Auto Laundry News - March 2012

To Spend or Not to Spend?

By Timothy Denman

The mini express tunnel sports Sonny’s equipment.

Exiting the 43-foot mini conveyor.

Plenty of vending is available.

The self-serve bays are open 24 hours a day.

All five self-serve bays are outfitted with the latest and greatest.

The new kiosks accept gift cards and unlimited wash cards.

Free vacuums are available for mini tunnel and self-serve customers.

It is a question every owner of an aging facility must face at some point: should I reinvest or not?

A slew of factors go into the debate over conducting an overhaul (e.g., are the upgrades affordable, do the customers desire a change, what is the return on investment, etc.). Gary Richardson faced all of those questions plus one more: is the neighborhood worth the outlay.

Richardson owns four Sparkle Car Washes in Central Georgia —one of the sites is located in a
run-down section of Augusta. The area has its fair share of crime and homelessness, but Richardson decided to renovate the site and reinvest in what many in the business would consider an undesirable location.

“I had the site for 15 years, it was time to do something,” Richardson says. “I never spent any money there to make any changes from the way it was originally. I either needed to spend some money and do some upgrades or sell the property.

“The majority of the residents of the neighborhood are great people and they deserve to have the services that other people have.

It is only a very small, small percentage that have given the neighborhood a bad name.”

Richardson bought the facility 15 years ago and hadn’t made any improvements to the five self-serve bay, one in-bay automatic facility located in the Harrisburg section of Augusta. The latest investment capitalized on many recent car wash trends and brought the facility into the 21st century.

The in-bay automatic was torn out and replaced with a Sonny’s mini express tunnel. The building was originally 30 feet long; seven more feet were added to the building to accommodate the 43-foot long conveyor and a host of new wash equipment.

Unlike the old automatic with its outdated services and lack of basic features like a blower, the self-serve bays were performing well before the renovation. When Richardson started out in the car wash business 20 years ago he was a self-serve operator. Over the years he has embraced the express model and owns three full-length tunnels and the newly installed mini. Despite his migration to the express model, Richardson decided to hold on to his last group of self-serve bays located in Harrisburg, and gave the five bays a much needed upgrade.

The entire facility was given a facelift, starting with a new façade and a stacked-stone wall around the entire property. The facility was outfitted with new dollar bill acceptors, a Wash Card Systems credit card acceptor, and free vacuums for the mini express customers (available to self-serve customers when the tunnel is open).

Prior to the upgrade, the wash was plagued with panhandlers harassing customers and keeping many potential users away all together. Of course with such a large investment, Richardson had to do something to address the problem or his sparkling new facility would do little to draw in the masses.

Next to the wash sits a convenience store that acts as a beacon for the small percentage of undesirables in the area. Richardson recruited the store’s owner to help rid the area of the ever-present panhandlers. The convenience store now sells pay-at-the-pump car wash services for the neighboring wash, and has a vested interest in the wash’s success. Unlike the car wash, the convenience store is staffed round-the-clock and its employees now encourage anyone looking for a handout to move on.

Prior to the renovation the wash was completely unattended. Since the facelift the location has an attendant on site during the hours that the mini tunnel is in operation — 10 hours a day in the winter and 12 hours a day in the summer. In addition to his duties of guiding customers into the mini express and handling any problems that may arise in the self-serve bays, the attendant is charged with keeping the site free from panhandlers and troublemakers.

“Having an attendant on site has helped tremendously,” Richardson says. “Customers no longer have to worry about being aggravated when they come to the wash.”

Richardson’s four washes are all located relatively close to one another. Two washes are five or six minutes away from each other, while the other two are around a 25-minute ride. The addition of the new card readers has ushered in a new era of cross promotion at Sparkle Car Wash. The company now offers gift cards and an unlimited wash program that can be used at any of the four locations and can be bought and recharged via the Internet.

The menu at the three full length express tunnels starts at $3.99 for a basic wash and goes on up to $14.99 for the top-of-the-line experience. Although the wash offers a sub-$4 wash it doesn’t aggressively promote the entry- level offering, leaving it off of all major signage.

Richardson depends primarily on his successful fundraising campaign for his promotional and marketing efforts. Every month, each location is available for fundraising efforts for two different organizations — all told, the four locations can help support up to eight charitable organizations a month. The charities are given a promotional code and are free to spread the word any way they wish, and are allowed on site for one Saturday during the month to hold signs and help drive traffic.

All fundraising starts at the $9.99 level, with washers able to upgrade to a higher-level service if they desire. Every time an organization’s promotional code is entered into the kiosk, they are rewarded with $4.

“I have been lucky these people are my marketers,” Richardson says of the charitable organizations. “We are promoting our up-per-end washes. When the people pull out they are seeing the best we have to offer. Ideally we have a customer who only buys the $3.99 wash, but supports the charity and purchases a $9.99 wash. The idea is that they will be so impressed that we convert them to a $9.99 customer.”

There is some stiff competition in the area, with two express-only locations; six flex serves; numerous self-serve and in-bay automatic locations; and Richardson’s four washes all vying for their piece of the pie.

“The market is saturated so every customer counts,” Richardson says. “People see a bunch of cars lined up on a sunny Saturday afternoon and figure ‘hey I should open a car wash, it looks like easy money.’ What they don’t think about is the four days before that when it rained every day and we didn’t wash any cars.”

To help stay ahead of the competition Richardson is always looking for ways to improve and differentiate his service. At his three full-length tunnels he is in the process of upgrading to Sonny’s Buff-n-Dry machines to help enhance the express experience. The mini tunnel is too short to include the additional service or Richardson would have install-ed a unit at that location as well.

With continual upgrades, low pricing, charitable contributions, and a commitment to offering quality service at all of his locations, Richardson has built brand recognition in central Georgia. His willingness to reinvest in the community has brought with it early returns and the respect of a neighborhood in need of a little revival.

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