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Self-serves

Self-serve technologies update

In any market, learning as much as possible about new technologies can help small business owners become more competent, competitive and profitable. Updated equipment options in the carwash market frequently offer a one-two punch that can help overall business. The first advantage provided will be increased performance pushed by upgrades. The other positive will be offering customers the added adaptability of new services.

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The self-serve carwash market has seen a number of new and popular features added to bays over the past decade. Today, self-serve washing has evolved past a handful of quarters, a coat of soap and a quick rinse. Automated payment systems and an array of new options have made customers want to spend more time in wash bays. Find out how the latest generation of self-serve wash equipment can further attract customers and drive overall profitability.

Continued popularity

There will always be a segment of vehicle owners that prefer the do-it-yourself aspect of self-serve carwashes, according to Larry McCarty, vice president of U.S. sales with Mark VII. Many love to “baby their ride,” and while rollover systems and tunnel carwashes provide great results, these customers like the satisfaction of washing their own vehicles. This includes applying the different products to the vehicle and controlling the high-pressure spray to achieve a quality clean.

“Self-serve carwash operators who make sure each bay provides a quality clean by delivering plenty of soap with appealing colors and smells have noticed their wash volumes continue to increase,” McCarty continues. “By delivering visually appealing wash features, customers spend more time in the bay, resulting in higher profits.”

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Trent Walter, owner/CEO of National Pride Equipment, agrees that there will always be a place in the market for the do-it-yourself customers. Thus, self-serve operators should drive value by using competitive pricing and convenience factors as well as by keeping a well-maintained wash. Customers like “new” items, so constantly reinventing a business with add-on services, new chemicals, updated payment methods and effective marketing will help a location maintain market share in the self-serve segment. 

Adding payment options

To date, the most popular add-on feature for self service washes has been equipment that allows payment via a credit card swipe, Walter reveals. Both customers and operators can appreciate the simplicity and convenience of credit card payments. While some operators may object to transaction fees or monthly maintenance charges by banks or processors, these fees are outweighed by the increased revenue. Adding a credit card system to a bay will more than pay for the investment in the short term. 

 Customers will spend more time washing their vehicles after this upgrade, as most credit card systems utilize a “count up” versus a “count down” charging method. Walter states that with standard cash payment equipment, the self-serve bay timer will start counting down once the minimum payment is met. Typically, there is a “last minute” alert horn that goes off as time is running down.

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With a credit card payment, the system starts counting up once the transaction has been authorized. Once the wash is completed, the customer is instructed to push a stop button to end the transaction and determine the final charge. “This method keeps the customer from rushing to finish,” Walter says. “There is no ‘alert’ horn to instinctively hurry them up. Some operators have seen average wash tickets increase by 50% versus using cash.”

McCarty notes that years ago self-serve carwashes were called “quarter carwashes” simply because that was the only payment option available. At first, self-serve sites would have a bill changer, and eventually many operators began adding tokens. These token dispensers could process credit cards, so it provided an economical way to accept credit card payments at a self-serve carwash.

Eventually, bill acceptors were added to the meter bay door and then credit card readers. Since some of the first credit card readers were “a little pricey,” some operators would opt for only one or two bays to accept credit cards, McCarty explains. Operators would monitor the performance and hold down associated costs. With new, affordable credit card acceptance systems, operators can economically add credit card acceptance to their self-serve bays, vending machines, vacuums, etc.

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Even more add-ons

The most popular add-on service equipment for self-serve locations is tire shiners and air dryers, according to McCarty. Tire shiner equipment can be added in a bay or on a vacuum station. One reason tire shine is a popular add-on service is because the results are immediately visible. There is nothing like rubbing the pad on the tires and seeing that rich, dark finish; it truly accents a clean vehicle. Air dryers in the bay are increasing in popularity because they finally give self-serve customers the opportunity to air dry a vehicle. Dryers have proven hugely popular in areas with a lot of motorcycles.

With the advancement in credit card technology, gift cards and loyalty programs are new options available for bay washes, Walter says. The credit card systems that utilize loyalty or gift card options offer customers payment flexibility. They can use these loyalty or gift cards in many different ways and on multiple pieces of equipment at the wash site. If designed properly, operators can put the gift card swipes in the bays, on vacuums, vending machines, air machines, mat cleaners and other compatible equipment. This gives customers the flexibility to use any piece of equipment on the property with a single card.

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“If a customer has to choose between a site with swipes only in the bay versus a site with them on all pieces of equipment, I think we all know where they are going,” Walter says. “Keep in mind, customers choose a wash for many reasons, but two of the top reasons are speed and convenience. Both of these are achieved with the above-mentioned flexible payment options.”

Creating profitability

To push profitability on a self-serve site, Walter suggests that operators find ways to keep customers happy and in the bay longer. Self-serve owners should remember that they are in the business of selling time.

Walter shares some questions operators should consider:

  • Are the bays clean and well-lit?
  • Does the gun or wand leak all over the customer?
  • Do you have good pressure, soap, wax and presoak in the bay?
  • How do the chemicals smell and look on the vehicle?
  • As an operator, how would you rate the experience in the bay?
  • Does the wash have doors on the bay, and are they closed on cold days?

Once a customer is relatively comfortable in the bay, other additional profit opportunities can be evaluated, Walter notes. Outside of the basic meter box functions, offering carnauba-based waxes, air dryers or ceramic-infused products can help keep customers in the bay longer. As previously mentioned, offering multiple forms of payment can increase revenue and maximize profitability. 

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McCarty explains that there are several ways for operators to push a site’s profitability. Wash appearance is the first consideration, and operators should:

  • Make sure carwash bays are clean
  • Make sure trash cans are emptied
  • Make sure no weeds are growing around or in the wash.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so make sure the carwash facility is nice, clean and inviting,” McCarty says.

Inside the bay, operators should make certain that the functions are working as they should and that the equipment is delivering plenty of chemical for each, McCarty recommends. This ensures a wash is giving customers their money’s worth. Next, ask the chemical provider for products with vibrant colors and great smells. Customers will spend more time in the bay spraying on chemical products that look like they are “painting the car with product.” Owners should also ask the chemical provider to fine-tune products and equipment so that maximum clean is delivered at the best operating cost.

Outside the bay, operators should make sure the vacuums operate properly and do a great job. The vacuums are often the first or last impression a customer has about a wash, so win them over at the vacuums, McCarty states. Additionally, make sure vending machines are full and operating properly, and make sure all signs are clean, fresh and not faded or peeling.

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Upgrade knowledge

Walter notes that there are several avenues for operators to learn more about equipment options, and he recommends a lot of research prior to making any wash upgrade. With any upgrade, doubling down on research will surely end up paying off for an owner.

There are several media outlets to review, online chat rooms, websites and print media/trade magazines for continued learning, Walter continues. Contacting a local distributor or self-serve equipment manufacturers can be beneficial, since they can share hot market trends and give references for operators that have already upgraded. When reviewing options, the more data points considered, the better. 

“Make sure to talk to operators using any upgrade you are considering prior to buying,” Walter suggests. “If possible, take a ride and test out the new features. As they say, try before you buy.” 

Staying on top of new developments in the carwash industry is the key to success, and self-serve operators have several sources of information they can use to stay on the cutting edge, McCarty states. He agrees that publications, online groups and carwashing forums are great places for operators to learn more, ask questions and share information with others.

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“Finally, there are your local carwash equipment distributors,” McCarty concludes. “These individuals can provide you with great insights, and many of these distributors operate washes themselves, so they have first-hand knowledge of what works.”  


Phil Ashland is a freelance contributor.

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