Suds Up

Is your convenience store running a clean machine?

The drive for car washes has shifted into high gear within the last year, making it an ideal time for the convenience channel to boost sales with best-practice promotional tactics.

“The last six to nine months has been incredibly good for car washing,” said Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Carwash Association (ICA). “If you trail back over the last year, it might be the best it’s been in 10 years for car washes. It’s difficult to quantify, but I haven’t heard the number of positive reports on the health of the retail car wash business like we’ve been hearing lately in a long time.”

Another positive indicator from Wulf’s perspective is the fact that attendance at the annual ICA trade show in April was up 22 percent. “We have not had an increase in attendance like that in recent years,” he reported. “So those kind of dramatic results point to the health of the industry.”

What’s behind the healthy boost? The improved economy is one factor cited by Wulf. The timing of weather — both good and bad weather — is another factor he said has helped.

“You have to have bad weather for cars to get dirty, and you have to have good weather for people to want their cars washed. And you have to have those both happen at the right times of the week,” he explained.

Generally speaking, Monday-Wednesday are the slower days for car washes, while Friday-Sunday are the busiest. So, if more frequent snow and ice storms occur at the beginning of the week and more clearing weather occurs on the weekends, it’s the best possible scenario.

Still, a savvy suds business does not rely solely on good weather patterns. In fact, it’s when the weather is at its best that retailers in the car wash business can benefit the most from considering the latest promotional tactics and industry trends:

Subscribe to a subscription program

The “Netflix model for car washing” is not a new idea, but what is new is the technology behind it, according to Wulf. Thirty years ago, car washes were familiar with the idea of offering unlimited car washes for monthly subscribers, but now automated terminals with RFID technology that records cars the way toll roads do in many states is changing the practice for retailers and customers.

“It takes weather out of the equation,” said Rob Deal, vice president of international and corporate sales for Innovative Control Systems (ICS), a car wash solutions provider based in Wind Gap, Pa. “And it is also giving operators a lot more control, while giving customers an unlimited program they can easily use. It creates a lot of loyalty.”

Such programs are also leveling out the revenue stream for operators, with Deal calling it “the best change” to the car wash industry in the last six years. The company knows about this firsthand because it has benefitted from a subscription program in its own corporate car wash locations. According to Deal, it doubled its volume in four years after initiating a subscription program in 2009, and its corporate car wash volume is still growing year over year.

While Wulf and Deal both acknowledge there’s always going to be customers who abuse the subscription program, the technology factor behind the service now has more operators switching their thinking from “How do I stop the abuse?” to “How do I get more customers to sign up to the program?” and ultimately recognizing that the practice not only increases revenue, but also better predicts and stabilizes revenue.

Get sweet on a tools suite

Car wash system providers are also helping the industry give rise to a trend of monitoring chemical usage, water usage, electric usage and more. “We help them manage operational costs,” Deal explained. “Our suite of tools will handle employee management, time clock, payroll service, expenses, utilities and more.”

Dashboard applications and mobile apps are giving operators fingertip control of all their car wash sites and helping them run them more smoothly on a day-to-day basis.

For instance, Deal relayed that ICS’ WashConnect program gives operators “network visibility” and allows them to take immediate action in areas where there are issues, monitored regularly by red, yellow and green “lights” that pop up on the dashboard.

Make it theatrical

An ongoing marketing trend in car washes centers on “theater-based” entertainment for kids and customers who view car washes as an experience.

Chemicals can be colored or made to appear like hot foam or lava boiling over as the car moves through the mechanics. These chemicals and foams are more costly for the operator, but can be recouped through the higher price points customers seem willing to pay for the experience.

Use self-service payment kiosks

Customers from all walks seem to like automation more than they like people, and it’s no different at the car wash. Hence, self-service kiosks are gaining in popularity.

“We’re seeing customers rating the experience 15-18 points higher and spending a dollar more per sale in customer interactive payment methods,” Deal noted.

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