Putting high-profit products within the reach of paying customers is one of the oldest tricks in the book. While general stores piled up penny candies, the grocers of today have selected slick magazines and cold sodas. And, for many decades now, carwash owners and operators have gotten into the act.
Impulse areas in carwashes have "been around forever," according to Becky Kube, owner of Q.B. Enterprises Inc. Before c-stores were even invented, early tunnels and self-serve locations had lobbies where customers paid for washes and products were frequently pushed. "I think it was a model that was adapted by the gas stations that developed the c-stores and put automatics on them," Kube said.
For many carwashes, impulse areas are set up as additional profit centers that showcase car cleaning products and other miscellaneous items. From a small counter display to a room packed with offerings, the only real restriction on impulse sales — and the profits they generate — is the amount of sales space inside a wash.
What are impulse items? In the grand scheme of carwashes, almost any affordable item a customer may be interested in can be considered an impulse offering. It is not the item itself, but the way the product is presented, that makes it an impulse item.
"Impulse, being it's right in front of you, you buy it at the last second," Kube said. "You weren't really planning on doing it."
In the lobby of a full-serve or express carwash, there may be racks and racks packed with items available from different companies, or there may be a single display placed on a counter. Regardless of the setup, both are attempts at achieving a single goal. The owner hopes that the waiting customers will look at, and end up purchasing, additional items.
As strange as it sounds, some impulse sales can be the result of thrifty customers. Even though the customer's car is being washed, sometimes including interior services such as vacuuming and detailing, he or she may end up spending more. Whether it's a fragrance for a car's interior or products to add shine to dashboards and tires, customers will still spend on these additional items, Kube said.
"They don't want to pay the carwash for that," Kube explained. "They don't want to pay the $10 or $5 or whatever it is to have them do that treatment. They'll buy [a product] in the lobby and think, 'Well, shoot, I can do this myself.'"
Profit from fragrances
There are many different types of car fragrances available, and they are the number one impulse item sold by carwashes today, Kube said. Car fragrances can be bought in spray pump bottles, or they can be purchased as cardboard hang-ups that feature different shapes, colors and designs.
The customer that purchases a 2-ounce spray pump bottle is mainly interested in the scent. He or she can spray it under a car's seats or in problem areas where an odor may need masking. But, in the end, this impulse fragrance product is purchased only because the customer wants the fragrance.
A customer that buys a cardboard hang-up may do so because he or she likes the image or shape of the air freshener. "For example, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the person that would buy that would be buying it not as much for the piña colada fragrance, but for the fact that it is the Virgin of Guadalupe," Kube noted.
Other popular hang-ups might have the logo of a sports team, a football program or a basketball program. It may even be the shape of a basketball or a football. Here, the shape attracts the customers to the impulse product. "They have an affiliation with … the symbol that's being displayed on it," Kube said. "So that's a huge, huge part of impulse sales."
Carwash owners and operators should have no problem finding a supplier for air fresheners. Due to the impressive sales of fragrance items, there are a number of carwash suppliers that provide them to operators. "Almost everybody that has a chemical company is making a fragrance of some sort because they're so popular," Kube stated.
Gains from greeting cards
Every Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas and birthday, greeting cards are bought, exchanged and displayed, and greeting cards are no stranger to carwash lobbies either. According to John J. Fenwick, co-owner of Stockwell Greetings, cards have been successfully featured in carwash lobbies and cashier areas since the 1980s.
In the instance of carwashes, greeting cards proved to be a great impulse offering based on their popularity in other retail environments such as drug stores, big-box retailers and dollar stores. All of these businesses sell greeting cards because they have proven to be a "necessity" item for customers. "People won't always be able to afford to buy a gift, but they have to buy the greeting card," Fenwick explained.
The profit margins have made greeting cards popular impulse items with carwash operators as well. While some wholesalers offer cards for just 18 cents each, the pre-printed retail prices on the cards range from $2.50 to $2.75, Fenwick said. Thus, carwash owners can greatly discount greeting cards hoping impulse customers recognize the value and repeatedly return to that carwash to purchase the cards as well as additional washes.
"I have seen carwashes promote their businesses by selling greeting cards at a discount as a way of thanking their customers for using their carwash, also three carwashes gets three free greeting cards … programs like this have been successful," Fenwick stated.
Many impulse item companies will provide a product rack or box display of some sort that either stands independently or will fit on a counter. An item's shipping container can also act as a display shelf. Here, an owner will not even have to set the display up; the product is shipped ready to sell. Either way, displays are not something an operator will have to purchase extra.
For instance, often a box of mixed fragrances will come with a free cardboard stand included. Kube stated that the same thing would be true for a variety of impulse items. "These are easy to assemble. They come kind of broken down in the cardboard box. And many times the exterior box … makes the stand that the product's going to sit on."
To begin selling impulse items, a carwash owner can go to any of the major distributors. "Any carwash distributor that sells equipment is also going to sell that kind of product line," Kube said, "the impulse … products that would be in the stores as well." These products are generally shipped to carwashes by small parcel delivery services like FedEx and UPS.
For carwash owners that choose to sell greeting cards, different designs can be picked out online, and the cards will generally be shipped by UPS as well. Fenwick warned that carwash owners should never sign greeting card contracts. A contract will limit their options by allowing a business to purchase cards only from a single supplier.
When it comes to display units, most greeting card companies provide them for a cost. Fenwick said prices start at approximately $60 for a 12-pocket counter top spinner and increase to approximately $144 for a 30-pocket floor display. Depending on the carwash, card shelves are available at up to 40 feet long, but a 30-pocket to 96-pocket display should work for most businesses.
Single displays are nice, but what if a carwash has an entire store to stock? Kube said there are companies that provide the products needed for an entire c-store. "There are companies that actually go in and provide all the products. The actual store owner doesn't pick product A and product B and product C."
Having attended NACS shows (The Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing), Kube has seen many different companies of this ilk display their offerings. These firms will have a contract with a carwash or chain. Under the agreement, the firm provides different products for the store, and if there are not a certain number of turns, or sales, the product would rotate out of the regular cycle.
Also, c-stores that feature automatic carwashes have used impulse type products as giveaways to promote their most expensive wash packages. Kube noted that products were ordered and given as gifts to customers that purchased a high-end carwash. In this instance, the customer received a free fragrance and glass cleaner if he or she purchased the all-inclusive wash.
Even though c-stores and some carwashes are adding new impulse products and trying new sales ideas, this is still just an extension of the additional profit idea that's been around for many, many years. "[The products are] right there to get you to buy it. It's one last impulse to grab another buck before … you get out of the store," Kube stated. "So impulse buying has long been a business plan or an additional profit center that … owner/operators try to take advantage of."