Growing Your Car Wash Business

SONY DSCLocation, appearance and service are among the most important factors to consider when building and operating car washes.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

Getting the most out of a car wash operation is no different than getting the most out of any profit center a convenience store offers to the public. It hinges on two tasks: attracting new customers and giving existing customers reasons to increase visits.

When it comes to car washes, retailers must be pushing a dual strategy to go after these disparate customer groups.

“Customers need more than just a dirty car to purchase a car wash,” said James Schutz, vice president of Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. “They must see a value. The car wash must be clearly advertised and a reward should be given for multiple purchases, which can be things like discounts on future fuel or foodservice products. The key is to tell your customer you have superior equipment, with the options they are looking for, such as branded wax or tire cleaner.

Open Pantry currently operates five stores in the Madison, Wis. and Milwaukee markets, including four units with drive-through car washes.

Retaining customers is almost always a result of satisfying their expectations. “Once customers enter the car wash, the true experience starts,” Schutz explained. “Is the wash bay completely clean? Is the wash bay well lit? Do all of the functions work? Are the doors operating properly? Are the dryers working?”

Any perceived failure of the wash completely wipes out the exceptional value that drove the customer to purchase the wash. “With a car wash, the customer does not have the opportunity to express his concerns. We then do not have the opportunity to solve their concerns. Thus, the customer never returns,” Schutz said.

The washing process itself must proceed seamlessly, especially since an automobile is likely the most expensive thing a convenience store customer owns. “The wash must be inspected daily for proper operating experience and several times during busy periods,” Schutz said.

Unfortunately, routine and preventative maintenance is an area that busy convenience stores often overlook.

“The car wash needs to function properly so it is routinely exceeding the customers’ expectations,” Schutz said. “Procedures need to be in place to handle car wash issues, and this is where employee education becomes paramount. If sales associates are not trained on handling minor repair problems, the integrity of the wash declines in the customer’s eyes. Every associate needs to be trained on handling minor repair issues.”

As part of the comprehensive maintenance schedule, employees should have access to qualified repairmen that can fix the car wash equipment if it fails.

Listen to Customers
Another often overlooked strategy for the car wash is to solicit customer feedback. Since most convenience store car washes are of the self-service variety, a customer routinely lacks the opportunity to express his concerns to the operator. Schutz urged colleagues to maximize customer feedback where possible. “Do just ask for customer feedback,” he said. “Be ready to act and respond to their concerns,” he said.

Those who choose not to focus management time and experience on making the car wash more profitable are losing potential sales.

According to the International Carwash Association (ICA), professional car washes use less than one-tenth of 1% of the water used by a municipality, daily. Plus, most professional car washes use water reclamation systems that significantly reduce water usage. Here are some simple tips to achieve an extra 10–20% profit with a car wash:

• Having a car wash equipped with cash and credit card acceptors will appeal to road warriors in a hurry. It’s akin to having pay at the pump on your fuel pumps.
• Don’t let your vacuum business slip away. This is another often overlooked destination. Check your hoses regularly and offer other items like air fresheners to boost incremental sales.
• During freezing weather, train yourself to open the car wash as soon as the temp hits 34 degrees and is on the upswing. Many car wash facilities keep their doors closed for hours after the morning sun has warmed into the 40’s. All that does is send customers to the competition.
• Spend time investing in your employees’ training. Teach, implement and enforce a rule requiring each of your employees to use suggestive selling to market the car wash every single day, without exception. Discipline is the key.

Season for Selling
Jim Callahan, director of marketing for Geo. H. Green Oil in Fairburn, Ga., said that while most customers lack the time or the dedication to wash their own vehicle, everyone feels better driving a clean car.

“Yet, most major convenience store chains have very few stores with a good car wash, giving you an opportunity to create an important point of differentiation to set you apart from the pack,” Callahan said. “Car washing, to some, carries a reputation for not being very profitable because of the costs of chemicals, an increased water bill and ongoing repairs. But let’s not forget that a car wash provides a steady cash flow every day.”

Callahan stressed three areas retailers must master to succeed in the car wash business:
1Capitalizing on the different seasons. In the winter, salt damages the paint on cars. In the spring, pollen is an issue. Customers are looking for a place to get their cars cleaned up.
2 The critical importance of having a clean car wash appearance. What customer would want to shop at a car wash that looks dirty and uses dirty water? “This is not the reputation you want for your facility,” Callahan said.
3 Using those learned and acquired suggestive selling techniques. “For example, the spring pollen season and the fall leaf season both provide great opportunities for employees to be suggestively selling car washes because every single customer that walks through your doors will need a car wash,” Callahan said. “And the best part is, he will need another one tomorrow. So make sure the wash is spotless and your people are encouraged and rewarded for their success.”

Training, Quality, Value
Fabulous Freddy’s, based in Las Vegas, offers customers full-service car washes at all eight of its locations. It strongly believes in using the car washes as a tool to attract new customers. For example, for Veteran’s Day earlier this year, the company gave away free washes to all military veterans and active duty military personnel.

The company also routinely trains its employees on the different washes it offers and the advantages of each, said Lori Bull, a category manager for Fabulous Freddy’s.
Sales associates and gas attendants are encouraged to engage customers in conversations to get them to feel more comfortable. “One of the topics we like to touch on with a customer is whether or not he has ever used our wash before. If not, employees will explain the benefits, such as a 20-cent-per-gallon discount when they purchase a wash,” Bull said. “If the customer has used our wash, we will ask him how he liked it.”

Customer retention is very much a priority at Fabulous Freddy’s, Bull explained. “We have a loyalty card, and besides the fuel discount we offer, once a customer has purchased 10 washes, the 11th is free,” she said. “We also gift our registered card holders with a free birthday wash.”

Fabulous Freddy’s also has wash-coupon books that go on sale for Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which offer customers discounts on repeat visits.


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