making the most at the car wash

Discounting and sacrificing fuel margins may not be the most effective way to build incremental sales.

After more than 30 years inthe retail car wash business,Paul Vercollone qualifies as anexpert on the subject of selling car washes to the motoring public. Andwith his many years of experience,Vercollone has a message to those operators sacrificing fuel margins or discounting washes to drive car washsales: If you have the right offering, youwon’t need to give anything away.

Vercollone, vice president of VERCEnterprises, a family-operated businessbased in Duxbury, Mass., said the quality of the car washes available today hasbeen a boon for the convenience storeand petroleum industry. New technology in brushes, conveyors and chemicalshas lifted the entire industry to thepoint where it should be deciding justhow much of a margin to make on awash and not what kind of a discountto offer to attract business.

“There was a time when these washes were not sophisticated so you had tobe creative when trying to build incremental car wash sales,” said Vercollone,who oversees 22 c-stores and travel centers in Massachusetts and NewHampshire, and two standalone Briteway car washes, both in Massachusetts. “In studies we have done internally, wehave found that customers get their carswashed when their car is dirty, so ourstrategy is to go after them with the bestwash possible. If you’re counting onbuilding sales with an inferior wash,offering discounts and couponing, youare not creating a very stable foundation to grow the business.”

VERC Enterprises’ system of choice these days is PDQ’s G5 touch-freeLaserwash that is electronically operated, ensuring minimal downtime. Thesystem integrates a new nozzle design,precise solution injection and fasterspray arch travel speeds for increasedthroughput. In his conveyorized tunnels, Vercollone estimates the companycan service 100 cars per hour. In-baywashes at its two c-store washes canmove up to 16 cars an hour, “and people wait around for their turn,”Vercollone said.

The company charges $8, $10 and$12 for its three wash offerings.

“For most Americans, their car is themost expensive purchase they’ll evermake besides a house, so they want totake good care of it. The wash has toemphasize quality—that is ultimatelywhat earns their trust and brings themback. How often do you expect to see acustomer if your cheap wash scratchestheir new Lexus? They won’t be tooconcerned about having saved a dollarif that happens.”

Price Considerations
Michael Willkomm, another savvycar wash operator, agreed withVercollone on quality, but priced hiswashes $1 to $3 cheaper at $7, $8 and$9. While other factors play a role inthose prices—specifically, Willkommdoesn’t have the high real estate pricesin Racine, Wis., that VERC has in theNortheast—what’s interesting is thatdespite the cheaper prices, 60% ofWillkomm’s washes are the mostexpensive. The company credits thequality of the system offered by its partner, MacNeil Wash Systems, for thehigher margin wash popularity.

“We surveyed dozens of washeslooking for the right mix of quality andvalue that attracts customers every timetheir car gets dirty,” said Willkomm,vice president for the Willkomm Cos.”It’s a tricky proposition. On the onehand, the quality has to be there firstand foremost. I’m convinced price isn’teven in the top three considerationswhen it comes to choosing a wash, butit’s not just the one-time customer we’reafter. It’s getting them again and againwhere you see real profits.”

Willkomm operates and distributesExxonMobil fuels to 25 stores and a couple of Wash n’ Run-branded carwashes, which is ExxonMobil’s proprietary brand.

Complementing the quality at bothVERC and Willkomm is the serviceprovided by their local car wash distributors. Both companies said as part oftheir contracts the distributor guarantees no more than four hours downtimeif there’s a malfunction in the system.Plus, Willkomm’s MacNeil distributor,Badgerland Equipment Co., provides chemicals that cost an average of 35cents per wash and brushes guaranteedto last 100,000 washes.

“Offering a quality package takesteamwork, but it also requires a lot ofhomework to make sure you have thesupport to satisfy your customers,”Willkomm said. “At the end of the day,it’s your name on the sign and that’s allcustomers are going to remember whenthey leave the store. Make sure theyalways walk away satisfied.”

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