Oftentimes, we think of expansion as the marker of success because it is a physical representation of growth. But success is a relative term and sometimes, as the saying goes, “less is more.” Contrary to popular belief, there are certain times when downsizing is the smart business move, and having fewer locations can be just as successful, as long as you put in the effort to make them that way.
College Park Car Wash has been in business for 20 years, which is enough time to have experienced the perks of a good economy and the setbacks of a bad one. But, through all that time, it remained a single operation, striving to be the best it could by changing to meet demand and staying a part of the local community.
Topping off success
David DuGoff, president of College Park Car Wash Inc., is no stranger to the carwash industry. His family owned gas stations when he was growing up and in the mid-1960s, his father began putting self-serve carwashes in the old service bays at four locations; they had 10 self-serve bays total.
“A quarter bought you five minutes of soap, rinse and wax. And, people would line up on a sunny weekend day. Sometimes we might do $100 [for the day], and we thought that [was] terrific,” DuGoff reminisces.
In 1995, the company sold the gasoline side of the business, but DuGoff retained the College Park site in order to build an eight-bay facility — what is now College Park Car Wash, which opened in 1997.
“After running 10 gas stations for 20 years, I wanted to try running just one location at as high a level as I could,” he says.
Change in the plan
Despite years of only working with self-serve carwashes, DuGoff decided to try something different and open one in-bay automatic (IBA) alongside seven self-serve bays. It turned out to be a great business move at the time and because the IBA was so successful, the company decided to convert an adjacent bay in 2000 and yet another in 2006.
According to DuGoff, the carwash serviced over 57,000 vehicles in 2007 in the three IBAs alone. However, as every long-standing business has experienced, for all the busy and profitable seasons, there are equally slow periods.
In 2008, the Great Recession began, and so ended the golden days of the IBAs for College Park. “The IBA side of the business was very volatile,” DuGoff recalls, “with wide swings in volume subject to weather and the economy.”
But while the IBA side was suffering, compared to its recent success, the self-serve side maintained a fairly steady flow of customers. As a result, DuGoff notes, there were always lines for the self-serve bays, but rarely were there any for the IBAs.
For DuGoff, it was clearly time to reassess the situation and, consequently, the company replaced two of the IBA bays with a newer model that was more efficient and shortened wash time by about 30 percent, meaning they could wash the same number of cars in two bays that they had been washing in three at peak times.
Then in 2014, College Park took what DuGoff calls “a very unusual step.” Not only did they replace all the self-serve equipment — the meter box doors, the pump stands, the hoses and the boom configurations — but they converted one of their IBAs back into a self-serve bay. In addition, they added two new services: wheel brush and low pressure carnauba wax.
“The wheel brush has been a total success and accounts for about five percent of bay revenue. That’s about $28,000 a year for us,” DuGoff says. “The carnauba wax is less used, but very much appreciated by our regular customers.”
Gauging customer response
While reverting an IBA into a self-serve may seem at first glance like a step backwards from progress, what it does illustrate is how College Park responds to changing customer trends and taking advantage of the latest technology. Taking note of customer buying habits is essential for any business, whether the aim is to keep the company afloat or to meet a certain goal.
College Park has taken some other interesting steps in response to customer habits. For instance, according to DuGoff, in the 1990s, customers felt that a carwash was worth about $2. However, the company wanted to shift customer perception and bring it up to $5. So, what did they do?
“We found that using $1 value tokens and giving a bonus for larger bills, along with a high level of service, had the desired result,” DuGoff explains. Customers with five $1 bills would come in asking to trade for a $5 bill in order to get the bonus token. Nowadays, DuGoff says, customers expect to pay about $10 for a carwash, so when they come in with a $20 bill, they ask for two $10 bills.
Another response to customer habits involved setting up a live-streaming webcam on the company’s website that displays the entrances to a few of its wash bays. “After a snow [event], we can get pretty jammed up,” DuGoff explains. “There will be cars out to the street, and that’s the impression that people carry. ‘You’re always busy.’” While they are usually busy, he says, there aren’t lines most of the time, and he wanted to convey this fact to his customers.
And, of course, it’s not just about responding to customers, but garnering their loyalty as well. One way in which DuGoff engenders customer loyalty is by randomly giving away free tickets to the Washington Nationals baseball and DC United soccer games, for which he has season tickets. “I often have to repeat that the tickets are free. And, people really light up [about winning free tickets]. They come back and thank me for the tickets,” he says. “People really remember, and I see them all the time.”
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Connecting with the community
College Park Car Wash also supports a number of local community organizations, such as churches and schools, as well as charities. Its largest fundraiser is the Mid-Atlantic Carwash Association’s “Wash to Save the Bay,” which benefits the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. College Park also participates in Grace for Vets. DuGoff says, “I think you have to give back, and it lets people know that you care about more than your bottom line.”
In addition, College Park Car Wash plays to the local college crowd. Being a few blocks from the main gate of the University of Maryland, the company uses its sign to advertise upcoming Maryland Terrapin sports games. College Park gives away a free carwash at every home men’s and women’s baseball, football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse game.
“For the day games, we call it the ‘Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot.’ For night games, it’s the best dressed Terp fan, or randomly taped to the seat. Once, the winner was the owner of another carwash. I won’t tell you whether it was [for] the dirtiest car or best-dressed fan,” DuGoff quips.
Keeping it simple
While it’s said there’s strength in numbers, sometimes having a small, well-matched team is all you need. “My manager and attendant has worked for me nearly 30 years. I can rely on him to take care of customers as I would and to keep the equipment running at its best,” DuGoff said. In addition to two full-time employees who came with him from the original gasoline business, DuGoff hired a part-timer last year who “has a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
So while there’s no one secret to success, DuGoff claims that one is, so to speak, the magic number. Since he opened College Park Car Wash, it has remained his one and only business. And that’s his secret, he says.
“Putting all of one’s energy and attention on one thing makes a world of difference,” concludes DuGoff. “So, there are two simple principles: Just do one thing and reinvest in your business.”