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Movers & Washers

Car washes are going places in the convenience channel. Industry experts speak about the acceleration of the convenience car wash movement, which basically means channel operators are smitten with improvement — and for good reason, according to top suppliers who recently opened up to Convenience Store News.

Sonny’s Enterprise, based in Tamarac, Fla., is one such supplier that has been focusing on the convenience store market, recognizing the potential of many operators in the channel to offer a “professional” car wash experience.

“C-stores are falling in love with the car wash business,” explained Kevin Collette, vice president of sales, CTO (Compact Tunnel Organization), for Sonny’s. “The profits they are generating, the incremental growth at the pumps and inside the store are all very appealing. Secondly, they are experiencing how easy it is to manage a high-volume, professional-level car wash requiring few employees and few vendors.”

Sonny’s is also witnessing more businesses in the convenience channel utilizing existing land for building a better car wash, properties which are turning out to be ideal for high-volume express car washes. Offering the ultimate in car washes is the ultimate goal.

The rationale for c-stores is that the site has the fuel traffic already, so why not capitalize on it from a wash perspective with a more professional touch — one that can give it an edge over nearby fuel competitors and put it on par with the professional car wash business?


Movement from an in-bay automatic system to a tunnel/conveyor system is one of the chief ways that c-store car washes are upgrading these days.

“Conveyors can definitely wash more volume, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, major fuel retailers like BP, Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Petro Canada, Sunoco and others had thriving car wash sites with conveyor systems on them,” recalled Rob Deal, vice president of international and corporate sales for Innovative Control Systems (ICS), a supplier based in Wind Gap, Pa.

“Many of those sites have been converted back to in-bay automatics for various reasons. I think the c-store market is ready to get back into more conveyor systems as part of the overall ‘bigger site’ trend, which continues to grow,” Deal relayed.

But does that mean all c-stores with car washes should convert to conveyors?

“If the site can service over 100 customers fueling at the same time, then you need a conveyor car wash system to handle the volume,” Deal reasoned. But of course, the answer isn’t always that easy. For most c-store operators, a multifaceted evaluation is needed.

Just deciding to conduct an evaluation is the first critical step. Once that decision is made, a site evaluation and ROI (return on investment) calculation are critical in the determination whether or not to convert, advised Laura Edgmond, marketing specialist with Ryko Solutions Inc., based in Grimes, Iowa.

C-stores should initially make a physical evaluation, according to ICS’ Deal. “One of the most basic ways to evaluate a site is to look at the volume of current car wash business and the size of the site,” he told CSNews. “The layout and stack/queue areas are critical to ensure you don’t disrupt the current business. Having ample room to make modifications is a must.”

The physical evaluation should also include looking at the length of the wash tunnel; if/where vacuums can be installed; and how point-of-sale (POS) entry systems can potentially be placed to manage the flow into the wash, added Collette. Sonny’s will also work with retailers to look at demographics “very deeply,” studying traffic patterns and individual store information — i.e., gallons pumped and transactions at the kiosk inside, he said. “This is a detailed study. It requires many skill sets and access to good information, as well as a ton of experience.”

Observationally, c-stores can evaluate their lineup of cars. If it is constant, then they should consider an upgrade to a conveyor system, according to Deal.

Additionally, a market evaluation can be considered if the operation wants to take a more proactive approach to converting to a conveyor system. “You can be an early adopter by doing a market evaluation of current car wash types in a three-mile radius from the location to be upgraded,” Deal advised. “If the market is full of in-bay washes, it might be opportune to be a market leader and capture more car wash volume” with a tunnel system.

Finally, obtaining proper financing is a crucial step. “Tunnel car washes are a greater investment compared to a rollover or touchless, so financing is an important factor,” said Ryko’s Edgmond.


If, after thorough evaluation, it is determined that a site cannot accommodate a conveyor system, there are still options to enhance the convenience store car wash.

Car wash equipment manufacturers are providing additional features that can be added to existing in-bay equipment to increase revenue and offer more visual features, such as triple foam and total surface sealants like Turtle Wax Ice and Zep’s RainX. “The site can also change the wash program to speed up the wash to help increase volume,” noted Deal.

Some c-stores are integrating water recovery systems into their wash models for a variety of reasons that include: as a means of reducing water/sewer costs; as a solution to being located in a drought region; to combat municipal restrictions; and/or to effectively communicate their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Water treatment system manufacturer New Wave Industries Ltd., located in North Highlands, Calif., works closely with c-stores to assist them “in determining ROI, product selection for the targeted wash, providing the necessary engineering support, as well as professional installation by a factory-trained and authorized dealer,” said President Gary Hirsh.

He pointed out that upgrading to a superior car wash represents both a significant profit center and a customer loyalty builder for c-stores today.

Whether a c-store has a rollover, touchless or tunnel system, it is important that customers experience a “superior” car wash, Edgmond echoed. “Car wash customers are not just looking for a clean car anymore; they want the ‘wow’ factor. They want brightly colored detergents and LED lights — the ultimate show.”

Savvy c-store car wash operators are likewise keeping up with other current car wash trends such as RFID passes, social media marketing, wash clubs and remote monitoring.

Collette suggests c-store retailers venture out and evaluate professional car wash businesses in the area to get other non-equipment ideas and practices.

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