater systems.

“Every year, up to 900 million liters, or 360 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of contaminated wastewater flows into Brisbane’s stormwater systems from home carwashing,” Jones explained, adding that professional carwashes represent a safe alternative.

Malaysia
It’s a heartwarming lesson from an often overlooked corner of Asia: Treat your employees with respect, and they’ll give it back ten-fold. At least that’s what Ian Mcintyre, a reporter for The Star, a Malaysian newspaper, discovered when he visited YY Snow Wash and Polishing in Kota Baru.

Chua Siong Thye, owner of the business, didn’t set out to be a great herald of workers with disabilities, but that’s what he became after hiring Mohad Rozaini Othman, a deaf mute who practically begged for a position at the carwash.

Thye admitted he was skeptical at first, but caved in to Othman’s pleas. Those same pleas continued, however, once he had worked at the business a few days and thought Thye might be able to hire some of his other disabled friends.

And that’s how YY Snow Wash and Polishing came to have at least 14 deaf and mute workers. Customers here watch for hand signals and the workers rely on reading lips or jotting down notes for communication. According to Thye and Othman, the arrangement works out well for the carwash and for its patrons, who are more than happy to see the familiar faces and hands.

For carwash operators in the United States, particularly those who rely on immigrant workers, it is a poignant example of how carwashing can go beyond the limitations of language or culture. With a universal hand gesture for “Put it in neutral, and head straight for the tunnel.”

South Africa
The eThekwini municipality in Cato Manor, South Africa, isn’t exactly known for luxury and excess. In fact, carwash investor Sanjay Sewmungal took a large risk opening a carwash here at all — nevermind one with its own restaurant, a lobby with wireless Internet and plasma TVs and an ATM.

Indeed, Sewmungal originally intended to use the land as warehouse and office space, according to comments he made in a 2008 interview for The Business Report. But his instincts about opening a carwash proved right. At the time of the story, the business was washing about 700 cars a week and turning over about $125,000 in annual revenues.

Splish Splash and its owner are both unique, it would seem. A while ago, Sewmungal changed the way he paid his 15 full-time workers. Instead of a set fee, they earn 30 percent of the weekly turnover. This arrangement actually improved their take home pay and employee morale, Sewmungal said.

Most South African carwashes have concrete benches outside in the heat, with perhaps an umbrella for shade. Making Splish Splash a luxurious destination for customers who want to sit and enjoy a newspaper while they wait for their car to be cleaned.

“People used to say I was mad by pouring money into Cato Manor, because it does not have a good reputation,” Sewmungal told the newspaper for its story. “But I am a positive person who is passionate about people and this is my home.”

It’s an outlook that is paying off well for Sewmungal, who is even thinking about franchising the business and expanding throughout South Africa.

Canada
Our trip around the world wouldn’t be completed without a quick stop to see our neighbors in the north. Here in the land of moose, Mounties and hockey we have an important lesson in hand washing. For years, many carwash operators have felt this traditional style of carwashing was on its way out of favor with customers and instead turned to express and flex-serve formats. But in Calgary, at least one company has found a way to make it a profitable venture.

What’s their secret? Well, for Clearwash employees it’s pretty simple: Pay attention to the details. The Calgary Herald reported the business has been doing just that for over three years now, and has no signs of slowing.

With two locations in the city, Clearwash has proven that hand carwashing is very much still in demand. In fact, its operators have plans for further expansion throughout the country. The plan is to offer the same hand carwash service with eco-friendly cleaning products that has made them successful thus far. Packages include everything from a complete interior/exterior detail to simple rug shampoo and leather/vinyl care packages.

Another way to attract today’s consumer? Offer convenience. Clearwash doesn’t require appointments and each site features a luxurious lounge with coffee, TV, wireless Internet and monitors which show how the detail service is progressing.

Similar to Green Point in Ireland, Clearwash offers a loyalty program that gives its patrons a chance to earn free carwashes. They also make it easy to wrap up their service by selling gift cards for holiday, birthday, and “just because” occasions.

Home again, home again, jiggity jig
Now that your seat backs and trays are in the upright position, we can prepare for a safe landing back in the States. Just be sure you don’t forget your belongings — including these lessons — as you depart.

Keep it simple. A neat and clean appearance, a lá Green Point in Ireland, can attract more business than any new marketing program or piece of equipment.

Prepare now for drought. Join the ICA’s WaterSavers program or start meeting with your local utility officials to make sure your wash is in the clear if drought or a water shortage occurs. Follow Australia’s lead and take advantage of the “opportunity” presented by drought.

Take care of your employees. Whether you’re hiring disabled persons, non-English speakers, ex-convicts or just regular high school kids, the lesson we take from Chua Siong Thye in Malaysia is that if you treat your workers with respect, they’ll pay it back to your business.

Go big. Take a look at your demographics, your competition, and then consider your gut feelings. If you’re ready to go big, do it with all your heart. It pays to be the biggest and best, as was shown in South Africa.

Do what you do well. It doesn’t matter if its hand carwashing or self-serve, whatever you do, do it well to thrive. While some operators might discount the viability of a hand wash business, our friends to the north know that you get back what you put in.

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