Auto Laundry News - August 2012

Mini-Tunnels — The Latest Big Thing

By Anthony Analetto

Mini-tunnels, while certainly not new, are suddenly a main topic of conversation in car washing. In preparing for this article I decided to search “products introduced before their time.” After reading that the first fax process was patented 121 years before it went into service and that it took over 15 years for compact disks to catch on after their introduction, I suppose it’s reasonable that something not exactly new appears new after being introduced years earlier. The question is why? What has changed in the marketplace that’s fueling the popularity of mini-tunnels? What’s different about the technology behind today’s mini-tunnels that makes them so exciting? Let’s take a look.

CHANGING CUSTOMERS

In a hurry, I recently abandoned my preferred grocery store without even thinking about it in an effort to save less than five minutes. Looking back now, that decision amazes me. Have you ever tried a competitive grocery, pharmacy, or any other business to save time or money? Of course you have. So have your customers.

The primary interest in mini-tunnels is coming from operators with high-volume in-bay automatics at either petroleum or self-serve locations. Although friction in-bay automatics available today can produce a quality wash faster than ever before, the inherent need to make multiple passes over a vehicle will always restrict their throughput. Being attacked from multiple sides, many previously strong in-bay sites have seen wash volumes drop in recent years. For some, express-exterior tunnels have entered their market, siphoning from their business. Others have seen a greater tendency for customers to drive off rather than wait for a wash with even a moderate line. The double-edged sword is that profits from those in-bay automatics have become more critical as petroleum operators have watched both gas and c-store margins tighten, while self-serve washes in many markets have seen a dip in popularity. Throughput has always been an inherent problem with an in-bay automatic. At an already proven in-bay automatic location, it’s no surprise they’re looking to reload with a mini-tunnel able to sustain a 40-to-50-car-per-hour chain speed with every extra service available. What’s interesting is the number of both new investors and regional chains looking at mini-tunnels for freestanding car wash locations.

It’s hard enough to find a piece of land, with good visibility, easy access, and a strong daily car count with limited competition at an affordable price. Throw in the fact that it has to be large enough to accommodate a 100- to 160-foot tunnel with 20 or more free-vacuum lanes and the universe of available properties dwindles further. While researching properties, I often find myself thinking, “I wonder if…” Sometimes I’ll see a nice property in a smaller market and be enticed by a reasonable asking price, only to decide that the daily traffic count isn’t high enough to support the volume needed to make the numbers work for a full-sized express-exterior tunnel. Once you shrink the building requirement to 35 feet, however, suddenly everywhere you look you can see a potential car wash property. Closed gas stations, vacant drugstores, small lots on good streets off the main thoroughfare, even re-use of an existing building all become possibilities.

This of course brings us to another debate. Should a car wash be built to process the peak anticipated volume
or the average daily volume for a particular site. There’s a popular phrase I’ve heard from more than one car wash veteran: “You’ve got to make hay when the sun shines.” Having sat by and watched weeks of prolonged bad weather threaten my business on several occasions, I’ve always been a fan of the build to process the peak anticipated volume. Knowing I could process every car that came my way once the weather turned always provided the peace of mind that I could make up for days of bad weather in a single sunny day. Building to peak anticipated volume is a form of insurance. Today’s mini-tunnels, able to deliver a product on par with the largest tunnel, albeit at a slower chain speed, raise some interesting questions. How much insurance in the form of excess capacity does
a car wash location truly need? Does it change in different climates? In an evolving economy where customers will change purchasing decisions to shave minutes from their day, how close is too close to build next to a strong competitor? As a regional brand, is it better to build multiple small locations nearer to one another or large locations more spread apart? We’ll start to understand this better as more locations are built, but for now, it helps explain why there’s so much talk about mini-tunnels.

CHANGING EQUIPMENT

As I said in the opening of this article, mini-tunnels are not new. They’ve been installed at both gas stations and self-serve washes for at least 20 years that I can remember. Although normally attended, a practice I still firmly believe in, I can recall seeing unattended tunnels with gated entry in operation more than 15 years ago. So what exactly is new? The answer is that nearly everything is new.

Before I get to wash performance, I want to dismiss an old stereotype regarding gas station mini-tunnels. In years past, mini-tunnels at gas stations were predominantly installed and operated by the oil companies. Offered at that time as a freebie with a fill-up, these tunnels rarely delivered a wash quality on par with the professional car washes at that time, mainly full-serves. Equipment in general didn’t perform like it does today and most washes relied heavily on labor. Poor equipment maintenance and ineffective labor management from large corporate entities translated to a bad customer experience. Fast forward to today, and the story is very different. The petroleum retailers of today looking at mini-tunnels are savvy independent operators looking to build a profitable business. Focused on customer experience and faced with dwindling profit from gas and c-store operations, car washing doesn’t represent a side business, but a key profit center. Armed with equipment that can deliver an absolutely clean, dry, shiny car with no prepping, this group represents serious competition. Speaking of equipment, let’s examine what makes it so different.

First are the wrap-around washers. Able to clean front, back, and side surfaces this technology was absent from past mini-tunnels. Combined with high-performance top brushes able to detect and retract automatically when required, these tunnels provide effective cleaning of all surfaces at slow chain speeds. Add in high-pressure components, and wash material advancements that clean more effectively and safely than ever before and you start to appreciate the true difference of today’s mini-tunnel washes. Throw in chemistry that is light-years ahead of what was available just a few years ago and top it off with video pay stations and control systems that can identify repeat customers and manage loyalty programs and you have a formidable business in 35 feet.

In many ways the original mini-tunnels were a product introduced before their time. I have no doubt however that they’ll be altering the way cars are washed for years to come.

Good luck and good washing.

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory, creator of the Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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