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Get ahead of the competition

March 08, 2011
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Two months ago, Professional Carwashing & Detailing e-News ran a story about a couple of Arizona carwash operators who were hoping to stop the development of a new carwash business. Brian Moran, owner of Desert Auto Spa & Carwash, and Praveen Jain of Prestige Carwash, felt their market was already oversaturated and asked the Scottsdale City Council to consider the dangers of too much competition.

Unfortunately for Moran and Jain, the city’s criterion for zoning applications doesn’t include conditions for existing competition or market conditions. Instead, like many other municipalities across the U.S., the council focuses on impact to the surrounding neighborhood – such as additional traffic and noise.

Operators all over the country are facing similar hurdles as markets reach their saturation point and the economic recovery continues to stall. Preventing new developments isn’t a winning strategy, though, as Moran and Jain have discovered. Instead, savvy carwash operators are focusing on improving their businesses and getting ahead of the competition in other ways, from installing new equipment upgrades to improving the customer experience. Read on to see what our experts recommend for your carwash location.

Assessing the competition
If you want a bigger slice of the pie, you need to come to the table prepared, according to the carwash industry experts we spoke to for this article. “Assessing your competition is tricky and must be done responsibly and with respect,” acknowledged Mike Jacques, vice president of Eastern regional sales for MacNeil Wash Systems. “Successful operators are usually quite protective of their operations and continuously monitor their sites with trained staff that are also cautious of not just letting anyone in to see what is going on.”

Jacques suggested that a single trip to a site as a customer will tell you a lot about the operation. Some questions you will want to ask yourself when you are at the carwash location include:

  • Is the site clean and represented professionally by uniformed employees?
  • Is equipment in good repair, and most importantly are cars coming out clean and dry at the exit end?
  • Is he busy on a good day?
  • Is the operator taking advantage of all the marketing materials, signage, (Facebook, Twitter, RFID pass) etc.?

These are some things that will be indicative of a successful operation, Jacques explained.

Make a checklist
Steve Gaudreau is a carwash consultant with 20 years of experience and founder of Steve Gaudreau & Associates, LLC. In addition to his consulting experience, Gaudreau has authored two books for the carwash industry, the most recent of which is “Creating Exceptional Managers in the Car Wash Industry,” now available through Professional Carwashing & Detailing’s online bookstore at

Gaudreau agreed with Jacques, adding that operators should plan on visiting every type of carwash within a five-mile radius of their site. Why visit every site? Well, according to Robert Andre, president of CarWasCollege, a program and training facility for carwash operators created by Sonny’s Enterprises, Inc., even those carwashes which might not seem like your head-to-head competition have the opportunity to become a threat.

“For example, if you have a full service wash you might not consider an express exterior your competition,” Andre explained.

“They may have good volume, but don’t offer the same services. Let’s say the owner of the express finds that twice a year his customer goes to you for a wax. The express owner sees he is leaving money on the table from his existing customer base. Does he have the room to add the service on his lot?”

And that innocent question might make a competitor out of someone you thought was outside your niche.

Gaudreau suggested creating a spreadsheet or document where you can easily fill-in the blanks and evaluate the location.

Your form should include the following data:

  • Name of the competitor;
  • Type of wash;
  • Distance from site-to-site;
  • Prices;
  • Menu offerings;
  • Marketing information available on site;
  • Appearance;
  • Observed time of service;
  • Estimated volume;
  • Quality of wash provided; and
  • Opinion of the overall customer experience.

Marcus McLaughlin, a member of the marketing team at Belanger, Inc., suggested some additional criteria, such as traffic counts, speed limits, signage placement and restrictions, and an evaluation of the wash’s ‘curb appeal.’

Gaudreau said he believes that through the course of this exercise most operators will realize there are more sites offering carwash services than they previously thought. “And consumers are buying more carwashes in their market than they previously realized,” he added. “This is always a wake-up call.”

Make the improvement
After the initial analysis, your next step is to figure out what you can do as an operator to become more competitive, Gaudreau said. “The type of carwash that you operate obviously affects to some degree what you can and cannot do,” Gaudreau stated, adding that there are three major ways to stand out from the crowd:

• Look better. “Most carwashes look more like production facilities than upscale retail businesses,” Gaudreau said. “Move from the appearance of a rundown bar to more of a TGIF or Chili’s appearance. This will attract customers.”

• Clean the car better. “A large percentage of customers leave carwashes with some level of dissatisfaction regarding the cleaning of their vehicle,” Gaudreau explained. “It is fundamental, but overlooked.”

• Communicate better. On-site managers and employees all need more training on how to deal effectively with customers, according to Gaudreau, and off-site more usage of the Internet is required. “Websites needs to be better and communicate more basic information,” he said. “Social media need to be utilized to communicate to customers as well as potential customers about what is going on in the business.”

“The worst mistake for any business is to have poor customer service,” according to Jacques. “This is the one key area that could make customers come back – or not.”

Jacques suggested that carwash operators regularly evaluate their staff: “Greeters need to be friendly and show that they are there to help,” he explained, adding that the most successful operations will conduct exit surveys of their customers on a routine basis. These surveys can even be conducted in a no-hassle fashion on your website, similar to the way in which many big box stores ask for feedback on the receipt.

Use technology to your advantage
The best competitive advantage is one that produces both an immediate and sustained return on investment, according to McLaughlin. An operator who understands his local market can now put this competitive information into context and invest in equipment which can put him ahead of other carwashes and improve volumes and revenues at his site.

“For example, a market with many touchless in-bays may be a prime candidate for a new soft-touch automatic,” he explained. “Depending on local preferences, such a wash can be well-positioned to capture significant market share – becoming the automatic wash of choice for those that prefer the soft-touch style of washing.”

On the other hand, McLaughlin said a new touchless unit might be a good choice for reloading either an existing touchless or soft-touch in-bay. “Touchless automatics are widely accepted, because folks are accustomed to seeing them – there’s simply a huge installed base of touchless machines out there,” McLaughlin pointed out.

“Reloading a ‘tired’ soft-touch bay with a new touchless unit goes a long way toward ensuring that people notice the new wash – it’s immediately clear that the machine is new and different, and wash customers typically appreciate the owner’s investment in updated equipment.”

Reinventing your wash with a new machine that features all the bells and whistles doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking, either. There are now machines on the market under the $80,000 price point which can offer your wash an advantage over a competitor with a three or four-year-old IBA system.

McLaughlin said operators will want to consider how the new machine can improve the customer experience and allow for marketing advantages. For instance, an IBA with color changing LED lights on the wash arms will help drivers confidently position their vehicles for washing by flashing green to encourage customers to pull forward or red to indicate a stop. “This gets each car in position faster, and gets the wash started sooner – contributing to greater throughput before the wash even starts,” McLaughlin stated.

Add value to your tunnel
Conveyorized tunnels have even more options to reinvent their washes with selective upgrades, McLaughlin said, because they can pick and choose which areas to improve.

“Tunnels are highly modular,” he explained, “and a complete reload isn’t always needed to create a new wash experience for the customer. In fact, a plain-looking tunnel that’s in good working order can benefit tremendously from new arches designed for maximum visual appeal.”

Aside from new arches, operators might also consider improvements which add substantive value – like the addition of a new (or vastly improved) automatic tire shiner, McLaughlin said. “It’s proven through years of experience that tire shining is the single-most popular and potentially lucrative extra service the operator can offer – selling for around $3 per car, and being purchased by 30 percent or more of customers,” he explained.

He continued, “With the right automatic tire shiner, the operator can achieve true consistency of application – with zero added labor expense. To maximize the profitability of this service and earn the repeat business of customers, it’s vital that operators choose an automatic tire shiner that delivers rim-to-tread shine, with minimal chemical use and a design that keeps the dressing on the tire – and off the floor, walls and customers’ vehicles.”

The point is, customers are savvy – and although some users may consider a carwash a commodity, they’ll definitely notice the equipment cleaning their car, McLaughlin said. “Especially if that equipment is visually appealing and pleasant to use,” he continued. “Every customer will develop habits and preferences that favor the operator who makes these investments – with more frequent patronage than would otherwise be the case.”

Keep them coming back for more
Andre reminded operators to not lose sight of the areas in which they are excelling in their quest to improve other components of the wash. “I would recommend that you poll your current customer base before making any major changes, so as not to alienate them,” he explained.

Also, consider the timeframe or schedule of your improvements. “You have to decide if you’re going to make changes all at once or overtime,” Andre said. “Once you have decided, you need to map out every detail, then execute.”

Finally, remember to get your name out in the community, as this is one of the most important steps in getting ahead of the competition. “Recently, I helped an operator open up a new flex-service carwash. He had a great menu and marketing program, but one thing that he did that was outstanding was go out and make himself visible in the community,” Andre recalled. “We gave flyers to every car dealership in the area so they could offer one month of free carwashes with the purchase of a new car. He even got a national electronics retailer to staple a flyer to each customer receipt by developing a relationship with that store manager. All of this needs to happen in a clean facility and all while delivering a clean car and a great show to your customer.”

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