Integrating a Car Wash Program


Source: IGM • March | AprIl 2017 | 55 | By Maura Keller

According to David Dougherty, senior product manager for in-bay automatics at PDQ Manufacturing, Inc. in Depere, WI, a car wash program is a great addition to any convenience-store operation. 

“It has historically been the highest margin item at a location,” Dougherty says. “If you add a loyalty program to the mix, it will not only drive business to the car wash but the car wash can help drive business inside the store. The typical car wash can sell car wash codes both at the pumps as well as in the store.”

Experts agree that car washes have always helped to drive volume at the pumps and in the stores. In fact, having a top performing wash in your market is a great way to pull consumers to your store and drive overall store revenue. Offering promotions or discounts that require customers to come inside the store are also effective in increasing revenue.

That said, it’s important to remember that a car wash can sometimes be thought of as a luxury instead of a necessity. If you are in a region with a struggling economy with consumers experiencing tighter incomes, they may not be as willing to spend the money for something they think they can do without. Because of this, retailers have to be more creative in their efforts to entice them to utilize their facilities.

However, today’s equipment can advertise in-store specials as well as print discounts that can be redeemed in the store, truly making the equipment not only generate revenue as a car wash but as a source for in store sales.

As Bob Lye of Washing Equipment of Texas, or WET Inc., explains, car washes have been increasing in popularity as car washes provide a good convenience option to people already parked and getting gas.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to get out to the car wash only location, so having a quality car wash in the same place that you fill up is a great convenience for customers,” Lye says. “And car washes are much more energy efficient than they used to be. A fraction of the water is all it takes to wash a car, and the detergents can be bought in concentrate and mixed, making them more affordable than ever. A lot of stores opening car washes tend to sell the car washes as a bonus when getting gas. If you’re already parked and getting gas, why not take three minutes or less to get a car wash too.

Joseph Bona, veteran c-store/petroleum designer and consultant and president of Bona Design Lab, New York, NY, says car washes give consumers more reasons to patronize a site even when not buying gas on a particular visit.

“They provide more opportunities to drive traffic to a site and can establish a strong loyalty to both the store and gas pumps,” Bona says. “Cross-promotional opportunities can really help drive transactions and loyalty.”

When incorporating car washes into c-store environments, Bona sees a common mistake—namely a lack of proper planning for queuing both pre-wash and post-wash.

“It’s critical to ensure that you aren’t giving up store parking space or having lines interfere with fueling or general site ingress/egress,” Bona says.

It’s also paramount to invest in the “latest and greatest” car wash technology that your budget allows. Next-generation friction wash systems have begun incorporating new technologies that control and optimize how brushes come in contact with the vehicle, improving throughput and cleanliness.

“Likewise, new touchless washes have sensor technologies that allow cars to just drive into a bay without having to worry about being perfectly aligned, reducing anxiety of drivers and improving speed of service,” Bona says.

Jerry McDaniel, owner of Dirtbuster Car Wash, stresses that user experience is vital to any successful business, but especially integral to the success of a car wash. Menu options need to be highly visible and clearly state what’s included. Timers should have an audible warning.

“New technology has allowed car wash owners to provide a user experience that goes well beyond those seemingly basic considerations,” McDaniel says. “A great example is the use of mobile apps to enhance the convenience factor of the car wash experience.”

For example, the Dirtbuster Mobile App allows users to select their location from a list, choose their desired wash, activate the wash, and pay, all with a few button presses, without eve rolling down a window.

“Not only does the app greatly improve the convenience of visiting the car wash, it also rewards customers with free washes just for using the app. A points system is used, similar to a punch card system,” McDaniel says. In addition to the points system, Dirtbuster also offers new app users a free wash for downloading the app and award points for referrals, which are sent to friends via text message. These benefits are beneficial to end-users, but they’re even more beneficial for Dirtbuster’s marketing efforts. They utilize Facebook and Instagram to promote app downloads, using the free wash reward with download as an attractive call-to-action. Furthermore, they’re able to track customer behavior, active users, and more.

Key Marketing Tactics

Marketing is critical for any business, and a car wash is no different. Because a car wash purchase is often the result of convenience or impulse, actively promoting the car wash is the best strategy to follow. And due to the high margins associated with operating a car wash, it is important to convert as many opportunities as possible to a purchase.

One easy and effective technique is to discount at-the-pump sales, typically structured as cents-per-gallon off with purchase of car wash. Another strategy for success is to offer Point-of-Sale (POS) codes for your car wash. This follows the basic marketing premise, “make it easy for your customers to do business with you.”

POS marketing materials are very effective at communicating the various car wash programs available and the associated incentives with each package. With automated pay machines and self-serve gas, the only way to communicate with customers is through this kind of marketing, which can be very effective in getting customers to buy a wash or upgrade to the top package.

Cashier training with emphasis on suggestive selling can also help increase car wash purchases. That’s because a high percentage of customers will accept a cross-sell or up-sell offer if you simply give them a good reason to accept it, so make sure that every customer that makes a purchase in the store gets asked if they want or wash or, if they’re already buying one, if they want to upgrade to the top wash to get the added features that it includes.

Dougherty says offering a loyalty program and advertising has proven to be a big success for most operators.

“Monthly programs are the trend lately; however you will need to make sure your payment terminal is capable of handling this without the expense of added labor,” Dougherty says. “Loyalty is typically spread best by word of mouth and can be a huge benefit to an operator.”

And many c-store operators don’t discount the car wash, they discount the gas. Given the high profit margin on the car wash and the low margin on gas, plus the average consumer’s obsession with gas prices, discounting gas a few pennies a gallon is a more powerful marketing tool than discounting the car wash
a dollar or two. And, as mentioned above, taking advantage of every opportunity (signage, transactions in the c-store, etc.) to up-sell the customer is very effective if you just articulate to the customer a reason to spend that extra dollar or two.

Of course, a simple approach to marketing that is often overlooked is talking to your business neighbors to co-brand your sites or loyalty programs, which can be great for both businesses.

So are there certain parts of the country where car washes are more prevalent or do better? In actuality, a car wash can be successful in any part of the country. There are local weather issues that can dirty vehicles in every part of the world.

“The old adage ‘location, location, location,’ holds true with every business including the car wash,” Dougherty says. “The north cold weather climates may have the winter months where they are more busy, but the south has seasons that cause consumers to wash more frequently.”

On the horizon

Running a car wash for the first time, in many ways, is the same as any other new business venture. The winners seek out the industry experts and learn from their experience. They find the success stories and adopt their best practices.

And as with any capital improvement or addition, there are bound to be problems and mistakes made. “The biggest mistake we see is purchasing equipment that doesn’t truly meet their needs,” Dougherty says. “They may purchase based on price, however they will pay dearly for that in the long run with limited revenue-generating services, higher rates of consumables, and poor local service and support. As retailers research a car wash they should be focused on consumption efficiencies, throughput, revenue generating features, and strong local support.

Also, understanding the technology available, as well as the future potential for technological improvements in today’s car wash systems, will help c-store owners and operators make educated decisions surrounding the appropriate car wash technology to use.

Technology improvements are a constant in all industries, and the car wash industry is no different. An important item to consider when purchasing a car wash, is to make sure the manufacturing company is a technological leader. You don’t want to buy the same equipment/technology that was offered 50 years ago.

“Make sure the equipment you choose is made by a forward-thinking company,” Dougherty says. “PDQ is part of Dover.

Corporation and we are constantly challenged to be innovative in our designs and products. We always have open projects that are looking into new and creative ways to wash a car.”

Bona believes that as sites continue to increase in size, it will be important to treat all site activity with the same level of importance and brand presence. This means creating related but-equal service offerings that on their own operate and function as individual businesses but, at the same time, are all connected to make it easy and efficient for customers to both understand and use the site for multiple needs and occasions, thus promoting loyalty to the location.

As for the future of technology within the car wash industry, McDaniel foresees the continued development of convenience related technologies that further enhance the user experience.

“C-store owners are poised to not only benefit from the added convenience of an on-site car wash, but also from the marketing opportunities, relationship building, consumer data, and enhanced customer experience,” McDaniel says.

Operators who put the time and energy into marketing the car wash and maintaining the equipment to ensure a good quality product are consistently recognized as being leaders in the c-store industry. Of course, that’s not because of the car wash alone—it’s because they devote the time and energy to maximize the return of every profit center within their business model, including the car wash.