Past Issue

The Same But Different

By Stefan Budricks

11/01/14

Out and about on a Sunday afternoon with cloudless skies and mild temperatures: the ideal circumstances for a car wash. I had not planned on having the car washed, but on my way home I decided to stop in at the first wash I came across, regardless of format and/or appearance. Call it an impulse purchase.

The wash that presented itself offered a surprise. Turning into the site, I realized that this wash was being operated by the same metro-wide chain of roughly two-dozen washes that operates the wash I most often visit. This would be the third of their facilities to provide me with services, the other two being my usual wash, and an express exterior (see this column, August 2014).

I was struck by how different each of these locations was. The express exterior offers exterior-only cleaning with free vacuuming facilities. My usual wash is a full serve operating on a small lot on which it manages, in addition, to offer both fast-lube and detailing services. The wash I visited on a whim is a full serve located on a huge lot and comprises a c-store, 16 gas pumps under a substantial canopy, two further gas pumps at the car wash entrance, a separate express-exterior lane with its own menu and an auto cashier, the car wash tunnel and lobby, three detail bays, and three fast-lube bays.

Each location has distinct staffing requirements, both in terms of number and skills. Each location has to deal with different service-specific regulatory issues, unique marketing opportunities, distinct purchasing functions and vendor relationships, etc.

And this takes into account only three of the chain’s locations. How many other unduplicated functions might one find among the other 20-odd sites? This, it seemed to me, had the makings of a management nightmare.

None of this was evident, though, in the performance of the car wash. I was second in line, behind an SUV being vacuumed, the dearth of customers inexplicable. Having chosen a middle-of-the-road package, I made for the viewing windows in the lobby. Working with a fully equipped rack (with the notable exception of a top brush), it was amazing how much manual prep work these folks engaged in. With a soapy mitt, the front-end of the SUV got a thorough going-over, as did each wheel and the entire back end before being sent down the tunnel. My car got only the front and wheel treatment. Neither car was particularly dirty so, to me, this looked like overkill.

The tunnel offered no surprises. Everything worked as it was supposed to. I was impressed, however, by the polish-wax application — as vibrant a hue of turquoise as I had ever seen and a most appropriate color choice for the Southwest. I was also impressed by how fast and how often employees switched positions. I saw the young fellow, who hand-prepped my car one minute, dressing the interior of my car the next, his prep position having been taken over by the vacuum guy.

The canopy over the finishing area at the tunnel exit duplicates the canopy over the gas pumps. Roughly 20 feet high, it’s supported by substantial masonry pillars and features a finished ceiling. It is in this shaded area one is able to view the final product. There is no arguing with the result: my car looks great, especially the glass — not a streak, not a spot, not a smudge. If I can’t figure out their secret on my next visit — yes, I’ll be back — I’ll ask.



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