Car Wash Contemplations


NATIONAL REPORT — Have thoughts of adding a car wash to your operation been lathering in your mind lately? If you’ve looked into the possibility once or twice before, there is now new and improved reasons to look again — and perhaps this time, go for the hook-up, professionally speaking.

The car wash business is cleaning up lately, driven by low gas prices; more erratic and warmer weather patterns (inspiring more frequent car washes); technological improvements; consumer environmental awareness; more efficient purchasing systems; and the increasing value consumers place on their vehicles.

“The car wash, if operated properly, can be the most lucrative operation of the c-store business,” said Kevin Collette, vice president of sales, CTO (Compact Tunnel Organization) for Sonny’s Enterprise in Tamarac, Fla., which has been focusing on the convenience store market, having recognizing deeper potential in the channel to offer a professional car wash experience.

“The profits car washes are generating, as well as the incremental growth at the pumps and inside the store, are all very appealing to the convenience/gas channel,” he continued. Plus, the channel is experiencing how easy it is to manage a high-volume, professional-level car wash requiring few employees and few vendors, according to Collette.

While there are multiple factors contributing to today’s high-quality and profitable car wash programs in the convenience/gas channel, these five are at the top of the roster:

1. More Sophisticated Site Evaluations & Education

The first step for any successful c-store car wash business is a site evaluation — and the good news is that these evaluations are getting more sophisticated and detailed.

The location should be analyzed by traffic count, demographics (including income per family), cars per family, and the degree of car wash competition in the surrounding area, advised Collette.

“It’s not good enough today to just correlate the car wash to the gallons of fuel pumped,” he cautioned. “It does not give the retailer a true perspective of the business.”

Collette’s bottom line is that c-store operators create a very detailed profit and loss statement that serves as a true means of managing the business. “Look at other professional car washes in the area. Watch how they market and, in general, compete with them,” he stated.

A site evaluation and return-on-investment (ROI) calculation are indeed critical in the determination phase, agreed Laura Edgmond, marketing specialist with Grimes, Iowa-based Ryko Solutions Inc., which now operates under the umbrella of National Carwash Solutions (NCS), along with the MacNeil and CleanTouch brands.

Then, once the evaluation has been completed and the decision made to embark into the car wash business, the most important factor is to have a dedicated person to manage the business “because it is a separate profit center from the convenience store,” according to Charlie Zimmerman, national sales manager for Genesis Modular Car Wash Building Systems, based in Norcross, Ga.

A dedicated manager should implement “real operations procedures that will keep the wash operating at the level expected,” echoed Collette of Sonny’s, which provides its partners with education via the Car Wash College, whereby operators are trained from beginning to end with hands-on experience in the lab and in the field.

A dedicated manager should also have data readily available so they can make informed decisions. Innovative Control Systems (ICS) of Wind Gap, Pa., focuses on “network visibility” by offering its partner operators and category managers access to pertinent data (performance, sales, average ticket, number of washes, equipment alerts, etc.). Through its Wash Connect service, this data is available on a dashboard 24/7 so it can be viewed on any device anywhere in the world, said Rob Deal, ICS’ vice president of international and corporate sales.

2. Self-Service Technology

The car wash industry has come a long way in the past 10 years, with improved technology being a prime factor in why car washes are working better in the convenience store world.

The convergence of self-service technologies now makes it possible for car wash operators to provide more solutions with hand-finish qualities, faster and with shorter waiting lines.

The three most popular self-service technologies are the vending machine, kiosk and Internet-based applications, according to Bob Roman, president of car wash consulting service RJR Enterprises. “Experience shows these technologies are proven labor-savers that free up associates’ time for more productive activities,” he explained.

Touchscreen pay stations are gaining traction in the channel, with some operators realizing higher average car wash sales — about $10 vs. the usual average of $7, Roman cited.

Higher customer attraction to the service and higher loyalty rates also go hand-in-hand with the improved technology, as long as operators ensure customers know what to do with it.

3. Social Connections

Creating loyalty- and incentive-based purchasing programs is another significant factor in a convenience store’s car wash being more relevant to customers today.

Loyalty programs (buy five washes/get one free is a big incentive), wash books (valued at $20), free coffee with a car wash, and fundraising opportunities are some of the ways the top convenience store car washes are being promoted these days, Roman pointed out.

C-stores are also keeping up with current car wash trends in this millennial age, such as RFID passes, social media marketing, wash clubs, and remote monitoring.

4. Better Financing

Obtaining the proper financing is a crucial step in opening a car wash business, and nowadays there are more financing options available to c-store operators.

Ryko Solutions recently partnered with Ascentium Capital to offer affordable and customized finance options for the company’s car wash products, services and technologies. The partnership is designed to provide Ryko customers with a simple and cost-effective way to acquire a complete car wash solution, from friction soft touch to touchless to mini-tunnel systems, according to the company.

Additionally, items such as remote monitoring systems, activation systems, water treatment, freight, installation, bay modification work and labor may also be financed, significantly reducing out-of-pocket expenses.

“Through Ascentium Capital’s consultative approach, finance structures will be tailored to each client’s cash flow,” explained David Miller, senior vice president of marketing and new product development at Ryko Solutions. He views the partnership as a way to assist retailers with “tactical objectives.”

5. “Wow” Experience

Consumers visit professional car washes for more than just a clean car; they also go there for all the bells and whistles — the “wow” experience.

Convenience store car washes can be about the experience, too. But, in addition to providing it, c-stores must get the message out in order for the experience to attract more traffic.

Car wash industry insiders also emphasize it doesn’t have to be a high-end conveyor system to deliver the wow factor. Some savvy, premium in-bay wash retailers are attracting customers by promising to have customers’ vehicles sparkling clean and on the fly in under six minutes — plus the “show” of tri-color foam and bubblegum-scented rinse, noted Roman.

To celebrate its 50th year of manufacturing car wash systems, Mark VII Equipment Inc. of Arvada, Colo., recently introduced product innovations boasting “showmanship,” such as LightRails. These stainless-steel guiderails with bright LED lighting simulate an airport runway, providing customers a dramatic show while guiding them safely to the bay, according to Mark VII.

LightDoors add even more of a “show” for customers, the company further noted, while allowing operators to custom-brand equipment with their logo and colors.

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