Auto Laundry News - September 2013

Old Ship, New Skipper

By Timothy Denman

Cars are pretreated and vacuumed prior to entering the tunnel.

Ship Shape’s mascot is a parrot named Tattoo.

The tunnel sports much of the original 80s equipment.

The lobby offers views of the tunnel.

All of the standard impulse items are available.

Putting on the finishing touches.

There is plenty of enclosed finishing space.

Only the lucky have seen their business outgrow its location and been forced to set sail toward a new port. Will Rongholt started out as a stand-alone detail owner but as his business grew he had his eye toward the horizon and a new home for his services.

Rongholt opened Crossroads detail center in 2009, growing the business from the ground up. Rongholt had six years of detailing experience when he became his own boss and that experience helped him quickly grow his clientele and service offerings. After a few years he outgrew Crossroads, purchasing Ship Shape Car Wash in Eau Claire, WI, in February 2012. The acquisition accomplished two things: it gave his detailing offerings some room to grow and ushered Rongholt into the full-serve conveyor business.

Ship Shape was built back in 1987 and certainly has an 80’s feel to it. The building itself is modeled after a “Love-Boat”-styled cruise ship. The nautical theme is carried throughout with fishing nets, steering wheel, a mounted marlin, and a live parrot named Tattoo.

Much of the original Hannah equipment still adorns the tunnel but some modernization has taken place over the years to replace worn equipment and keep up with the times. The tunnel has traded in its old top brush for a mitter, received hot water heaters, new arches, a wheel washer, and updated blowers over the past 10 years or so.

Prior to Rongholt purchasing the business, it was owned by one of the original partners in the site, a long-time absentee owner who was ready to hand over the captain’s chair to someone willing to man the helm full time.

Rongholt’s expertise lies in full-serve detailing, a skill set he acquired in his decade-plus work history as a professional detailer. Although Ship Shape offered detailing services prior to Rongholt’s purchase, they were of the “car wash detailing” variety and not up to the standards of a full-time detailer.

The old Ship Shape offered primarily carpet shampooing and exterior waxing services on its detailing menu. Now the one-bay detail center with the capability to handle two cars at a time, offers the full gambit of detailing offerings. The site offers interior only, exterior only, or full-detail options utilizing modern chemicals and detailing techniques.

Alongside full-serve detailing, Ship Shape also offers express detailing services, an option that was lacking prior to Rongholt’s purchase of the business. When Rongholt first took over the business he branded the express detailing option the Pirate, but has since renamed the service Premium. Ship Shape is getting away from nautical themed names on its menu and instead focusing on names that allow the customer to better understand the services offered.

In addition to detailing, the site also offers window tinting. Rongholt began offering window tinting back in his Crossroads days. In the beginning he was performing around one tint job a month, but has grown that to around two or three a week.

Helping to fuel his increase in tint work, and detail work in general, is his relationship with local car dealerships. Rongholt started his detail career as a dealer detailer and has maintained that connection ever since. Ship Shape currently does detail and tint work for a few local dealerships helping to keep the detail bay busy throughout the year.

Rongholt is considering increasing his detail offerings even further. He is planning on adding windshield chip repair and paintless dent removal to his detailing menu in the near future.

The car wash menu offers six wash options, three interior/exterior and three exterior-only offerings. The menu reflects Rongholt’s desire to move his wash slowly toward the flex-serve model. “I am eventually going to move my vacuums to the exit,” he says. “We are going to have an exterior-only lane to make it a little quicker for the exteriors. I like exterior because it is fast, but I am not trying to get away from the interiors.”

Customers are able to purchase monthly, semi-annual, and annual unlimited wash cards for all six wash options.
There are plenty of places in and around town that customers can get an exterior-only wash. Quite a few gas stations have in-bay automatics as well as a car dealership that sports the service. Ship Shape has just one full-serve competitor in the market, a wash set about five miles away, pulling from the same customer pool.

The competition has a lube center, which Rongholt says he would like to have as well if space permitted. Instead, Ship Shape relies on its superiority in detailing to differentiate itself from the competition.

Rongholt markets the wash through the usual channels with print coupons, radio spots, and television commercials.

The success of a television or radio campaign can sometimes be tough to gauge, but Rongholt receives plenty of feedback from his customers about his television appearances. “People are always telling me that they saw me on television,” he says. “It took us a while to figure out which channels and times work best. Whenever anyone says they saw the commercial we make sure we ask them what show they were watching when they saw it.” The wash advertises on both local broadcast TV and cable, and according to Rohgholt’s unofficial surveying, local broadcast offers the best bang for the buck.

To complement the traditional marketing techniques, the wash also utilizes social media and the web to drive traffic to the wash. Ship Shape has a Twitter and Facebook presence that is managed by the wash’s office manager. The goal is to post something new to each around two to three times per week. The wash also has a website that displays its offerings and some photos from past detailing jobs. Rongholt recently started his own blog where he offers car wash and detailing advice, in an attempt to position himself as a thought leader on the subject in his community.

Although Ship Shape has been at sea for over 25 years, it has a new captain calling the shots, a leader with his mind set on expanding its offerings and keeping the bottom line constantly afloat. With any luck the residents of Eau Claire will keep on cruising into the old girl for another 25 years.

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