Carwashes are always looking for opportunities to expand, and constant advancements in wash technology allow for growth opportunities. Many businesses have adapted radio frequency identification, or RFID, over the past several years as a way to establish a consistent repeat customer base. These loyal patrons are often responsible for keeping traffic and profits steady. Automated scanning with RFID speeds customer stacking, provides quick service for members and guarantees fewer headaches for administering programs.

Multiple uses

According to Tony Force, software architect with XpresSystems Inc., unlimited programs are by far the most popular way to utilize RFID. “An unlimited program allows an operator to establish a steady revenue stream without the typical seasonal and weather-related peaks and valleys,” he explains.

Another use for RFID is fleet programs. Tim Gustafson, lead technical support for WashCard Systems, believes, “The most successful operations allow RFID to be leveraged into fleet and loyalty programs, which in turn can help boost profits across multiple income sources for the business.”

Force says fleet programs are often overlooked, but they work well. “RFID allows easy tracking of each vehicle in a fleet account without the need for individual codes,” he notes.

RFID can also be effective for customers who would rather not join a loyalty program, states Force. “Pay per use is also an easy way to establish customer loyalty for those customers [who] don’t want to commit to an unlimited program,” he shares. “[Customers] with an RFID tag on their windshield that is linked to their credit card are much more likely to use that carwash again and again.”

Use collected data

At a carwash “the RFID reader detects a numeric code stored in a tag via electromagnetic field,” says Lyn Palmer, Mid-Atlantic region sales manager for Unitec.

RFID collects lots of customer information, Palmer says. “Names, mailing address, email and phone numbers — anything that is needed to set up an account can — and should — be gathered by the operator in order to build their marketing database,” she states.

According to Force, “RFID excels in tracking usage for individual customers since you aren’t relying on the customer to do anything.”

This information can be controlled and used by the carwash operator in whatever way is best for the business.

“Frequency of visits, seasonality and peak times can be tracked easily,” Force continues. “Additionally, if an operator collects demographics for their customers, then they can apply [them] to the usage data. With usage data down to the individual customer, the sky is really the limit here. It is a matter of what the RFID software allows and what the operator wants to look at.”

Gaining traction

Ken Brott, vice president of sales and marketing with DRB Systems, says RFID has become an integral part of carwash marketing and customer service.

“It’s gotten to the point that RFID products are almost automatically included as part of the sale when we install a new computer system,” explains Brott. “There are a great many carwash operators today who wouldn’t think of opening a site today without RFID, any more than they would consider opening one without credit card clearing.”

Existing carwashes also retrofit RFID systems to their facilities. This helps them keep up with the competition.

“We’re seeing quite a few older full-service sites convert to flex serve operations with an exterior option,” reports Brott. “When they do, they typically add a self-pay station with RFID capabilities. Older sites that are exterior only are also adding RFID, because they want to offer things like unlimited monthly passes, [and] RFID is a big part of that equation.”

Convenience stores have also reaped the benefits from RFID systems. Force says these businesses have “seen [increases] in in-store and fuel revenue with an RFID carwash program. This can be directly attributed to customer loyalty and convenience.”

Loyalty programs can encourage customers to spend more money at the location rather than travel to a competitor to finish a shopping list. “Think of it this way, why would a customer make two stops when they can get fuel, a carwash and a gallon of milk all at one location?” queries Force. “Since the customer already has the RFID tag in the windshield for one convenience store, then they will keep going there for all their purchases.”

Easy to use

Carwashes have increasingly focused on an enhanced customer experience, and adding RFID has become a major part of this. They allow customers more convenience and ease of use when visiting carwash facilities.

“The reason RFID technology has been so eagerly embraced by carwash operators is because it allows them to offer three of the things customers value most: speed, convenience and simplicity,” states Brott.

“Most RFID systems don’t even require the customer to roll down their window,” Force notes. “The customer drives up to the wash entrance, the tag is recognized, preferred wash is activated and they drive right in. For some RFID systems the convenience doesn’t end at the wash though, it continues with online account management and email notifications for use and billing.”

According to Gustafson, “RFID systems can instill a sense of membership, as well as offering the ultimate convenience and cost savings. Using appropriate marketing you should be able to reach the [customers] by appealing to what’s most important to them.”

Concerns and solutions

RFID tags can offer more security than other card-based systems, believes Force.

“One often overlooked part of an RFID system is the security of the RFID tag,” Force explains. “When using an unlimited program, it is crucial to eliminate abuse with sharing of an account across multiple vehicles.”

Though relatively simple to manage, operators should take steps to ensure loyalty programs are not abused.

Palmer adds, “Do not ever hand a tag to a customer [because] it can be transferred from vehicle to vehicle. It is possible to remove a tag after installation, but in 99 percent of all instances, the fragile metal strip transmitting the electromagnetic signal is broken.”

Force says that some tags are easier to remove from the windshield than others. If owners choose a less expensive tag when beginning their programs, they could face higher costs in the long run.

“It is recommended to choose a system that utilizes a tag that is consistently destroyed when a customer attempts to remove it from the windshield,” continues Force. “Tags that are more tamper-resistant will usually be more expensive, but will lead to less abuse and lower overall wash counts per customer.”

Some operators may be concerned about customers abusing the program by washing too frequently and cutting into profits, but Brott says this worry is unfounded.

“As carwash operators are discovering, monthly pass customers tend not to abuse the system by over-visiting a site,” he notes. “All customers are interested in is maintaining a clean car, not in seeing how often they can visit a carwash. We have sold roughly three million [tags], almost all for use in monthly pass plans, so we have seen definite patterns emerge; the track record is that the overwhelming majority of unlimited pass customers do not visit their carwash excessively.”

Select, install, manage

RFID systems must be managed by an employee who can keep track of data.

“Features like online sign-up for customers, online account management for customers and built-in recurring billing will greatly reduce time involved,” shares Force. “Picking the right system will allow an operator to build a large customer database and a steady revenue stream without adding a lot of overhead to manage it.”

Once installed, RFID systems are relatively easy to manage, according to Palmer. Most of the work involved is done during setup.

“RFID is labor-intensive on the front end,” she says. “You must have someone present to capture the customer’s information and install the tag properly on a vehicle.”

Loyalty and fleet programs supported by RFID systems can help a carwash operate more consistently, but thoughtful planning is still necessary.

“Too many operators go into RFID thinking that it is a magic pill, and then fall short on expectations,” believes Gustafson. “RFID is a great tool to enhance profits, but the marketing and management options used by the program chosen, along with time and effort, need to be carefully considered.”

No matter the format, every wash depends on loyalty to be successful. With the right mix of planning and marketing, the use of an RFID program can help to establish a carwash as a dependable business.

“Once the habit of visiting your wash is created, customers will drive by half a dozen other washes to visit you,” concludes Palmer. “By locking them into wash clubs or using an electronic punch card, offering special pricing for multiple wash packages, working with your community by offering fundraisers, you create that top-of-mind notoriety that keeps your business growing.”