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Recalculating: This Way to a Better Car Wash

Are you navigating the most efficient and profitable car wash route?

The sudsy business is gauged as a healthy one as of late, being driven by high-speed washes, consumer environmental awareness, efficient purchasing systems, loyalty programs and the value consumers place on their vehicles.

There are several ways a good program can be mapped out. First and most importantly, however, c-store car wash operators must recognize that a map is necessary for success. Good car wash programs don’t run on automatic, according to top industry suppliers.

Here, they offer up some of the latest category insights and best practices:

Consider that the channel is not in a growth phase, but rather a “shift” phase.

“Currently, we don’t see growth with c-store car washes, we see a shift in what they’re doing. The key operators are looking at what they’re offering in types of washes and services available with that wash, and adjusting accordingly,” relayed Rob Deal, vice president of international and corporate sales for Innovative Control Systems, based in Wind Gap, Pa.

“We see real movement from the in-bay automatics, which don’t move a lot of cars — maybe 12 an hour — to a conveyor system that can move 100 cars and more per hour,” he continued. “So it’s growth by volume, not by sites. They’re looking at replacing an existing model with a new model.”

While this shift requires more capital investment, plus the necessary land (65 feet minimum for an ideal conveyor environment, as well as a trench/underground installation of the system), the payback is more rapid, according to Deal. “The more volume you can put through, the faster you can pay back the investment required to do this,” he explained.

Charlie Zimmerman, national sales manager for Norcross, Ga.-based Genesis Modular Car Wash Building Systems, agrees that c-stores have embraced the “express model” and are building “short tunnels” to support it. But he also recognizes that it must first be determined that the location has the space to produce the cars to warrant the investment.

Take note that top operators have the mindset of professional car wash businesses.

While many c-store operators accept the status quo of the car wash business as merely secondary income or a “stepchild” of the core operation, a growing number of success stories are coming from those who look at it from a professional car wash operator’s view.

“These operators are enhancing their car wash operations by increasing their vehicle throughput, adding free vacuums, and creating loyalty and incentive-based purchasing programs,” said Kevin Collette, vice president of sales, CTO (Compact Tunnel Organization), for Sonny’s Enterprise in Tamarac, Fla. “In many instances, these sites are increasing their revenues and bottom lines by 300–400 percent.”

These c-store operators run the car wash as if it were the only business on the site, creating very detailed P&Ls that serve 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,” Collette advised.

According to Genesis’ Zimmerman, having a dedicated person to manage the car wash business “because it is a separate profit center from the convenience store” is another important factor in this “professional” approach.

A dedicated manager should implement “real operations procedures that will keep the wash operating at the level he expects,” added Collette. “The car wash, if operated properly, can truly be the most lucrative operation of the c-store business.”

Recognize there are still improvements that can be made to a “basic” car wash setup.

C-stores that have an “automatic culture” and can’t afford or don’t have the space and/or volume to upgrade to a conveyor system still have paths available for improvement.

“The successful ones are including more options like tire shine, hot wax and lava to their systems to compete with tunnel washes and increase revenue,” noted Zimmerman. Utilizing customer information is also imperative in current times. Obtaining emails for marketing and monthly wash programs is a big way c-stores can boost business, he suggested.

“We see coffee and food programs, apps and buying programs aimed at keeping and capturing c-store customers — these must be done with the car wash as well,” echoed Collette.

Perhaps the best improvement is to go back and evaluate the site’s “car washing potential,” Collette explained. “The location must be evaluated by traffic count, demographics (including income per family), cars per family and how much car wash competition it has. It’s not good enough today to just correlate the car wash to the gallons of fuel pumped; it does not give the retailer a true perspective of the business.”

Do the homework and choose the right supplier partnership.

C-stores that run a successful car wash business recognize it takes a team effort. Choosing the right supplier partnership often makes the difference and requires research.

As Genesis’ Zimmerman put it: “We become development partners, allowing c-stores to concentrate on their core businesses. Genesis Modular Car Wash Building Systems makes building car washes easy by handling the majority of the processes: design, engineering, installation and building.”

Sonny’s provides its partners with the Car Wash College, which trains operators from beginning to end with hands-on experience in the lab and in the field. Sonny’s also has a “new business development” department with four full-time staffers who do nothing but evaluate car wash sites, according to Collette.

Innovative Control Systems focuses on “network visibility,” offering operators and category managers access to all pertinent data as it relates to the car wash business (performance, sales, average ticket, number of washes, equipment alerts, etc.). This data is available on a dashboard that can be viewed 24/7 on any device anywhere in the world.

Autec Car Wash Systems in Statesville, N.C., provides a turnkey job. “All an operator has to provide is the concrete slab, electrical and plumbing. Everything else, we provide,” stated Joey Stilley, national sales manager. However, the first thing Autec does is look at the location — this entails running a demographic report on a one-, three- and five-mile radius.

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