outfoxing the competition

Inventive car wash operators find faithful ’companions’ in pet owners wanting to pamper their pups.

Most dog owners would associate the word “loyal” with their furry, four-legged friends. And retailers—specifically those with car washes—are hoping they can make the same association with all types of pet owners. While dog washes came into vogue in 2003 (see A profit center with bite, Oct. ’03, p. 10), retailers continue to invest in on-site facilities for tidying up Fido. And some are discovering that these washes aren’t just for dogs anymore.

In Ohio, a Kirtland-based development company called American Property Groupis readying to open a chain of wash facilities called Wash Works that won’tdiscriminate against “nontraditional pets.” Ferrets, hamsters and even boa constrictorsaren’t off the menu, American Property Group’s Steve Sceranka tells the ClevelandPlain Dealer.

Helping customers pamper their pets can yield big bucks for c-store retailers. Americans spend more than $35 billion on their pets each year, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association; of that amount, consumers shell out close to $2.4 billion grooming and boarding their pets.

While basic dog wash services generate tickets similar to those of standard car wash packages, some operators (including many dog wash franchisees) offer value-added services like flea-and-tick treatments and sensitive-skin washes at premium prices. Think of them as “deluxe wash” options for spoiled dogs.

Some retailers have said they invested in dog washes mainly as “a conversation piece” (because of the relatively low cost of entry). But, to their surprise, many such washes have turned into viable profit centers, with margins of 30% to 50% (or better) on tickets as high as $20.

Most operators who invest in this service seem to start out in the car wash or fuel marketing business then tack on dog washes as an added convenience. But one entrepreneurial team of car wash operators took a much different path. Drs. Stephen and Kay Sheldon are veterinarians who sold their animal hospital in South Florida and moved to the mountains of Colorado. The vets invested in 1,700 sq. ft. car wash on a 32,000 sq. ft. lot in the town of Gypsum. The four-year-old facility has three selfserve washes and a Ryko touchless automatic…and a few surprises.

One of a kind
The Sheldons opted to make the transition from animal doctors to automobilewashers when they had an opportunity to own a piece of prime real estate ina fast-growing community. At the time, they felt the car wash business couldbenefit from “some creative marketing,” which would eventually make the sitemore of a fixture in the community. For now, that means supporting youth sportsprograms, being on site to sign up customers for gift cards and fleet programsand investing in newspaper ads to build the brand. These activities seem tobe helping, as Stephen Sheldon estimates his Big Dog Truck and Car Wash seesbusiness from about 3,000 cars per month.

“Even though we are on a major thoroughfare, the community is beginning to grow in our direction,” he says. “Believe it or not, the [new] signs and better exterior lighting have helped a lot.”

Besides the Sheldons’ creative marketing prowess, other competitive advantagesinclude a self-serve bay that’s large enough to accommodate an 18-wheel truck—theonly one of its kind in Eagle County. But that’s certainly not the only edgethe Sheldons have manufactured to draw more traffic to the site. They’re nowputting the finishing touches on a selfserve bay exclusively for canines. “Everyonecan’t wait,” says Sheldon. “We anticipate it will be very busy, as washing adog—especially a big dog—inside in the winter is quite ahassle. Compared to running a large veterinary hospital, [the car wash business]is a pleasure. Sure, things break down and we have problems from time to time,but we’re dealing with a very low-ticket item here (75¢ per minute on self-servewashes), so it’s easy to make people happy.”

Business is good at the Big Dog Truck and Car Wash, but the Sheldons seem tobe finding it a little tough to “move on.” In the future, the pair intends toadd a veterinary hospital on the lot or right next door. If the project succeeds,customers will be able to bring in their companions for a wash and acheck-up.

Get a leg up at the wash

Of the approximate 22,000 car washes in the U.S., each scrubs down 70,000to 100,000 cars per year, according to the International Carwash Association.That’s a lot of Turtle Wax—and a lot of competition. And with homeimprovement giant Home Depot reportedly planting convenience stores andcar washes on its store lots, competition will get only tighter.

To battle back, operators are cross-promoting their washes with otherarea businesses, such as dry cleaners, restaurants and automotive partsdealers, and some retailers have awarded employees the flexibility todistribute “free car wash” cards during holidays, which helps spur trafficin slower winter months.

Loyalty programs, meanwhile, help “lock in” customers and expose themto other elements of a retailer’s offer. While paper “club cards” remainpopular (however problematic due to instances of fraud), electronic loyaltyprograms afford retailers more flexibility in marketing to customers;some car wash manufacturers provide loyalty components as part of theirsite management systems.

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