For over three decades, Kevin Detrick, owner and president of Sparkle Car Wash as well as Innovative Control Systems Inc. (ICS), has been committed to making the process of washing cars better, including enhancing the coveted customer experience.
At just 17 years old, Detrick, along with a business partner, his mother, purchased his first carwash — a then abandoned carwash — at 1070 Congdon Ave., Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
Today, Sparkle Car Wash in Stroudsburg, which is still owned and operated by the same mother-son duo, is well-established in the community. Opened in 1981, the Detricks’ business, originally a full-serve carwash site now flex-serve, has changed in response to demand and a desire to increase customer satisfaction.
“In Stroudsburg,”explains Detrick, “we are in a geographically large county, with only 168,000 people, and we wash about 190,000 cars per year.” With vast professional carwashing experience, including on the control, payment and management equipment product development side, Detrick’s two carwash locations feature three different wash formats — self-serve, flex-serve and express exterior — and these carwashes are looking to offer an exceptional service to ensure customer loyalty and repeat business.
Life in the fast lane
Although the original Sparkle Car Wash location functioned as a full service carwash for over two decades, Detrick and his team actually helped to pioneer a new wash format at the turn of the century: express exterior.
In 2001, says Detrick, his company worked with Benny’s Carwash in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to develop the industry-changing model. “Benny’s is the one who came to us and said, ‘This is the business model that we want to adopt,’” recalls Detrick. “So, of course, Benny’s gets the credit for originating the concept and, fortunately, he brought us in, and we developed the technology to start the model.”
And, it’s a wash format that Detrick has since applied to his second Sparkle Car Wash location in Easton, Pennsylvania. Situated just behind a well-known c-store chain and just off Route 248, the new carwash leverages traffic from a local mall that serves as a destination location for the community.
However, perfecting the new wash process for this second Sparkle Car Wash site, including the implementation of new technologies, was a decade-long study, which took place in Stroudsburg.
“Stroudsburg functioned as a 10-year experiment, testing and working on new concepts,” says Detrick. “And, once we were satisfied, we decided to build the Easton location from the ground up.”
Focused on the customer experience, the new express exterior location, which opened in March 2016 and currently competes with three other express exterior carwashes in the area, features 16 free vacuums and maintains a healthy club membership program. “At peak times, we’ll wash over 115 cars an hour,” notes Detrick.
Through automation and focusing on the wash process with such fine detail, both Sparkle Car Wash locations are thriving by understanding the customer’s anxiety points and knowing what it takes to create loyalty.
According to Detrick, his carwashes have adapted an approach to carwashing known as “washnetics.” But, to understand washnetics, which is a concept Detrick has trademarked, you must first understand “autonetics.” Autonetics is the science of the use and development of automated devices used for control and guidance. “Washnetics,” educates Detrick, “is the application of autonetics to carwash equipment.”
Sparkle Car Wash equipment is infused with washnetics at critical points in the wash process, including at the wraps, hydraulics, high pressure equipment and chemical application. Unknown to the customer while he or she goes through the tunnel, the wash uses this technology to provide a consistent, quality wash by customizing the carwash process for each individual car.
For example, wraps are positioned for the size of each individual car to optimize performance and limit potential damage. Hydraulics set washer and conveyor speeds automatically, and high pressure equipment changes on the fly based on the area of the car. And, chemicals are targeted to the specific size and part of the vehicle.
“Basically, as a car enters the carwash, we are scanning the whole image of it in real-time. We’re targeting the chemistry, the pressure and the washer for the exact shape of the car. Everyone else puts SUV quantity on every car; we’re targeting the chemicals much better, which helps us save money, but it is more important that we’re doing it to provide a much better service to the customer and increase their experiences.”
Any veteran carwash owner and operator knows that the hardest exterior areas of a car to clean are the fronts and the backs. Many carwashes rely on prep workers to service these hard-to-reach areas. However, at Sparkle Car Wash’s conveyor locations, the use of scanning technologies is helping equipment effectively clean these areas of a vehicle.
“We’re automating the equipment to make it contour to the shape and size of the vehicles,” adds Detrick. “This helps us effectively clean the backs and the fronts of vehicles with our wraps as they go through the wash.”
According to Detrick, a carwash’s wraps serve as both an essential part of the wash process as well as an anxiety point for some customers. “Wraps do the most cleaning at the carwash and also cause the most damage at a carwash,” he says, adding that this equipment can also require the most maintenance.
Since Sparkle focuses on a customized experience for all vehicles, profiling vehicles through the entire tunnel ensures that wraps touch the cars, vans and SUVs just as much as needed, increasing overall cleaning effectiveness as well as minimizing noise.
An extensive VFD system is also in place to provide just enough power and pressure to certain equipment, including blowers, in order to decrease energy consumption, minimize potential damage and preserve the customer experience.
“And, if a car moves on the conveyor — let’s say the car tracks to the outside four inches — the equipment will adjust automatically for that movement,” asserts Detrick. “Our focus is now on the equipment and not the prep worker. Labor is the slowest, least effective and most expensive way to wash a car. Speed of service is part of enhancing the customer experience today, but if you can provide speed of service and a quality wash, you can create loyalty.”
Repeatable quality, repeatable customers
Similar to an in-bay automatic (IBA) carwash, at express exterior locations, including Sparkle Car Wash in Easton, customers stay inside the car from the payment gate to the tunnel’s exit. At that point, they can either opt in for self-serve free vacuums, paid towel exchange service or simply exit the lot.
At Sparkle Car Wash’s new express location, only two employees — three at peak times — are needed to greet customers and help guide them onto the conveyor track, using only hand signals.
Some customers are inherently anxious for a variety of reasons when entering a tunnel carwash. Detrick and his employees are sensitive to this anxiety and combat it in numerous ways, including not shouting directions at customers, having a well-lit tunnel, limiting the equipment’s contact with the car (as previously mentioned) and utilizing high-impact instructional signage. “The employees are also making sure customers are happy,” notes Detrick. “You still need to have personal engagement with the customer to be 24successful.”
While employees are on-site to answer any questions and troubleshoot any concerns, once customers enter the spacious tunnel, which features generous glass walls on the driver’s side to help ease customers’ concerns of feeling enclosed, the equipment’s performance is responsible for enhancing the customer experience.
“Our focus is on repeatable quality through the automation of carwash equipment in order to elevate the customer experience. By keeping a consistent layer of soap and lubricity on the car using pre-soaks, we are able to produce cleaner cars with less potential for damage, and the customer experience riding through is much better.”
The Sparkle Car Wash process features acidic lubricating foam at every point of friction of the carwash, continues Detrick, so regardless if you’re the first car of the day or the last, you’re getting the same high-level wash quality.
“Customer experience comes down to speed of service, choices, convenience and what they see, smell and hear as they go through the carwash,” explains Detrick. “People have a ton of choices these days, and they want to make the decision on where to purchase from based on how they feel about the business and the experience it can provide.”
Equipment working smarter
In addition to featuring smarter equipment that doesn’t have to work harder, Sparkle Car Wash’s future is bright mostly because of what customers don’t see behind the scenes or know about its owner. Detrick’s customers are mostly unaware of his background and career in professional carwashing, and that’s fine with him because this owner is happy to let the wash results stand on their own.
Along with advanced VFD and equipment reporting and management control systems, Sparkle Car Wash also reclaims and reuses its water. As mentioned, reduced labor and chemical costs and less frequent equipment downtime helps control costs and save money. You’ll also find LED lighting and other cost savers around the business’ carwashes.
However, Detrick doesn’t seem to receive much gratification in growing the business through cost-cutting measures.
“At the end of the day, you cannot save your way to success,” concludes Detrick. “You must deliver a strong value proposition to the customer so you don’t have to be the cheapest guy in town. If low price is not your business model, then delivering value is how you drive volume.”
Like clockwork, the new Sparkle Car Wash in Easton opens at 7 a.m. each day, during good and not-so-good weather; washes a high volume of cars; and closes at 8:00 p.m. With a base wash priced at $8 and a top package priced at $15, new customers often become unlimited wash members.
After 36 years in the industry and as a business owner in the community, where he donates his business’ services and partial earnings during fundraising events, Detrick’s drive to never settle for average has paid off in many ways.