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Innovation Leads to Higher-End Car Wash Experiences

The newest trends seen across the convenience channel include automation, subscriptions and truck washes.
A truck wash bat at Love's Travel Stops

NATIONAL REPORT — From upgraded equipment and automatic, app-operated bays to subscription-based services and the addition of truck washes, convenience store retailers are adding more profit to their bottom lines with onsite car washes.

While the COVID-19 pandemic delivered a boom to the car wash industry overall, many customers have continued the habit even after the pandemic, which has motivated c-stores across the country to renovate their washes and upgrade their offers, according to Ken Underhill, director of marketing at D&S Car Wash Supply, based in High Ridge, Mo.

"We have seen many c-stores renovating their car washes and replacing old machines with newer options that include lights and foam, as well as offering a more premium experience to their customers," he noted.

The latest car wash technology offers a more advanced wash experience. In turn, operators are providing add-ons customers can choose for a higher-priced wash. Today's equipment is able to do a 3D scan of a car to create "a far better and more efficient wash," and customers can choose from higher-priced options such as waxing, triple foam and more, said Underhill.

"There are models that offer a variety of colors, smells, flashing LED lights and more to add to the ambiance of the wash, and many c-stores are offering good, better, best and premium price points up to $15 for a wash," he reported. "Most people go for the higher price points. The average person does not choose the basic bread-and-butter wash; they often go for the top or the middle."

The newest trends in the car wash space include automatic washes, often activated by an app, which do not require an employee to operate them; the addition of higher-end truck washes; subscriptions plans; and giving customers a frictionless checkout experience.

At Love's Travel Stops, based in Oklahoma City and operating more than 510 locations in 41 states, the chain now has three automated Love's Truck Washes in operation in Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas — with five more planned for the near future. All offer frictionless checkout to customers, according to Gary Price, executive vice president of Love's.

"Our automated truck wash is powered by Whiting Systems wash gantries. The technology allows us to offer quality washes with quicker service than our competitors and we use a handheld point-of-sale system, so the wash technician can ring the driver up in a frictionless manner while he or she remains in the car," he explained.

The Rise of Truck Washes

While car washes have been a common profit center for convenience stores for some time, truck washes are gaining popularity, especially with the introduction of automated versions that can wash a truck without additional employees in 12 to 15 minutes, according to Underhill. "For larger c-stores with the room, it can also be used for sprinter vans or RVs," he noted.

Love's added truck washes to its locations after asking customers what would help them in their line of business. Customers were "vocal that truck washes would be a big win for professional drivers, who are already using our facilities," Price said, adding that the retailer felt that adding them would be "the next logical step" and add "a new layer of service."

The company's goal is to make Love's Truck Wash as frictionless as possible, so drivers never have to get out of their trucks. A Love's employee goes to the truck, asks the driver what service they want, and then collects payment with a portable point-of-sale device.

"Love's understands the importance of getting back on the road quickly. Once a truck enters the bay, the goal is a 15-minute wash," Price said, with box trailers and reefer trailers having a wash goal of four to seven minutes. "We aim for a wash quality that will rival our competitors with shorter wait times, quicker service and a better value."

Another c-store operator offering truck wash services is Warrenton Oil Co., based in Truesdale, Mo., and operating 59 FastLane convenience stores. The retailer has 17 car wash locations and one FastLane Truck Wash location, which offers truckers, campers, fleets and more an automatic wash experience. There are both attended and unattended wash options.

FastLane has three levels of car wash subscriptions and in May 2023, it announced the addition of a truck wash subscription option — the first in its region. The chain partners with Liquid Barcodes Inc., a global loyalty and digital marketing technology company that specializes in the convenience and foodservice industries, for its subscription offerings.

A Subscription Model

In addition to offering single wash packages carrying various price points, some c-stores are opting to offer car wash subscriptions of varying levels, allowing for unlimited washes and including add-ons such as washing tires, waxing or internal cleaning, depending on the level chosen, according to Saurabh Swarup, chief rainmaker at Liquid Barcodes, based in Fairfax, Va.

At FastLane, the chain's three subscription plans are: Protect, Shine and Clean. These plans can be purchased directly from the FastLane app, as well as setting up an individual wash.

"The same thing can be taken to the next level with family plans so, instead of each person in a family signing up for a plan, they can purchase a family plan and then add members," Swarup noted.

Retailers offering subscriptions get the advantage of guaranteed monthly income, while customers get to pay one fee for their monthly car washes — which is charged each month to the card on file.

Another option growing in popularity is prepaid washes, which targets those not wanting to commit to a recurring payment, said Swarup. This can still be done through an app, but the customer pays upfront at a discounted rate rather than an autorenewal plan.

"Starting with prepaid packages at a lower price, such as 10 for the price of eight, is actually a good way to get customers into the fold of a recurring subscription," he said. "It allows them to test the waters first."

In addition to individual and family subscription plans, c-stores also have the option of offering business plans. Similar to a family plan, a company can sign up a number of its drivers or vehicles and link them to the same plan for unlimited washes each month.

"Business plans can give [retailers] access to a new set of customers, and a business can link a fleet of 20 cars to an account, for example," Swarup said. "Some of our retail customers offer this as well as truck wash subscriptions for fleets of trucks."

He also pointed out that when it comes to "unlimited," there is often a cap or limit that's imposed on each 30-day period despite the terminology. Some operators cap it at 30 washes a month, knowing a user will not come every day to wash their vehicle.

For those retailers with a proprietary branded app and loyalty program, many are incorporating their car and truck washes into them so that customers can access all services on the property from one point while earning loyalty points.

"Customers earn points at Love's Truck Wash locations just as they do at Love's Truck Care or when they purchase items or fuel at the travel stops," said Price. "Customers can also redeem points at all Love's Truck Wash locations."

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