Offering it All
The Milwaukee, WI car wash market is overflowing with express exteriors and in-bay automatics. Luckily for Bill Buresh he doesn’t own an unmanned facility, rather he operates a traditional full-serve.
By offering full-service at a price point that competes with the many express exteriors in town, Buresh has been able to differentiate Auto Spa from the crowd and siphon customers from the various unmanned facilities.
Buresh purchased Auto Spa nine years ago, and has survived a major gas price crisis and the toughest economic climate in generations in just his first decade as a car washer.
Entering the industry during a struggle taught Buresh the value of reliable car counts — there were times during the downturn where he was washing just 25 cars a day. Two and a half years ago Auto Spa began offering a basic wash and dry for $6, a move that has had major implications both for the wash and the competition.
“There are three express car washes less than a mile from me,” Buresh says. “When I put the sign up for the $6 wash, vacuum, and hand dry every single owner of one of those gas station car washes said something to me about taking all of their customers. I would say that our wash and vacuum volume has quadrupled.”
Buresh is quick to point out that he doesn’t make one cent on the $6 offering; that is not the point. The idea behind the entry-level wash is to keep car counts up and convert a percentage of the $6 customers to higher-level packages.
Wash package options are plentifully at Auto Spa. Nine different packages are offered, and despite the popularity of the $6 wash and dry, over 20 percent of Buresh’s business comes from his two most expensive offerings.
The $31.45 Great Value features an exterior wash and dry, deep vacuuming, window cleaning, dashboard and door jamb wiping, exterior wax, underbody flush, air freshener, rim cleaning, wheel bright, and dashboard Armor All. For $4 more the Ultimate adds RainX.
Prior to purchasing the wash in 2004, Buresh had no professional car washing experience, but like many in the industry had a deep affinity for car washing and had dreamed of owning and operating a car wash since he was a child.
“When I was a little boy I had tons of Matchbox cars, probably a couple hundred,” Buresh says. “I was super into cars. I even had a couple of little Matchbox car wash toys as well. I think that is where the obsession with conveyorized car washing came from.”
After ditching his real estate career and following his boyhood obsession for car washing, Buresh quickly realized that the industry is not exactly what he dreamed as a child, in fact it can often be a nightmare.
His first year and a half at the Auto Spa was littered with daily equipment failures, most notably from his surface conveyor. The constant equipment mishaps led to the purchase of all new wash equipment and a brand new conveyor.
Buresh purchased a 100-foot, over/under conveyor system from Belanger and Peco wash equipment. Since renovating the tunnel, Buresh’s ownership experience has improved mightily. “The old system was giving me high blood pressure,” he says. “The new equipment hasn’t broken down once since I put it in.”
In addition to the full-serve car wash services, Auto Spa sports a three-bay oil change center and a full detail center. The oil change center offers all of the standard quick lube fare: transmission flush, coolant flush, 4x4 service, serpentine belt service, fuel filters, etc.
Three full-serve detailing options are offered, with the top of the line setting the customer back $160. In addition to full-serve detailing, Auto Spa has offered express detail services for the past four years.
“Adding express detailing was one of the best things I ever did,” Buresh says. “It is extremely popular and accounts for a little over 10 percent of our sales.”
The surrounding neighborhood is primarily working class, but Auto Spa also draws in some of the area’s affluent community. The detailing center offers an airport drop off and pick up service that allows customers to leave their car with Auto Spa when they are out of town and return to a perfectly detailed automobile. The wash has an acre of paved real estate for storage.
The service is extremely popular with the Milwaukee Bucks. The wash is close to the NBA team’s practice facility and the players have spread the word about the service amongst themselves.
Auto Spa holds an advantage over most full serves around the country; it doesn’t have to worry about differentiating itself, it is the only full-serve game in town.
With a plethora of express exteriors and in-bay automatics in the market, Auto Spa stands out in a crowd. According to Buresh his market has more gas station washes per capita than any other city in the county. Auto Spa caters to the customer that is looking for a more complete experience and most of the marketing efforts focus on the fact they offer services available nowhere else.
“Over the past few years we have really gotten into Internet marketing,” Buresh says. “We have done Facebook, Google, and Yahoo marketing campaigns. We get a good response. Facebook has a strong marketing presence. You can designate it for certain areas. If someone ‘Likes’ you on their wall all of their friends can see this, which helps get the word out.”
In addition, Auto Spa offers customers printable coupons on its website. A lot of regular customers go to the site and print out the coupons prior to coming in for a wash, but the web-based coupons don’t do a good job drawing in new customers.
“We try to focus more on the app coupons not the physical ones that people have to print out and bring in,” Buresh says. “I have noticed that a lot of people don’t have printers these days. You have to stay up with the times.”
The times are undoubtedly changing. Since opening the wash, Buresh has noticed that people want to keep their cars longer and are willing to spend more money on detailing.
“We have had gas this high for so long that people have moved closer to their jobs and are taking less trips,” Buresh said. “People are mindful of how they spend their money. But car washing has come back a little bit.”
By offering services that the customer can’t get anywhere else in the market Auto Spa has set itself up to capture customers’ car care dollars. As long as it stays ahead of the curve it should have a tunnel full of cars for years to come.