Rise of the Machines
When the average person thinks of Southern California they envision sunshine and blue skies. For the car wash veteran it means something else: hand washing.
For decades the Southern California wash market has been dominated by facilities that clean cars the old fashioned way, with a large staff scrubbing fenders by hand. However, as the cost of labor continues to rise, operators are being forced to reexamine the format and introduce automation.
Ron Jones, the owner of Lake Forest Express Wash in Lake Forest, CA, recently renovated his location from a hand-wash facility to a flex-serve operation. The wash introduced the new format in May of this year, and despite some initial confusion from the customer base, is beginning to see car counts rise.
Jones was the first in the market to embrace full automation, but is sure he won’t be the last. “Hand washing in California is going to fade out,” he says. “How quickly it does is dependent on a couple of things. Unfortunately, we have had a problem in Southern California of operators not paying their staff properly. As a result some washes have been able to stay in that area of the business longer. The economics haven’t hit them quite as hard.”
In addition to owning Lake Forest, Jones was a partner in an express wash in Corona, CA. He and his partners purchased the under-performing express, fixed it up, and restructured the pricing and the place took off. Although Jones is no longer affiliated with the Corona wash, his experience there convinced him that the express/flex-serve model can be successful in California and could be the answer to rising labor costs.
Jones purchased the Lake Forest location with partners in October 2001. At that time the facility was a traditional full-serve, hand-wash location. The partners operated the location as such for 10 and a half years before embarking on the new format this spring.
The switch was not as easy as simply filling the 85-foot tunnel with sparkling new Belanger equipment and stringing up a few grand re-opening signs. The site had to be completely rearranged, the staff retrained, and most importantly the customer base had to be educated on the new format.
“To some people the thought of going through equipment is just repugnant,” Jones says. “It is our job to educate them on the safety of the new facility and the fact that the new process produces a better product. Heck, even some
of the staff was skeptical of the new format, but they agree that we are producing a cleaner car than we ever did by hand.”
Hand washing is so ingrained in the market that Jones and his staff had to be proactive and aggressive in educating customers about the concept. Lake Forest had a large, loyal customer base prior to the renovation; those customers would return at least once out of habit and curiosity and it was up to the staff to introduce the new offerings and set those worried about the use of brushes at ease.
All of the wash material is Neoglide, which is super soft and will not harm a vehicle’s finish. In the early going, the staff kept a small piece of the material in their back pockets to demonstrate to customers its supple nature. The initial education process was a success, customers are gaining confidence in the concept and car counts are beginning to climb. Although staff is still needed to educate customers, the queries are less and less; in fact most of the customer questions are now concerned with operating the two new ICS automated teller machines.
Jones knows the importance of satisfied customers and employs surveys both online and onsite to help keep his hand on the pulse of his customer base’s thoughts and concerns. One recurring theme in the comment cards is the speed at which cars are now being processed at the wash. Prior to the renovation a full-serve wash would take between 30 and 40 minutes. Now a full-serve customer can expect to be back on the road in just 20 minutes, oftentimes less.
Currently the wash employs 19, down from 26 before the transition; that number should drop even further once the education phase winds down. Of course a staff is still going to be necessary to guide customers onto the conveyor, answer any questions, and process those customers that choose the full-serve option.
Currently around 60 percent of customers opt for an express wash and 40 percent choose the full-serve option; prior to the renovation, the opposite was true with 60 percent purchasing a full-serve wash.
Those customers choosing an express wash are welcome to the 10 self-serve vacuums stations at the tunnel exit, while full-serve customers are brought over to the finishing area where interiors are serviced.
In addition to the wash business, Jones operates a high-volume Chevron gas station onsite and a Chevron Extra Mile branded c-store. The constant flow of customers onto and off of the site has always helped drive the car wash business. An express wash can be purchased at the pump, and although only around one percent of gas customers opt to purchase a wash this way, the additional revenue is of course welcome.
Lake Forest is the only wash in Orange County with automated pay terminals with customers staying in their cars as it travels down the conveyor, but Jones knows he won’t own the concept for long. He is sure that the competition will follow suit; in fact one of the wash’s direct competitors has already ordered automated equipment and will be entering the format very shortly.
That doesn’t bother Jones, he knows that hand washing in Southern California is a dying concept and welcomes the competition, in fact he even has some advice for those looking to transition to the flex-serve model from an all hand-wash facility.
“Try to keep as much continuity with the old operation as possible,” he says. “If it makes sense, keep the names of the services the same. Have plenty of opportunity for customers to express their thoughts about what they like, both before and after the change to try and give them a feeling of participation in the change. The less change the customer perceives, the less traumatic it will be for them.
“Street visibility is important. Try to have signage that people can see as they pass by that will reinforce your value proposition. This will help to ‘pass the word’ in the community that something has changed.”
All good advice from an operator with over 30 years of experience in the industry, and still willing to change his offerings to match the evolving marketplace.
Although the transition to an automated wash format was not without its bumps along the way, Jones has been able to transition his loyal hand-wash customers to the flex-serve model with little drama. In fact, in September, Lake Forest serviced more cars than in September 2011, an encouraging trend. Jones is quick to point out that “our
dollars haven’t quite caught up yet,” but if the last six months are any indication Lake Forest has set itself up for the future.
Lake Forest was the first in the market to embrace automation, but will not be the last. In fact, in a decade or so when car washers think of Southern California they may well picture a tunnel full of equipment scrubbing cars clean, rather than a crew of employees doing the work by hand.