Still, Plenty of Personal Attention
By Jim and Elaine Norland
|Signage clearly announces all services.
A fully automatic wash, one might think, could be one of those
ideal investments where an owner can just stop by from time to time
and collect the cash.
That's the impression some investors first get when considering
the car wash business, but it's far from the truth, says Doug Long.
"Doing it right" in this business requires lots of personal
attention and customer care, he asserts. The newest wash in his
own portfolio, USA Auto Wash in Port Richey, FL, is living proof.
This two-bay in-bay automatic wash opened in May 2001, and has
succeeded in large part because of the personal involvement of Long
and his wife, Carri, and four employees.
During most of the daylight hours, and frequently in evenings,
they are present to cheerily greet and help customers, even to the
point of inserting the customers' money into the cash acceptors
for each of the 52-foot-long wash bays.
Those same employees also make sure that equipment in each wash
is operating properly, delivers the right chemicals, and produces
a clean, satisfying wash. They keep the wash clean and also perform
detailing work ranging from simple interior cleaning to high-quality
"Some people get the idea that you can just build and equip
a wash and spend two to three hours a day to check it over and get
your money," Long says. "The reality is more like six
to 10 hours a day, depending on the time of year and the wash volume
He observes that many of today's would-be car wash investors don't
have a lot of "blue-collar" background, and some of that
is needed to be a hands-on operator and keep a car wash running
|Doug Long at the entrance to the Ryko FoamBrite
Long has been in the car wash business for 10 years, and previously
was in the retail grocery business, where he learned the value of
friendly personal service.
He has built 20 washes around the state, and presently owns three.
Now he is also a consultant and distributor (USA Auto Wash Systems,
and has an additional company, Mid-Florida Car Wash Systems, to
service products and equipment for other car wash operators in the
Long's newest wash is on a Wal-Mart SuperCenter outparcel, right
next to a Murphy USA gas station. The twin-bay Ryko-equipped in-bay
automatic wash faces busy US Highway 19, a six-lane artery, and
is open 24/7.
One lane of the wash offers a touch-free wash, while the other
beckons with a FoamBrite friction wash. Customers can choose either,
but most opt for the friction wash, especially after seeing it perform
flawlessly on other vehicles in the wash, Long says.
"I used to be a touch-free guy," he notes. "The
most outstanding thing I've learned at this wash is that drivers
want the best wash, and the best car wash is the friction machine,
hands down." He is so impressed by customer preference for
the FoamBrite wash that as automatic equipment at his other washes
comes due for replacement, he's going for the FoamBrite wash.
Customers abound in the area - Long estimates 120,000 people live
within five miles of this wash's site - but so does competition.
Long himself has two other washes (combining self-service wand wash
bays with an in-bay automatic) within a few miles, but the area
is crowded with car washes, one every half-mile to mile in each
direction, he reports.
His wash at the Wal-Mart site is brilliantly lit and equipped with
cameras to provide additional security. The building itself is an
attractive block structure with fiberglass paneling. The flat roof
has a stainless steel fascia, adding to the bright, clean look of
The abundant competition in the area puts a lot of pressure on
Long to deliver the best quality wash as well as the most customer-friendly
service, he observes. His uniformed employees greet each customer
from 8 to 5. They explain how the wash works, what their quality
options are, and what additional services or facilities they might
choose. The many elderly drivers who live in the area especially
welcome that attention. Carri's presence reassures the many female
customers, Long adds.
"Not every customer wants to be bothered," Long says,
"but we at least walk up and ask how they're doing and whether
they need help." If the greeter sees a bad spot that might
not come off in the wash, he or she will prep that area, free of
charge, to assure a quality end result.
Customers can buy washes at quality levels ranging from $4 (for
basic wash and rinse) to $10 for the "Typhoon" wash. Drivers
can also choose a "Deluxe Tornado" wash for $7, but the
$8 "Super Hurricane" is the most popular. That is frequently
on special for $6.
All washes except the $4 basic wash include drying. Drying is very
important in his area, Long reports. "People want to dry, even
though we use spot-free rinse water."
|Doug Long put together Sea Coast Car Wash
in Port St. Lucie, FL for owners John and Pat Langel.
His Ryko Thrust Pro dryers are actually outside the structure,
under a decorative metal awning.
In addition to friendly, capable employees on site, Long believes
reliable equipment is a major factor in a wash's success. "I
did a lot of research to make my choice," he says. His first
wash offered self-serve wand washing only. He realized many drivers
were passing by, so he added a Ryko touch-free. "I've been
with Ryko (for automatics) since day one."
In addition to good customer service and good equipment, Long believes
in quality chemicals. He uses the full Armor All line, and also
distributes those products through Mid-Florida Car Wash Systems.
"You need all three - customer service, the right equipment,
and the right chemicals," Long maintains.
The Wal-Mart SuperCenter location means that this two-bay automatic
is busy well into evening hours. "Where most washes are dying
down at 6 or 7 p.m., we are very busy from 8 to 11 at night. When
Wal-Mart is busy, I'm busy."
Wal-Mart shoppers also enjoy another benefit. They can leave their
cars for further services such as interior cleaning, waxing, and
other detailing while they shop, and then return for their finished
Customers can pay for their wash in several ways. Acceptors at
each bay of the wash will take currency, coin, and credit cards.
Those buying gas at Murphy USA can pay for a wash there and get
the five-digit operating code for their wash. Further encouraging
business for all involved is the three-cents-per-gallon gas discount
that customers with Wal-Mart cards can enjoy.
"This was their (Murphy USA) first revenue-share wash,"
Long notes. "Everything they take in, they get a percentage
of it. But it's a good setup for both of us. A car wash can increase
gas sales 10 percent to 20 percent." As a result of the success
at Port Richey, Long will be doing some single in-bay automatics
at some of the other Murphy USA sites around Florida.
Drivers are reminded of the wash by signs on the gas station canopies,
by the red-white-and-blue signage, and by the exterior of the wash
itself. With its exposure to high-volume traffic, no other advertising
or mailings have been needed to achieve good wash revenue, Long
says. He's preparing to start luring repeat customers, though, with
a car wash club card, which will give drivers six washes for the
price of five.
As a builder and consultant for other washes in Florida as well
as a distributor, Long has carefully selected and proven the brands
he represents and uses in his own operations. "I practice what
I preach, and I won't distribute anything I don't use." Visitors
have come from all over the world, he says, to see his newest wash.
For self-service operations, he uses Carolina Pride pumping benches.
Pur-Clean reverse osmosis and Con-Serv water recovery systems are
part of his array. So are Industrial Vacuum Systems,
Dixmor timers and Hamilton changers. Long also distributes Sun-Gard
canopies and Royal Building Systems. Long's web site provides most
pertinent information, but he also responds to inquiries via e-mail
(USAAutoWash@netzero.com) and by telephone (727-638-1503).
He warns against buying equipment and chemicals on the basis of
unproven claims, glistening showroom appearance, or price. There's
too much invested in land and building cost - at least for good
locations - to risk it for what seems like a bargain price, he believes.
There are still good opportunities in the car wash business, he
assures prospective customers, but they require a heavy investment
of money as well as personal time, and one must choose quality instead
of raw price to succeed. His wash at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter in
Port Richey proves his point beautifully.
Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry