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Convenience store operators across the country will tell you that as an industry we've come a long way from the days when the car wash was out back. By this I mean a dingy, dirty and often outdated facility that operators used as a loss-leading freebie with a gas fill.
Since the advent of touch-free in-bay automatic technology in the 1980s, car washing has grown into a profit center in the petroleum marketing and convenience store industry.
But while profits from washing cars are greatly improved, public perception of "gas station car washes" needs work. This presents a good news-bad news scenario for operators. The bad news is the image problem really does exist as a barrier to better profits. The good news is changed perceptions mean new customers.
One successful perception makeover is that of Phil Goode Grocery of Des Moines, Iowa. In order to market the site as a destination the company developed a theme logo and brochures around a character called "Phil Goode" to help make customer experience more fun. It also has added a loyalty program called the "Phil Up Club" where customers fueling up 10 times receive a free deluxe car wash as a reward. In addition, Phil Goode runs cross-promotions among various profit centers, including the Goode Gulp Gang and Goode Sub Club, which respectively offer a free cup of coffee and sandwich after a certain number of washes.
Phil Goode is trying to make it fun for the customer and, at the same time, grow its profits.
At the Car Care World Expo earlier this year, several presentations looked at providing operators some solutions toward growing the category as a profit driver and ideal cross-merchandiser.
To improve a car wash's reputation retailers need to establish attainable goals and firm benchmarks through which to measure progress. Industry statistics indicate that the typical wash rings $6 in revenue — if you can get $7 per vehicle you are moving into the good to exceptional range. From a petroleum standpoint, the easiest thing to do is look at some averages. If you are selling 100,000 gallons of gasoline per month, your c-store car wash should take in $6,000 in revenue.
Once the benchmarks are set, consider the following tips to deliver a crisp car-wash operation that distinguishes your operation from the freebies of 20 years ago.
Keep your car-wash bay clean. Make a commitment to keeping your bay clean and put procedures in place for your staff to ensure it happens.
Cross-promote. Cross promoting your car wash with either in-store items or with neighborhood businesses benefit both you and the customer. Among the more natural alliances are dry cleaning, an automotive parts/car care business or a doughnut shop.
Create a car-wash loyalty program: Develop a car wash club card that rewards your customer's loyalty. An obvious benefit is that with each visit the customer is exposed to more and more of your business's profit centers. Make sure to measure the loyalty card's effectiveness and use an expiration date for the cards. This will create urgency for the customer to come back sooner.
Use in-store signage promoting car washes. Utilize signage in the store in a highly visible area that offers a free car wash if the cashier does not ask the customer if they would like their car washed.
Manage the car wash. Monitor and evaluate your car-wash sales as you would your cigarette or gasoline sales. Most operators can rattle off their gasoline sales or soda sales right off the top of their heads. Give your car wash the same level of importance.
Talk to customers. Many full-service car-wash operators talk to their customers about the positive psychological benefits of driving a clean car. Convey the same message to increase your capture ratio.
Promote impulse and destination. Court both the impulse customer and the destination customer. The destination customers will provide extra value for your business if you can get them to become regulars because they come specifically for the wash.
A lot of these principles can be learned from Camden Car Wash in Camden, Maine, a coastal town with a population of 4,000. The owner, Brad Parker, completed a total makeover of his site including upgrading his car wash equipment.
Some things that make this site unique are the customized light poles and fixtures that give it a Colonial look, tying into the area's clapboard and cupola architectural motif. The cupola on the car wash building itself features a clock that Parker bought in Switzerland just for this project. With the changes, Parker's business has exploded — averaging more than 1,700 cars per month at a gross per car of $9.50.
Remember, seeing is believing is profiteering.
Mark Thorsby is executive director of the International Carwash Association in Chicago. He can be reached at (312) 321-5199. Readers can also learn more by going to ICA's Web site at www.carcarecentral.com.