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Business Operations

Improving credit card use

October 11, 2010
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Reader Question: In the last few months, I’ve noticed that my credit card sales are usually higher than my cash sales – but I’m still struggling to get more customers to use credit cards. How can I improve credit card use at my wash to get bigger profits?

A lot of operators don’t give much credit to credit cards. Why bother? Money is money, right? Besides, there are all those charges and stuff for credit cards.

But beneath the surface there is a lot more to this issue. My personal motivation for becoming very interested in credit card sales came right after we opened our new express carwash.

Catalyst for change
One morning just as we were about to open, my manager approached the locked door of our business and motioned for me to open it. He was accompanied by another young man who I thought was a job applicant. This was not to be the case. As soon as I opened the door I saw that the man had a gun at my manager’s back. Needless to say, what happened next was a life changing experience.

The good news is that all of us there made it through this ordeal without being harmed. The monetary loss was minimal. We asked the police what we should do to prevent this from happening again. Should we have cameras? A better alarm system?

The officer’s reply was quick and to the point: do not take cash. After realizing his statement was near impossible, he said we should reduce our exposure to cash and handle cash as quickly and efficiently as possible, minimizing our risk. Needless to say, we have improved our security procedures greatly since that day.

Besides minimizing the effects of theft, credit cards have other benefits. For one, they allow you to process more cars in less time. But credit cards are not without their costs, and understanding these fees is another factor in making credit cards work at your wash.

An expensive wake-up call?
When I received my first credit card reconciliation statement, the fees were astonishing. My first thought was that something was wrong because the fees were so high.

I wanted to find where they made this big mistake, so I spent the next few hours pouring over an Excel spreadsheet, statement in-hand. I was determined not to let these credit processors get the best of me. Much to my surprise, after many calculations and a lot of phone calls, I realized the statement was correct.

After working on the spreadsheet, every penny was accounted for and I learned how to verify credit card daily receipts in seconds via the internet. I also learned this process could be done daily by my manager.

Reconciling credit card deposits to our bank account was simple and easy. I now realize that cash sorting, counting, verifying, and depositing management takes over an hour per day and is dangerous.

Now that I had this data organized, I decided to take it a step further and compare cash sales to credit card sales. After all, the credit card processor was charging me an average of thirty-three cents per car.

I was surprised to learn the average credit card sale was one dollar and six cents per car above the cash sale. This meant that credit card sales are a net seventy-three cents per car above the cash sales. All of a sudden, credit card fees didn’t seem so bad.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs

First and foremost, customers need to be informed as soon as possible that credit cards are accepted. This way, customers can choose a payment method prior to making a service selection.

We quickly ordered and applied credit card acceptance decals to our point-of-sale areas, placing them everywhere a customer may look. Credit card logo decals can be obtained by any of the credit card companies and processor companies. Some can even be ordered online for free.

We also decided to make our own credit card point-of-sale decals. Using a label maker that hooks up to a computer, we created graphical messages for our point of sale area. These graphics have a professional appearance and can be placed on our auto cashier units in areas where standard graphics do not fit.

Another easy method to create customized professional looking graphics is to use paper designed for creating bumper stickers. This water resistant and repositionable paper is available at office supply stores.

The labels can be designed on your computer and printed on the special paper. After printing, to improve the looks and increase the longevity, we spray our labels with clear paint. These labels usually last from 4-6 months in an outdoor environment.

Auto cashiers
Because customers are not great at reading signs, our decals helped but not significantly. We needed a method to inform every customer we accepted credit cards before they made their selection.

After doing some research, we decided to use automated cashiers with large fifteen-inch touchscreens. These machines display colorful graphics fantastically, but our initial greeting screen was drab, lifeless and inflexible as the display content.

We contacted the manufacturer and pleaded for a better intro screen that would inform and simplify the transaction. Because our request was not at the top of the manufacturer’s priorities, we created our own greeting screen and sent it to them.

The response from the manufacturer was terrific. They created a system where the end user can customize most of the graphic screens used in the sales process, not just the greeting screen. This screen allowed us to create customized graphics letting our customers know we accepted credit cards at first glance.

With this change, we saw our credit card sales increase approximately ten percent. This change has fattened our bottom line nicely. We have augmented this program by incorporating the credit card logos in all our advertising and promotions.

Credit cards: better than sliced bread
Credit card sales can be increased if you promote their use. There is no doubt credit card use is expanding. Banks and credit card providers are expanding rapidly into new, non-traditional markets.

A recent Wall Street Journal Article said Bank of America Corp. has quietly begun offering credit cards to customers without Social Security numbers — typically illegal immigrants.

In recent years, banks across the country have begun offering checking accounts and, in some cases, mortgages to the nation’s fast-growing ranks of undocumented immigrants. But these immigrants generally haven’t been able to get major credit cards, making it hard for them to develop a credit history and expand their purchasing power.

In a nutshell, accepting credit cards increases dollars per car, profits, volume, and improves transaction time — all resulting in happier customers.

Using credit cards allows you to be more secure, less vulnerable to thieves and robbers, less tempting to carwash personnel and have an easier time managing receipts. Management can focus on customers and spend less time on accounting functions.

Implement a few changes and see what happens. If you are happy with the results, try some more. I’m positive that with time, you will see how these changes will make a positive impact on your bottom line.


Ron Pickett has been in the carwash industry since 1975, beginning as a self-service carwash operator. This part-time enterprise quickly expanded when Ron and his wife, Judy, opened a carwash distributorship, operating from 1977 to 2000.

They ventured into full-service carwashing in 1994. In 2003 they opened their express exterior wash, CARisma WASH.

Pickett has served on the board of the National Car Council and was a participant in the merging of the ICA with NCC. Ron is a past president of the Southwest Car Wash Association and is an active member of the ICA.