Industry View: Don't Overlook Car-Wash Potential
Thanks to razor-thin profit margins, operators of retail-fueling locations know that fuel sales are not enough to keep the doors open and the bottom line black. That’s why they are always looking for ways to create ancillary profit streams. It’s why they crowd the point-of-sale area with potential impulse buys. It’s why they offer two-for-$2 hot dog or 79-cent fountain drink specials. It’s why they flank the entrance with an ice chest or propane-exchange cage (or both). And it’s why they create and implement loyalty programs designed to cultivate repeat customers.
However, too many operators of retail-fueling locations are overlooking a prominent way they can maximize their bottom lines: using that extra space on their lot to install a car wash. Or, if they already have a big rectangular box sitting on the corner of their property, finding the best ways to optimize its use and return on investment.
Because of lack of space, most operators of retail-fueling locations have installed (or will install) an in-bay automatic car wash on their sites. This is the technology of choice for several reasons: In-bay automatics have a smaller footprint than tunnel systems, which can be two to three times longer than in-bay systems; they require far less maintenance; and, most important, they do not require a carwash attendant, meaning no labor costs.
For in-bay automatic car washes, there are two prevalent types of technology: friction, in which a specifically designed closed-cell foam, also known as brushes, gently touch the vehicle to remove dirt and grime; and touchless, in which high-pressure water is used to perform the cleaning while moving around the vehicle’s exterior applying wash chemicals, polishes and rinse water.
While choosing between a friction and touchless style of car wash often is a matter of personal taste, advances in the types of technology that power both styles of wash can make either a wise choice for the fueling-site operator who is looking to maximize profits. For example:
▶ The manufacturers of next-generation friction-wash systems have begun incorporating electronic variable frequency drive (VFD) technology, which controls the movement and impact of the soft-foam brushes on the vehicle. Older systems use hydraulics and air cylinders to control component movement. This out-of-date technology is prone to leaks and breakdowns. Also, hydraulics are unable to effectively sense the size and shape of the vehicle, resulting in higher incidents of vehicle damage. The ability of the VFD to monitor the foam brushes so they provide optimal vehicle contact, orientation and wash speed will result in not only a cleaner vehicle, but also a safer and more cost-efficient wash experience.
▶ New-era touchless systems feature a simple design that results in easy operation and lower equipment and maintenance costs for the operator. Touchless technology has advanced in that the wash bridges contain sensors that can “see” how the vehicle has been positioned in the wash bay and then have the capability to adjust the way the bridge travels so a clean vehicle is produced in the most efficient manner possible. And the open-bay design of next-generation touchless systems eliminates the need for a floor treadle that must be driven onto to activate the wash. This simple feature will remove an area of concern for drivers who may fear that they won’t be able to align their vehicle properly.
The driving force of car-wash profitability is throughput, meaning the more vehicles that can be washed in an hour, the higher the profit margin. Newer touchless systems now can wash as many as 23 vehicles in 60 minutes. While the speed of the wash has been ratcheted up, the quality of the wash—thanks to the advances in wash technology outlined above—has not been compromised. This ensures that your customers are spending less time waiting for the wash to be completed and are still driving away with a clean vehicle.
Providing a clean vehicle in an efficient time period will create loyalty. The customer who realizes he or she is receiving a good value will be more likely to return to the same facility, which can lead to a trickle-down effect that results in an increased volume of ancillary purchases. When the operator realizes he has a customer base that is returning on a regular basis, he can put into place a more formal loyalty program that rewards repeat customers with offers that are sure to entice them return to his site.