Driving Car Wash Sales

Doggy Drive Throughs

One of the faster growing car wash trends is the do-it-yourself dog wash, which appears largely driven by financial considerations on the part of dog owners. No wonder: With dog grooming salons charging anywhere from $25 to $100 to bathe Fido these days, a $5 or even $10 self-serve alternative is a real bargain when it comes to keeping canine body odor at bay.

More and more c-store operators are considering adding a dog washing facility to their car washes. After all, the plumbing and water supply are already in. And while dog bathing does require a tub, it doesn’t need a bevy of complicated machinery—just water hose with a nozzle, some dog shampoo and crème rinse, towels, a dryer with a hose and plastic or rubberized cotton aprons dog owners can use to keep themselves as dry as possible during the dog bathing process.

The dog wash model most canine owners prefer has a stainless ramp with a rubber mat, much like the ramps on horse trailers, rather than a plastic ramp which can lead to slippery dogs slipping and hurting themselves.
In addition to avoiding plastic ramps, c-store owners with coin-operated car washes should resist the temptation to buy coin-operated dog washes, cautioned Dave Grass, author of “Start Your Own Self-Serve Dog Wash.”

Not only do coin-operated models cost anywhere from 2-10 times more than regular models, Grass said, they also lack sufficiently high splash walls, making it difficult for owners to control dogs in the tub and leading to big puddles left on the floor.

“Washing dogs isn’t the same as washing cars, and that’s really the problem,” Grass said. “Coin-operated systems strike me as having been designed by people involved in the car-wash business rather than by people with dog grooming experience.”

Car wash sales at convenience stores have proven to be valuable tools for driving new business—and the potential for making big wash bucks is huge.

“On an incremental basis, washing cars is more profitable than gasoline,” said car wash consultant Robert Roman, president of RJR Enterprises, but c-store owners must be careful to choose the unit best-suited to the marketplace, maintain it well and market the service effectively.

Kurt Bellanger, owner of two BP stations in Green Bay, Wis., said the single car wash bay he had installed in one of his units stores has boosted that site’s revenues by 10%.  “Customers love the job it does,” Bellanger said. “It’s a very high pressure, touch-free that cleans a lot better than most systems.”

Promotion Retains Punch

Terry Lamberts, president of Prairie State Enterprises, went even further, saying his car washes have grown his stores’ profits substantially. Lambert’s most successful car wash promotion so far has been offering a 30-cent discount per gallon on fuel with the purchase of a car wash, a practice he launched when gas was nearing $4 a gallon.

“When I put that promotion into play, I immediately saw a 15% increase in my gasoline volume, and about a 30% increase in car wash purchases,” said Lambert, who owns two stores and distributes Marathon, CITGO, Exxon, Mobil and Cenex fuels to dozens of dealer locations in Illinois and Wisconsin. “People who were going to buy a car wash from my competitor saw a $4.50 savings on buying a car wash from me with a 15-gallon fuel purchase and went for it right away.”

Lambert’s stores have retained their car wash sales volume now that gas prices are lower, and his customers are buying even more washes now. Amortizing the gas discount against all the fuel he sells, the cost to him is less than a penny per gallon, he noted. “I’ll gladly take a $7 car wash sale, for which my cost is a little over a buck, and lose $4.50 on the gas purchase,” Lambert said. “Profitability wise, I’m better off than I was before. I’m selling gas and the wash, and often those buyers come into the store and buy even more.”

By contrast, Marc Delery, manager of Mandeville, La.-based Blue Harbor Point Car Wash, which includes a lube and oil change facility, said his company doesn’t do much specific promotion at all. “We do a $5 off coupon on an oil change and maybe a little discount on a car wash, but that’s pretty much it,” Delery said. 

Blue Harbor uses gas prices to draw customers to its stores and its Blue Harbor Pointe Loyalty Rewards Club to keep them coming back.

“We really promote everything through the loyalty club,” Delery said. “We rent two retail spots, one for video games and the other for a Quiznos franchise. We also have PJ’s Coffee House, dry cleaners, gas, convenience store and the car wash.”

Customers get points for every gallon of gas they buy and for every dollar spent at any of the sites, which links the entire operation into one large profit center.

Professional Washes More Effective
According to the International Car wash Association (ICA), professional car washes use less than one-tenth of 1% of the water used by a municipality daily. Add to that the facts that many professional car washes use water reclamation systems that significantly reduce water usage and discharge their water into a separate sewer or treat and recycle it, and keeping your buggy clean starts to look like a pretty environmentally friendly thing to do.

Alan Meyer, fuel manager for Effingham, Ill.-based Meyer Oil Co., said his company has switched to environmentally friendly cleaners and, at one location, to water reclamation as well. Seven of Meyer’s 14 c-stores have a manual or automatic car wash, branded Mach1. The store with the newest wash facilities—one automatic and three manual car wash bays—also has the company’s most profitable gasoline and store sales.

The car wash business is a feast or famine type industry. “January and February were the best months we’ve seen for car washes in years,” Myer said, due to last summer’s high gas prices and a crumbling economy. “People were having trouble justifying spending money to wash their cars.”

However, that dry spell was a short-term occurrence. In the long run, car washes make wonderful profit centers.

“The sites where we have successful car washes post a profit every month regardless of what the fuel industry is doing,” Meyer said. “Adding a car wash or lube facility to take the pressure off gas sales makes life a lot easier.”

Meyer plans to add five more sites to its portfolio, three of which will be stand alone washes.

“We are looking to grow our business,” he said, “And the larger part of it will be on the car wash side.”

Environmental Products Provide an Edge
Trends in car washes, such as environmentally friendly chemicals and water reclamation are giving savvy c-store/car wash operators an even greater competitive advantage.

Delery took a hard look at what his car wash was doing about two years ago and made some based changes such as moving to recycled products wherever it was cost effective and installing a water reclamation system. He said there’s been no negative impact on profits or customer response from going green.

“No one really noticed a difference in the quality of the washes when we switched to green wash products,” Delery noted. “We recycle 65% of the water we use, and customers love the way their cars look. I don’t think anyone else in our area is using environmentally friendly products.”

Lambert said he has used a water reclamation system for years, but found that the cost to put in the reclaimed system took several years to pay off, savings were negligible and customers didn’t like the quality of their washes. However, wash quality improved significantly when he installed a different car wash model and transitioned to environmentally friendly chemicals. “I’m really pleased they’re doing the job,” Lambert said, “And the price is about the same as what I was using before so it’s a win-win for everyone.” CSD


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