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Writing for full-service carwashing

February 17, 2006
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Writing for full-service carwashing
Mark Curtis

In the words of Mark Twain, "The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated." In the debate between express and full-service, I believe Twain's words ring true for the full-service segment of the carwash industry.

Challenges ahead? Certainly. Potential pitfalls? Probably.

No more full service? I highly doubt it.

Alive & kickin'

With the advent of the extremely popular express washes, there are many who feel that full-service sites will go the way of the dinosaur (or at the very least, full-service gas stations).

Perhaps they are reacting to the high volumes many of these facilities are producing; calculating that their gain must connote a loss for the full-service industry.

While this may be true in some instances, I do not think it tolls the death knell for the expanded service platform.

This is not to contest the success of many of the exterior operations. I think they've done an admirable job of bringing former driveway washers to professional carwashes, as have the quality in-bays before them.

And there is no doubt that the express wash alleviates some of the significant challenges full-serve operators confront with labor.

In most instances, the express wash enables faster processing, allowing operators of those facilities to take advantage of high-demand days that occur on a seasonal basis in many parts of the country.

But one major point is forgotten by many of these harbingers of full-service doom — it's not the service we as operators want to provide, it's the service that the customer wants to purchase. If the International Carwash Association's Survey of Customer Attitudes is any indicator, many customers, especially older and more affluent, still want full-service.

As long as this demand continues, I, for one, will be there to fulfill it.

More money, more labor

Labor is the biggest challenge — this has always been true for full service for as long as I have been in the business, and was probably the case well before my entry into the carwash industry 25 years ago.

Is it harder now? Yes.

Low-skilled and inexpensive labor is more difficult to come by in recent years. Without going into a long explanation of why this is, it is best to accept the fact and deal with it.

It undoubtedly takes constant attention and ongoing support in order to retain quality, trained employees. It will also take more money.

Does this imply shrinking margins? In some cases — Yes.

But, most customers understand the increased costs of doing business and most will accept a higher price for the service, provided that they perceive a similar or better value to the service they previously received.

This is an important point and it outlines one of the potential pitfalls for full-service operators. Customers at virtually every price point will make a value judgment — is the service I got worth the price I paid?

This only becomes more acute as the price of the service goes up. As long as the customer perceives value, he or she will continue to pay it.

Loyalty is defined as the lack of competition, until there is some. The moment that the value falls below the price paid, the customer will begin to search out alternatives.

This may mean an express wash or even the full-service across town.

It is therefore important that full-service operators maintain the level of service that justifies the extra money charged for the service provided. In that way, they can maintain their profit margins.

A wash for everyone

The decision pits this wash versus that wash, not necessarily full-service versus express. Indeed, there are many variations on the theme.

Even within the express model there are a number of different approaches to essentially the same concept. Some, like my friend, Benny Alford, are in pursuit of ultra-high volumes, charging a mere $3 for an exterior wash, (Benny, please raise your price!)

Others, like Kelly O'Reilly, have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum, charging $8 and towel drying.

I believe O'Reilly said it best, "There are a number of different ways to be successful in the carwash business. This is just my way of doing it."

And each service offering, each price point — from Detroit's $2 Wash to Bubbles $26 hand wash — has a demand.

Is one better than the other? I don't necessarily think so.

Much depends on the specific market the owner operates in, and what his/her goals and objectives are. The good news for the carwash industry is that a lot more people are washing their cars at professional carwashes.

This may be for two reasons:

  1. We're offering a wider selection to a diverse group of consumers; and
  2. The increased competition in the industry (real or perceived) is making us all better.
A matter of choice

There are a few examples, both inside and outside the carwash industry, of service offerings co-existing, even thriving, while appealing to opposite ends of the demographic.

The best example might be Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. There are certainly those who exclusively go and pay exorbitantly for their lattes at the former.

Whether it's the quality of the coffee, the types of drinks available, or the ambience they've created with their "third space," customers who patronize Starbucks deem the price worth the value received.

And there are certainly coffee drinkers who would no sooner pay $3 for a cup of Joe than shoot themselves. They love Dunkin Donuts coffee and have no problem with its linoleum décor versus the wood paneling and mood music of Starbucks.

And then there are people like me, who love coffee and who "switch-hit" between the two.

Sometimes, our decisions are based on convenience. Other times, we may "treat" ourselves to a higher-priced drink.

We like both. We use both.

I think the same is true of our industry. There is a wide spectrum of carwash customers and the growing spectrum of service offerings only brings more users to our doors.

Providing value for the money paid will be the critical factor in determining the winners and losers, not necessarily the alternative between express and full-service.

Mark Curtis is CEO of Splash, LLC, Greenwich, CT, and founder of WashUSA the annual charitable event that unites carwashes nationwide to benefit kids through the Make-A-Wish Foundation®. Mark can be contacted at mark@splashhandwash.com.