C-store Retailers Raise the Car Wash Bar

New and renovated structures let in natural light, use better building materials and emphasize landscaping.
A Family Express car wash on Purdue, Ind.

NATIONAL REPORT — Nobody wants to use a dirty bathroom. The same is true of car washes cloaked in exhaust residue. By making washes more visually pleasing and entertaining, retailers can drive traffic and maximize their return on investment on equipment upgrades.

New and renovated structures let in natural light, use better building materials and emphasize landscaping. Colored LED's and multihued soaps add a sense of theater and intensify visual appeal. Branding with company colors and logos reinforces retailers' identities.

"They're using nicer exterior materials, stone in many cases," said Tim Hogue, CEO and senior designer at Bowling Green, Ky.-based ModernWash, which designs car wash structures. "We also promote 'daylighting,' with lots of sunlight. Retailers don't like cleaning glass, but customers spend more money when they don't feel claustrophobic. And we emphasize signage, which hadn't been prominent."

Gus Olympidis, president, Family Express, noted that adding large windows to car washes has made his female customers feel more secure.

In a similar vein, Las Vegas-based SpeedeeMart installed extra lighting and cameras and painted its eight car wash interiors white. "Most car wash tunnels are dark and grungy," said Ray Johnson, operations manager. "It's become more inviting, particularly for women and older customers."

SpeedeeMart also added LED lights that change color during each wash step. Soap smells like bubble gum and squirts in three colors. "People love it," Johnson added. "It's a different feel."

Family Express' soaps are red, white and blue. "It seems to create an emotional plus," said Olympidis.

Eddy Alvarez, senior operations manager, Sunshine Gasoline Distributors, views LEDs as marketing tools. "They attract attention if someone is fueling their car and sees lights go off at the car wash."

Victron Energy and Splash In took special effects to new levels with Halloween events. Venues drew media attention, driving sales, subscriptions and brand building. Victron's "Washmasters Halloween Haunted Tunnel" at its Euless, Texas, flagship attracted more than 10,000 people with scary sounds, projections on car wash walls and lights throughout the store and car wash. "We shut down the highway it was so busy," said Mohamed Sharaf, vice president of development.

Splash In's pandemic-driven Scarea 51 in Clinton, Md., provided a socially distanced haunted house experience while cleaning vehicles. "It was about community engagement," said Mike Mulhern, director of operations. "We had costumed actors, food samples and candy. We got lots of press. Business increased during the following months."