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When free pays off

October 11, 2010
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If you're an express exterior operator, you'd better take note: Free vacs are becoming the norm. According to Jessica Price, director of marketing and procurement for Drive Clean, LLC, which represents the Boomerang® carwashes, offering free vacuums is becoming commonplace and relevant to the market. “Free vacuums have become part of the value proposition in the express exterior model for many brands,” Price explained. “It gives customers an immediate incentive to pull on your lot over going to other competitors.”

Tom Tucker Jr., president and founder of Vacutech, a manufacturer of vacuum technologies to the carwash industry, also pointed out that today’s customers have more choices than ever for carwash services at a low price point. Tucker said consumers want a great experience to bring them back, and free vacuums are a part of that branding process.

Take a free ride
Free vacuums saved the day for Scott Bowen of Moore Clean Cars Fast!!!, based in Moore, OK. Bowen said after converting his 8/2 self-serve/IBA into a 4/2/1 with a 135' exterior tunnel, vacuums generated the least revenue, so going free was worth a try. “I figured that if it didn’t work, I could just go back to charging,” he reasoned. “But it is working for us. We’re always packed with customers." And that activity more times than not, generates revenue.

Bowen said customers apprieciate value and are impressed with free services, and a loyalty is built from there. Despite being in competition with 53 self-serve bays within a 3-mile radius and other carwashes in the extended market area, Bowen said really only one other exterior business is offering free vacuums — and in such a tight self-serve market this has been a excellent way for him to stand out from the crowd and keep his bays wet with revenues per bay in excess of double the recently ICA reported national per bay averages.

Bowen distinguishes his carwash by focusing on “the experience”… providing lollipops to all the kids, treats for the pets and offering free prepping stations and courtesy towels to all exterior cutomers. “It’s sort of like teaching a man how to fish instead of giving them a fish,” he explained. “We help them out and they appreciate it. We felt the pressure of the economy and we know that it’s important how a customer perceives the value brought by your business. If the ‘perceived value’ is there, then the customer will feel free to spend their discretionary income with you. Bowen said they offer a variety of vending products as well as shampoo and fragrance service options which in collective revenues currently exceed our previous vacuum revenues.

Price echoed Bowen’s statement, adding that even if people do not purchase a wash from you the first time, they might become a loyal vacuum user and give your carwash a try out of convenience. Plus, it gives the customer an incentive to try your wash at least once.

Free can mean long lines
One common complaint about free vacuums is that they can create some long lines. And long lines can lead to perturbed customers. According to Price, the purpose of the express exterior model is to get people in and out quickly. “When you have individuals hogging vacuum spaces it can slow and/or stop the flow of traffic at your facility,” she stated.

There are ways to combat this situation. For instance, place signs that ask customers to be mindful of their time. David A. Grasch, co-owner of Rodajo, Inc. dba 3 Bucks Express Car Wash of Gun Barrel City and Livingston, TX, said they put up signage that requests customers to be considerate of others and limit vacuuming time during busy times.

Grasch admitted that a frustration can be that people will use the free vacuums and then drive off. Another disadvantage is that trash can accumulate in the parking lot and in and around the vacuums. Sometimes large items are placed on the pavement or otherwise outside of the trash can. It’s important to have multiple trash receptacles in place. Price suggested having a team member who takes ownership of the cleanliness of the parking lot and stays on top of trash. If the vacuuming station is dirty, people won’t be thinking “clean” and will want to drive away. Grasch said they have an employee constantly walk through the vacuum area to ensure they are working properly and that trash cans never get more than half full.

Another solution is to use a token to offer the free vacuum service. This token can be given at the time of purchase and will offer the customer a set amount of vacuuming time. It also prevents non-customers from using the vacuum services.

Get the word out
It is absolutely imperative that you market your free vacuum service to the fullest, according to Price, who suggested operators mention it on all signage, flyers, commercials, and other marketing efforts. “It is a great service for customers so get the message out however you can,” she explained.

Signs worked well for Bowen’s wash. He placed a big 65’ neon pole sign on the property, and even a 4’ x 14’ LED reader board that redundantly proclaims to drive- by traffic: FREE VACS!!! Employees also mention free vacs to self-serve customers during normal tunnel operating hours and even reimburse customers with a dollar token good for a vend anywhere on site, if they have unknowingly vended one of their multi-service vacuum machines to vacuum their vehicle.

However, according to Tucker, once a customer experiences an exterior express carwash with a powerful central vacuum cleaning system they will become a regular customer and become the best advertising an express exterior carwash can have.

Too good to be true
Operators should be aware that free services turn customers into skeptics. Even though they are free, your vacuums will have to function at a high-level or customers will feel the deal is too good to be true. Price said the units need to be clean, clean, clean, and suggested employees provide regular maintenance.

“All vacuums work off a suction feature. The better the seal throughout the unit, the better the suction,” Price explained. In addition to a good seal, keeping the bins and bags inside the vacuum clean will not only give your customers the best vacuum, it will prolong the life of your equipment. Price advised operators to add it to your preventative maintenance plan to have a regular reminder.

It’s also important to make sure your hoses are long enough and the system comes on easily, according to Price, who said mat holders are also very helpful.

When the customer removes the vacuum nozzle off the nozzle holder and experiences the sound and feels the power, they know they are in for a special treat, according to Tucker. “And when they put the nozzle on the carpet of their vehicle and watch the debris disappear with one pull of the vacuum nozzle they are hooked. The customer wants power [air flow and suction] so they can clean efficiently and in a timely manner; after all we spend more time inside our vehicles than we do outside,” he added. Tucker also emphasizes that it is not the suction that moves the debris through the vacuum hose it is the air flow. “Nothing," he said, “will move through the vacuum hose or piping system with out air flow.”

The customer, Tucker said, wants to vacuum the floors, under the seats, between the seats, the ash tray, the nooks and crevices and the trunk. “Some exterior express washes are offering both a vacuum claw and crevice tool so the customer can get into those tight places,” Tucker explained. “When we have a clean vehicle we feel good and will return to the same carwash as long as we have a great experience and the quality remains the same.”

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