Free carwash vacuums are something for nothing

Free carwash vacuums are something for nothing

Customers are enjoying the freebie, but are operators and shareholders?

These days in America, everyone is feeling the crunch of higher costs. As many operators, especially the operators offering express exterior carwashing, stand on their lots trying to expand profits in an economy that is constricted, overhead hangs a 4-foot reminder that they are giving something away for nothing. The sign reads, “Free vacuums.”

Of course, nothing is “free,” considering the operator must purchase and install the vacuums, power the equipment, and maintain the equipment’s maintenance schedule with expensive labor and replacement parts. So, what are they getting out of these expenses while the customer enjoys a “free” ride? 

The cost of doing business

The strategy is to sell memberships and loyalty programs and free vacs have become a fixture of doing business in express exterior conveyor carwashing as a way to lure customers in. Just like any popular trend, once a few operators had success with the scheme decades ago, many others followed. 

According to Wes Taggart, vice president of sales for Sonny’s CarWash Vacuums by AutoVac, the reason free vacuums are a fixture in the express exterior space is quite obvious. “Everybody’s doing it,” he proclaims. “Free vacuums are no longer a debate on whether to do so or not … free vacuum is the norm across America for the express carwash model. Just about two decades ago, the advent of the express carwash gave its customers the opportunity to vacuum their own vehicles with free vacs, and then it was the customers excited about free vacuums that taught the industry it was now a necessity and expected feature of the express carwash marketplace.”

And, the data supports the claim. According to the Professional Carwashing Industry Report: Second edition, which was released in 2019, 66% of express exterior conveyor operators offered self-serve vacuums. In our report’s fourth edition, released in 2021, that number jumped to 77%. And, as investors continue to flood the market and double-down on their carwash investments, more new builds will be erected and more renovations will commence; both options will build on the popularity of the express conveyor model — and with it, free vacs. As a result, we expect the number of operators offering self-serve vacuums, widely at no charge to the customer, to continue climbing. 

Industry insiders support that conclusion, signaling free vacuums are not just a short-term trend.

“I think it is here to stay,” confirms Kraig Snyder, national sales manager at J.E. Adams Industries.

Sucked in

If your wash’s free vacuums are not helping to increase traffic on your site as well as elevate membership sales, you might want to speak with either a consultant, distributor or manufacturer for some advice and suggestions. We drew on Taggart and Snyder’s experiences in the field when speaking with their operator customers and the reaction of offering free vacuums continues to be widely positive. 

“Our understanding is operators are offering the free vacs to draw more business to their washes,” states Snyder. “Many times we see washes that do not have the free vacs gated off in any way and allow customers, that aren’t even paying for a wash, to vacuum for free. We also hear from distributors that carwashes are increasing business when they offer vacuums for free.” 

The power of free vacuums also passes the eye test. A busy lot often breeds more activity and more activity can lead to loyalty and membership.

“The best case study available is standing right in front of you … literally,” points out Taggart. “Witnessing the number of customers in any local area by comparing a carwash offering free vacuums with a nearby carwash lacking free vacuums is clear. On any given day, there will be a line waiting to enter the free vac site and employees just standing around at the site without free vacuums.”

The offering of free vacuums is so immense that Taggart calls it “probably the greatest draw into the site.” That draw of free vacuums can also be augmented by LEDs, attractive and practical canopies, mat holders, towel bins, trash receptacles, windshield cleaners, vending, and more. Vacs and their components, including hoses and nozzles, can even be coordinated with the wash’s colors to create universal branding.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is highly applicable in this professional carwash market segment, according to Taggart. 

“If the carwash across the street has free vacuums, so must you (and vice versa). If free vacuums weren’t probably the greatest attraction of the carwash, it wouldn’t command over 50% of the footprint and garner excitable customer participation,” he concludes.

While free vac offering operators feeling the crunch today might not have a line item to quantify their vacuums’ profits and losses, market insiders suggest focusing on the only line that matters — the one leading into the tunnel. 

Listen to an audio reading of this article on Wash Talk: The Carwash Podcast!

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