Many decisions play a part in the profitability of a car wash: Touch-free or friction? In-bay or automatic? Rollover or mini-tunnel? Attended or unattended? How much throughput? Which entry system? How to maximize upsell opportunities? How to minimize electric bills? Where to site the wash? How to make it visible and distinctive? How often to clean the bay? Is the store manager or central office responsible?
With all that to keep in mind, it can be easy to overlook a basic consideration—soap. “After all, what matters in the end is a clean car,” said Dave Hart, director of vehicle wash for Zep Inc., an Atlanta-based manufacturer of industrial cleaning products.
Yet to earn high profits a car wash literally needs the right "chemistry" since presoaks, soaps, conditioners, drying agents, and waxes dictate the services operators can sell and thus the prices they can charge. Interviews with manufacturers of car wash chemicals suggest two distinct strategies for optimizing upsell: leveraging the brand or leveraging the experience.
“Although a lot of people focus on performance, we’ve seen a direction towards branding because customers will pay more for a brand like Armor All® that they recognize,” said Hart. Similarly, at the car wash division of Simoniz USA in Bolton, Conn., national sales manager John Kelliher said his company is co-branding with Dupont and its Teflon® brand so that car wash operators can offer trusted names to their customers.
“We try to focus on creating the right experience to encourage repeat business,” said Doug Marquis, sales and marketing vice president for Lustra car care products
at Cleaning Systems Inc., De Pere, Wis., a manufacturer of cleaning and protection products for the transportation industry. “Along with the general cleanliness of your car wash,” he noted, “the color, scent, and quality of cleaning are just as important for the look and feel of the site.”
“At the end of the day, you must have products that work,” said Mark Miller, vice president of marketing for Ecolab Vehicle Care in St. Paul, Minn. But also important is for car wash operators to “imagine a consumer with a four-year old in tow. The sounds, smells, motion, and color are as part of the theatre of the wash. If those elements are compelling, parents and kids will remember the experience and come back.”
Green Equals Green
Along with branding and with managing the customer's experience, another marketing strategy is promoting environmental responsibility. Fred Joseph, group leader for professional products at Turtle Wax in Westmont, Ill., said his company offers a hyper-concentrated product line. This means the product reduces water costs as well as the amount of money an operator spends to wash each car. “With the proper dilution, a hyper-concentrated product can wash more cars, which means less refill service visits,” he said.
To aid car wash operators in “going green,” Turtle Wax has obtained certification of its products through the EcoLogo™ Program, which was launched by Environment Canada and now certifies products worldwide. Its objective is to combat “greenwashing,” which is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
Zep has likewise introduced a line of green products called EnviroEdge. “Offering an environmentally-friendly product is a way to get to the consumer,” explained Hart. “Banners that use natural elements can convey the message, ‘Come to our wash because it’s safer for the environment.’ And as a bonus, a concentrated product also means less packaging and less fuel spent to ship it.”
EcoLab's Miller said, “The focus of the car wash industry the last eight to 12 months, by far, is sustainability. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the public. And it's everywhere: terms like ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘sustainable.’ People want sustainable solutions and in many cases they are willing to pay a premium for it.”
Anticipating a rise in green products, EcoLab made a decision. “With car care products, there are a lot of different ways that competitors go to market,” Miller noted. “We chose to make all the products in our line sustainable. But it's a win-win for consumers and car wash operators, because we've focused on developing green products that don't sacrifice performance.”
Yet even if today's consumers want greener products, they still want to baby their cars. “Some customers are still leery of getting scratches, so that touch-free cleaning continues to be in demand,” observed Joseph. “Other customers are concerned with alkaline, and some want low pH. Then there are consumers who want elements like scent and color that create a car wash experience. As for waxes, they want a shine that lasts more than a day.”
Although soaps and chemicals are "basics" of the car washing business, Joseph points to something even more fundamental. “The most important thing that affects the result of the wash is the water quality,” he said. “And if there's too much organic matter in the water or too many elements like magnesium and calcium, then that can clog up performance.”
Hart agreed, “Water quality is always a concern, and every car wash location is different. Some operators soften their water, some use reclaimed water, and some don’t.” Zep trains and certifies its field representatives so that, they can go to each retail location, evaluate the water, and offer product advice. “Taking the water into account is vital for maximizing the effectiveness of your wash,” he said.
Making the Most of It
Marketing strategies such as branding, environmental responsibility, and managing customers' experiences are especially important today. “In the current economy, people are choosing carefully how to spend their discretionary income,” Hart said, “So they aren't washing their cars as often.” Money that was spent on washes is now spent on filling the tank. For that reason, operators must get the most dollars from the customers they do have—possibly by offering extra services, which can help retailers make the most of their car wash.
At the same time, just as consumers are watching their wallets, car wash operators must be penny-wise. When it comes to purchasing car wash chemicals, Hart suggested, “Look at the price per use, not per gallon.” That advice is seconded by Rick Martens, senior chemist at Cleaning Systems, who said, “It’s not just about dollars per drum. You might pay a low price for a drum, but what if you have to replace it more often—or don't get quality results?”
Car care products that may seem less expensive can end up costing operators in the long run. “Working with a good distributor and buying high-quality products is the key to success,” said Martens. Or as Hart asked, “Are you getting consistent chemical quality that's tested and verified? And though you can always find someone cheaper, will you be getting the backup you need?”
Backup is important because, ultimately, consumers hold the car wash operator responsible for the quality of the wash. For example, because touch-free washes are more reliant on chemicals to do the cleaning, it is imperative that the machinery that applies the chemicals operate as designed. “You can make adjustments yourself for different applications,” Cleaning Systems' Doug Marquis said, “but having the support of a routine maintenance program can help lighten your burden.”
Support may come directly from the manufacturer or from a distributor. But Jim Wurm, marketing director for Cleaning Systems' Lustra product line, urges car wash operators to check out what service contracts may be available from a vendor. “In our case,” he said, “service technicians visit monthly and can change product to match the season or match the promotion you're doing. Having a local representative who knows your community helps you choose products appropriate for your market.”
With nearly 30 years of experience in the car wash business, John Kelliher of Simoniz USA has a clear philosophy of operator-vendor relationships. “First, you want a partner in the industry,” he said. “The goal is to produce clean cars and make a profit. In both of those goals, your vendor can be an asset. We not only help you run the wash correctly, but can also help you identify marketing opportunities."
Some Added Advice
Different marketing opportunities will be as different as each operator. For example, Marquis reports that touch-free car washes remain dominant in the U.S. market, but a “slight uptick” in friction washing may portend new openings for some operators. Geography is another factor. “There are places in the country where specific wash packages are offered,” he said, “such as magnesium chloride for winter.”
At the same time, some products have universal appeal. Sealants, such as Cleaning Systems' LustraSheild®, are “proving to be popular year-round, regardless of your location,” said Wurm. “When sealant is upsold as a 'plus' package, we've seen car washes that gained 15 percent in total revenue. And since a long-lasting shine is such a visible and noticeable attribute, it keeps customers coming back.”
Perhaps the biggest competition is not the car wash across the street, but the do-it-yourself consumer. “Because costs have gone up, fewer people are paying to wash their cars. So you have to offer more value in terms of extra services,” Kelliher said. “You might consider offering a windshield treatment or special tire dressing application, for instance. Promotion and quality bring them back.”
Maintaining the quality of a wash is a year-round job. “You often need to make adjustments for harsher colder cleaning,” Kelliher said. “In the summer, you don’t have the salt to fight with, but you get a fine road film. Due to the heat, the road releases oils and it’s harder to clean. One strategy is to heat water, while some operators soften the water.” Echoing the advice of other manufacturers, he said, “Especially in a touch-free wash, water quality is paramount.”
Making the car wash easy-to-use is another inducement for luring do-it-yourselfers out of their driveways. “Car wash customers usually have less contact with your onsite employees than do store customers. Often there's only a video screen to show what car wash services you offer,” Kelliher said. “Although making your customers aware of the product offerings is important, you don’t want to deliver excess information at the expense of throughput.”
For his part, Miller of EcoLab said, “At some car washes, it can be confusing. What’s the best package the customer can get? What services are offered? Too much information can be harmful, so don’t always try to communicate everything. Get it down to the top three options, because people tend to max out after that.”
Miller agreed that local conditions are a fundamental consideration in choosing appropriate chemicals. “There are so many variables, like soil conditions and water pressures, which are different around the country. It requires skill to get it right,” he said. After assuring the quality of the wash, marketing efforts should then be focused on overall value, paying attention to what’s popular with customers to bring in impulse purchases.
To gauge which car wash package will generate the biggest response, Miller said operators should evaluate their customer base and find out what kinds of local people are buying washes. “Then select a vendor that understands market segmentation and is willing to spend time in helping you develop a compelling communication strategy,” he said. “For instance, make sure any imagery in your advertising shows people who look like the customers coming to your wash. You want to get across that perfect marriage of pizzazz and performance.”