With high gasoline prices squeezing fuel margins, the addition of a car wash can turn a major profit for operators looking to make up some of the revenue lost at the pumps. It all comes down to determining the right equipment, pricing for the local market and weather conditions.
The 24 operators that participated in CSD’s Brand Preference Study operate more than 3,600 stores and approximately 2,000 car washes. Study participants voted RYKO, Mark VII and PDQ as top performers and Autec and Ecolab as honorable mentions.
After more than 30 years in the retail car wash business, Paul Vercollone qualifies as an expert on the subject of selling car washes to the motoring public. And with his many years of experience, Vercollone has a message to those operators sacrificing fuel margins or discounting washes to drive car wash sales: If you have the right offering, you don’t need to give anything away.
Vercollone, vice president of VERC Enterprises, a family-operated business based in Duxbury, Mass., said the quality of the car washes available today has been a boon for the industry. New technology in brushes, conveyors and chemicals has lifted the entire industry to the point where it should be deciding just how much of a margin to make on a wash and not what kind of a discount to offer to attract business.
"There was a time when these washes were not sophisticated so you had to be creative when trying to build incremental car wash sales," said Vercollone, who oversees 22 c-stores and travel centers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and two standalone Briteway car washes, both in Massachusetts. "In studies we have done internally, we have found that customers get their cars washed when their car is dirty, so our strategy is to go after them with the best wash possible. If you’re counting on building sales with an inferior wash, offering discounts and couponing, you are not creating a very stable foundation to grow the business."
VERC Enterprises’ system of choice these days is PDQ’s G5 touch-free Laserwash that is electronically operated, ensuring minimal downtime. The system integrates a new nozzle design, precise solution injection and faster spray arch travel speeds for increased throughput. In his conveyorized tunnels, Vercollone estimates the company can service 100 cars per hour. In-bay washes at its two c-store washes can move 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 the most expensive purchase they’ll ever make besides a house, so they want to take good care of it. The wash has to emphasize quality—that is ultimately what earns their trust and brings them back. How often do you expect to see a customer if your cheap wash scratches their new Lexus? They won’t be too concerned about having saved a dollar if that happens."
Traditionally, c-store operators have opted for the in-bay automatic systems, according to Mark Thorsby, executive director for the International Carwash Association. These systems offer easy operation, no labor costs and little maintenance. But as car washes continue to become more popular for c-stores, operators are looking for new equipment options.