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Expand your horizons

October 11, 2010
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Don’t stand still. That was the message at every booth, every educational event, and in every speech given at Car Care World Expo 2009. As one attendee explained, “We’re no longer competing against the carwash around the corner. Now it’s a fight against every cash register up and down the street to get those discretionary dollars.”

This is a lesson Philip Toppino has taken to heart in his three short years of carwashing. You can’t compete if your carwash is stuck in the 90s – or worse, the 80s. Today’s customers want speed, convenience and variety, and if your carwash doesn’t offer those amenities, you’re dead in the water. Consumers also want a clean, well-lit facility that features the latest technology.

The idea of pouring money into an expansion or remodeling project is somewhat scary to say the least and not every operator can afford to follow Toppino’s lead — especially in this economic climate, when many operators are finding the doors of banks and lenders are closed. But updating and reinvigorating your carwash doesn’t have to be an expensive ordeal. As we follow Toppino’s project, our carwash experts will also suggest some low-cost but high-impact changes you can implement at your carwash today.

Balancing the labor quotient
Toppino first realized he needed to make changes at his full-serve carwash during a weekly managers meeting when he asked his staff to consider ways to lower labor expenses without sacrificing quality or customer service. Sitting at a roundtable discussion, Toppino laid it all out on the line.

“When we get rushes and have a lean crew on the clock, it’s very hard to compensate,” Toppino explained. For instance, on bad weather days, most operators send their staff home, but then you discover “the weatherman didn’t eat his Wheaties this morning and he’s wrong. The sun comes out and you get a rush of cars at once.”

Then your manager is reaching for the phone list, frantically calling for help, Toppino continued. “You end up whipping what staff you have on the clock, and customers are still waiting.”

So Toppino asked his management team for ideas and has decided to add an express exterior element to Elite Car Wash, complete with free vacuums. “Once we are finished with our renovations, we should be able to handle any rush.”

Meeting new customer demands
Adding an express exterior lane and vacuum stations might seem like a simple project, but at Elite Car Wash nothing is done that’s not big and over the top. The nearly three-year-old multi-profit center made splashes when it first opened in Clermont, FL, in July 2006.

The site offers everything from a 62-inch-wide HDTV with stadium seats to an in-house café. In addition to those amenities, Toppino carefully selected neighbors for the carwash which extend his offerings to include an express lube, a massage parlor and a tire store.

In addition to the express lane, Toppino has been working with Robert Creasy of Uni-Structures, Inc., to create new menu signs that should help educate and up-sell to customers. “It’s about staying ahead of the curve,” Toppino stated, adding that he believed new signage will play an important role in introducing the carwash’s upgrades to its existing and new customers.

Although Toppino only has three years of carwashing under his belt, he has paid close attention to new consumer trends in and outside of the carwash industry, and has asked his top-notch management team to do the same. He also relies on customer feedback to guide his operations.

“Right now, I hear that express exteriors aren’t feeling the hit of this economy as much because their labor is low,” Toppino said. He also pointed to low-cost, high-volume producers Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. “People are cutting back and want the best deal. Now I can give it to them,” he continued. “All the customers we spoke with love the idea.”

Saving energy, saving water, saving money
It’s not just labor-intensive full-serve carwashes that need to adapt and renovate to keep their businesses afloat this year, all operators should be re-evaluating their business plans and making improvements at their carwashes, according to Eric Wulf, executive director of the International Carwash Association (ICA).

“We focused our education [at Car Care World Expo 2009] on adapting and staying competitive in this new economic climate,” Wulf said. One easy way to reinvigorate your business is to start marketing yourself as eco-friendly and the ICA is even offering a program to help members reach out and educate consumers.

WaterSavers™ is a recognition program which helps carwash operators to promote their businesses for a small fee ($49 per location). ICA members can visit to register a carwash location and purchase WaterSavers marketing materials.

In addition to reviewing new ways to market your carwash, conveyor operators should also focus on cost-saving measures such as closely evaluating your wash process and investing in new VFD technology to reduce energy and water usage.

Scott Horner, carwash operations supervisor for Terrible Herbst, said he was able to thoroughly investigate his operations with the help of chemical provider Ecolab which created its Operational Cost Management program to help customers identify cost savings though water and energy conservation. Horner attributed the program with helping Terrible Herbst’s 24 conveyor locations reduce expenses and become Las Vegas’s “first and only” green carwash.

“Our water costs were skyrocketing and this really helped us control expenses and keep our costs from getting out of control,” Horner said. Being competitive in this economy means saving money where you can and improving your product, too. Horner stated the cost savings by adjusting nozzles and water use were matched with the marketing benefits of being a green carwash. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said.

Being self-aware at the self-serve
For self-serve operators, the need to keep the carwash fresh and relevant is even more important. Although the ICA’s most recent Study of Consumer Car Washing Attitudes and Habits showed an “uptick” in frequency of in-bay automatic carwashing, the news was not so pleasant for the self-serve carwash segment. In a special roundtable discussion at CCWE 2009, operators discussed market research which showed self-serve washing as the least satisfying experience compared to other types of carwashes.

ICA President Lisa Lyons recently invested in a total rehab at her locations, including a complete facelift and adding new features such as credit card acceptance. Her business is up about 25 percent despite the poor economy, a positive trend she attributed to the renovations.

“I did it right this time,” Lyons explained. “I’ve done it wrong before.” Her efforts included new columns and new vaults and she also offers a fleet card program.

David DuGoff, owner of College Park Car Wash in College Park, MD, said another option for self-serve operators looking to update is dryers in the self-serve bays. “I’ve heard the dryers can be as popular as the foam brush,” DuGoff said, pointing out that costs associated with operating the dryer are minimal. “You’re selling air,” he said.

DuGoff suggested operators interview their customers and tweak renovations to suit their market. “There is no right or wrong,” DuGoff said. “The only wrong answer is to do nothing.”

Speeding things up
For self-serve operators who are ready to finally make the leap into automatic carwashing, Istobal offers a new way to convert a self-serve bay but without heavy construction. Istobal’s Convert-A-Bay allows the operator to extend the bay with a structure that simply bolts into existing concrete or asphalt. The installation process takes days versus weeks and is a lower-cost point, too.

Speeding up the construction process is just one way in-bay operators are meeting the demand for convenience. New IBA machines are washing cars faster than ever before and addressing energy and water costs in the process. In addition to faster equipment, new POS technology is offering operators improved service in credit card acceptance and loyalty/fleet programs.

IBA operators are also reconsidering their menus to match the express exterior offerings in their markets. Through new packages, IBAs can emphasize the value in their services and focus on up-selling through signage.

“We’re seeing consumers who are telling us that the in-bay service is the right value and the right convenience,” explained Wulf, who said operators can capitalize on the popularity of the IBA by keeping their sites clean, fresh and well-lit.

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