Auto Laundry News - August 2013

Big Improvements - Small Investments — Making the Most of Your Site on a Budget

By Marcus McLaughlin

A canopy or awning can create a stunning visual effect.

Prominent lot striping promotes hassle-free navigation.

There’s no question the national economy is improving. Is your car wash?

Consumer confidence is at a five-year high, unemployment is at its lowest since 2008, and businesses are investing again — in employees, site improvements, capital equipment, new and improved products, and more expansive marketing efforts.

For existing car wash operators, the time to attract these newly confident customers is now — both to give their car washes a timely boost in revenues and profits, and also help position their washes for long-term strength and stability with a larger customer base.

So the question isn’t whether wash operators should invest in site improvements now; it’s what improvements will deliver the most immediate impact and long-term payoff — with low to moderate costs that will be within the budget of nearly every car wash owner. The following are a few ideas that meet these criteria. Taken singly, each of them offers a tangible improvement in visibility, image, and business results. Used in combination, they can help transform a car wash from “drab” to “fab” — these ideas can be easily customized to meet the individual needs of a given car wash site.

Want More Business? Here’s Your Sign
With customers more willing and able to spend, now is a good time to re-evaluate your street sign. Because car washing is often an impulse purchase, your sign is a vital first link in the chain that helps drive your business. You can’t wash cars that don’t come, and you won’t get customers if they don’t know your wash exists nor understand the value you offer.

For these reasons, industry experts estimate the value of a good street sign at one-quarter of the value of your business, and I can’t say I disagree. With all the focus in our industry on the throughput capability of the wash bay, it’s easy to overlook the fact that actual throughput begins at the street with how many cars pull onto your lot.
It’s also true that a great sign delivers these benefits, in order:

  1. Creates awareness of your business, i.e., “Yes, there is a car wash here”
  2. Improves wash counts by increasing your capture rate of drive-by traffic
  3. Builds your brand, helps establish your identity, and sets the stage for a great first impression.

While signs elsewhere on your lot may be promotional or navigational, the street sign is both promotional and navigational. It works best when it clearly communicates the presence of your car wash, and the site branding is a secondary mission of the sign. We’re in a business where “what you do” is more important than “who you are,” and an attractive street sign that legibly reads “CAR WASH” (with colors and design that complement your brand) will do you more good than one that promotes the name of the wash more prominently than the service provided.

What Can Lot Signs Do for You? A Lot
While a great street sign can help get customers on your lot — and give them a cue that helps bring them back — the benefits of effective signage continue once customers are on the lot. Of course, great promotional signs can help suggestively sell your upper-level offerings, helping boost profit per car and customer satisfaction at the same time. And navigational signs can eliminate customer confusion about where to go and what to do next, reducing your need for costly labor to assist customers, increasing your overall wash throughput, and improving the customer experience. All of which improves your bottom line today, and builds customer loyalty to help sustain your business tomorrow.

A Well-Utilized Site Meets Customers’ Needs – and Yours
Now is a good time to take stock of your site to ensure it’s working for you — to attract customers, maximize profit per car, and keep them coming back. A good start is analyzing your entry and exit points. Do they make sense for your current traffic pattern and customer habits? Are they clearly marked, wide enough, and do they maximize throughput and inspire customer confidence? It’s always true that if customers don’t feel comfortable entering the property — for any reason — they just won’t come. It’s also true that if they perceive exiting to be problematic in any way, they also won’t come. Make sure your site promises (and delivers) an easy in/easy out experience, and you’ll remove these hurdles to getting and keeping more customers.

On-Site Traffic Should Flow Better Than the Street out Front
Customers expect a feel-good experience at the car wash — after all, they come in to recapture some of that new-car feeling that enhances their car ownership experience. It stands to reason they want to escape the hustle and bustle of the road when they pull onto your lot — and that traffic flow on your property should be more relaxed, more logical, less confusing, and much less frantic than traffic whizzing by on the roadway out front.

You can achieve this with very clear navigational signage, prominent lot striping, and a new analysis of traffic flow on your lot. How do the cars move once they’re on your property? Does it make sense? Is it smooth and hassle-free? Does it support every part of your business? Does it maximize throughput and revenue for your car wash and any ancillary profit centers?

Is There Room in Your Business for Additional Services? Is There Room on Your Lot?
Every car wash is different — and so is every site. And because markets change over time, it’s good to periodically re-evaluate your service offering to see what could be added to increase your revenues, profits, and value to your customer base. Is there room on your property to add vacuums — whether paid or free? Is there space to add or expand a detail offering? Would a coffee hut or kiosk make sense for your business? What about additional vending opportunities? Again, the fit of these add-ons will be site specific, and you will be the best judge of what’s best for your customers and your business. But in many cases, “what’s best” won’t be the status quo.

To Build a Better Business, Consider Improving Your Building
Your car wash building can speak volumes about your business — even if it sends a message you don’t intend. When customers see a building they consider outdated, boring, or even just a little worn-looking, they will often assume the car wash inside is similarly yesterday’s news, uninteresting, or out of repair.

A lot can be done to improve the eye appeal of car wash buildings, and much of it can be done very affordably. Of course, a fresh coat of paint goes a long way toward freshening the look of any building, and other elements can also be added to help soften or modernize the look of your facility. A great example is a canopy or awning. These can be fabric or vinyl, as in the case of an awning — or a metal façade added to a block building as an architectural canopy. The visual effect can be stunning — akin to seeing a brand new building — as such an addition can completely transform a boring concrete block building into a striking, modern-looking structure that people immediately notice from the street.

Change Your Competitive Landscape – With Better Landscaping
When people say “curb appeal” they often mean landscaping. And there’s a good reason — relatively easy, affordable improvements in landscaping can make a big difference in how your site is perceived from the street. Everyone knows that selling a home is easier with attractive landscaping. “Selling” your business to passersby is the same — great landscaping will catch their attention and help set the tone for a great first impression of your site. More than that, a well-landscaped site shows that someone is taking ownership of the site and its appearance and demonstrates the pride of that ownership. Many customers will assume (even if subconsciously) that pride of ownership extends throughout the site — and that it indicates a well-maintained wash and well-run business.

Lastly, Put Your Business on Solid Footing — With Lot Maintenance
A top-down approach to freshening the look of a site might start with the street sign, then work down to the building, the lot signs, the landscaping — and finish up with the lot itself.

Just as folks expect traffic to flow better on your lot than it does on the street, they expect the lot to be in better repair than the street — a kind of getaway from the cracks, ruts, and potholes of the public roadway.

That’s why fixing problem areas on your lot is key to improving the customer experience. If the trip across your property is jarring to the customer, it can shake their confidence in your business and its offerings. On the other hand, a pleasantly smooth parking lot can be the final touch your customers appreciate — and it can help ensure smooth sailing that gets customers to come back to your wash, again and again.

Marcus McLaughlin is a marketing manager at Belanger Inc., and was formerly marketing director for one of Michigan’s largest car wash chains.

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