On the Wash Front - August 2009

Elephant in the Room —
Less Room for Error than Ever Before
By Anthony Analetto

There’s a huge elephant in the backroom of every car wash. Although it’s impossible to overlook, lately, it seems many car wash owners I speak with are pretending the elephant has left the room for a while and are concerning themselves more with the less relevant matters of economy and gas pricing. For anyone in the car wash industry, the true elephant always has, and always will be the weather. When the skies are favorable, we will continue to wash cars in the midst of an economic crisis. During periods of torrential downpours, sleet, hurricanes, floods, drought, or some other new weather pattern that always seems to crop up first in the Northeast, our business is all but shut down even if gasoline drops below $1 per gallon and the stock market has double digit gains.

There is no question that our current economic troubles exacerbate the problems associated with weather. But unlike most industries that have the luxury of hunkering down for the recession, car washes still have to contend with the weather before, during, and after the recovery of our economy. It’s no secret that a well-run car wash can “make hay when the sun shines,” but only if the operator worked hard to prepare during those periods that were less than favorable. Recently, I’ve seen a greater number of operators than usual have their equipment fail on the first volume spike after a couple of months of bad weather. This has been entirely due to poor preventive maintenance and planning. You can’t afford to do that in this business, and our current economy means there is even less room for error than ever before.

So I decided to add a page to my “rainy day folder” where I jot down everything I intend to do at my washes when I have time. If you don’t have a folder or notebook where you keep track of ideas you want to implement during slow periods then I recommend starting one immediately. Below is the page I added, which is a basic outline to help me organize my activities. I hope it gives you a couple of ideas you can use at your own wash.

CATEGORY 1 - PREPARE FOR THE RECOVERY

Fight the urge to take shortcuts on preventive maintenance when things are slow. Like a person, mechanical equipment works best when it’s exercised. That means it is actually more important to perform every detail of your preventive maintenance program when you only wash a handful of cars than when you wash 1,000. Streaks of bad weather are a part of our business. Not being able to capitalize on a volume spike when the weather turns good because your equipment fails is both tragic and preventable. If you have a comprehensive PM program, follow it. If you don’t, then creating one should be your first rainy day activity.

CATEGORY 2 - REVIEW MARKETING

What better thing to do on a rainy day then take stock of everything you do to get more people to your wash more frequently, while spending more on each visit? Unfortunately when things are good, it’s easy to fall into marketing and advertising habits. The same billboard, newspaper ad, or direct mail coupon may run for months on end with little or no evaluation on what return those investments are delivering. Recruiting a talented marketing firm can really pay off, but if you go the do-it-yourself route then you have to be disciplined at documenting and organizing your ideas. That elephant in the room may suddenly decide to move around a bit and give you a whole lot of time to implement all those marketing ideas you had when you were too busy washing cars to get them done. When this happens, you’ll be grateful when you open your rainy day folder to a list of projects to get started.

Organize Your Customer File
If you’re not willing to ask your customers for their contact information and take the time to set them up in a database from which you can send them promotions, then don’t be surprised when your competition does. Whether you have customers complete a survey while waiting for their car, or enter to win a free wash or detailing service, keep a running list of ideas to get customers to part with their contact information, especially their e-mail. Once you capture the names, the next battle is entering them into a system you can use to call, mail, or e-mail. First look at your POS system. Many car washes have an existing POS system ready to do this function for you with just a little staff training. Even if you’re still using a cash register, you can easily use any online or computer based e-mail application to organize an address book of your customers.

Phone, Mail, or E-Mail
I used to require each of my managers to read a short book titled The Nordstrom Way: The inside Story of America’s #1 Customer Service Company as part of their training. One manager, during a 20-day period of solid rain, applied some of the principles and actually manufactured enough business to make bonuses. What he did was to have his assistants and cashiers call detailing and premier customers with an offer to pick up and drop off their cars for service. It worked and he was able to create his own opportunity for success.

Develop Your Fundraising
A car wash is a community-based business. Aligning yourself with non-profit leaders through joint fundraising activities can create goodwill and strong networks of clients recommending your car wash. Unfortunately, making the phone calls, developing the documentation, and holding the meetings required to get these programs off the ground can take a lot of time that’s hard to fit in when you’re busy washing cars. What better project for a rainy day?

Look at Your Signage
Are your signs fresh and inviting? Do they guide a customer in understanding the benefits of selecting the next higher wash package? Slow times are ideal for refining your service offering and exploring new technology such as the growing number of affordable digital signs now available.

Review Your Advertising
Placing advertisements is as easy as paying the bill, but not always the most effective use of our marketing budget. If you’re advertising coupons in the newspaper for example, rainy days are a great time to count how many coupons were redeemed and begin estimating the actual return on your investment.

CATEGORY 3 - REVIEW EFFICIENCY

There are thousands of ways to shave labor, utility, and chemical expense at a car wash. Each one however takes time and investment to implement. Make sure you list things as small as installing motion activated bathroom light switches or re-programming and securing thermostats. Your slow periods may be so brief that you never get that far down the list, but if you do, you’ll be glad that you have a list of projects that can put you in a better position once the weather turns in your favor.

Perform a Chemical Audit
Technology changes. Slow periods can be an ideal time to review your chemistry, add new service offerings, or identify more cost effective solutions.

Dial-In Controller Settings
Accurately tuning equipment to not waste a single second of unnecessary motion can really pay off on high-volume days. Slow days are a great opportunity to refine your controller settings for maximum efficiency.

Schedule an Equipment Audit
Nothing more clearly points out the need to eliminate labor in the wash process than a periodic slowdown due to weather. Being able to deliver a quality wash with no prep can allow you to remain open on questionable days by reducing the overall number of employees required to run the facility. The technology is readily available and slow periods are ideal for making any major changes that may require closure during installation.

CATEGORY 4 - PERFORM FACILITY UPGRADES

At least once a quarter, walk across the street from your wash with your rainy day file and write down everything you see that needs to be repaired or replaced. Could you use some additional landscaping, a new awning, or just a fresh coat of paint? Now return to your wash and walk the perimeter of your property. Are there any cracks in the pavement, ugly waste receptacles, or anything that doesn’t project a clean professional image? These are all easy and affordable tasks that are hard to get to when you’re busy, but easy to address if volume slows.

SUMMARY

Although today’s economic challenges mean that there is less room for error in our planning, in my opinion, weather and its unpredictable nature remain the greatest threat to a car wash’s profitability. We can’t afford to ignore the impact that changing weather patterns are having on our industry. A day doesn’t make a week, which doesn’t make a month, which doesn’t make a year. When the sun is out, the business will be there. When it’s not, we have to improve our efficiency and use the downtime to manufacture some new business with marketing. That’s always been true and I suspect it will continue to be regardless of what economy we find ourselves in.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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