Car Wash - Defying Convention
Jim & Elaine Norland
In Beaverton, OR, just west of Portland, a car wash concept counters
trends that prevail in the car wash industry.
Instead of "hurry up," its message
is "slow down and smell the coffee (or espresso) while we pamper
your vehicle. Your car will be ready in 40 or 45 minutes." This
car wash doesn't even view exterior-only washes as competition, likening
its service to that of a fine restaurant compared to fast-food outlets.
Carriage House Car Wash began 15 years ago to
deliberately court the less price sensitive and less hurried customer.
Dennis Johnson and his wife, Merlynn, built the wash "from scratch"
at its now familiar location, 13375 SW Canyon Road.
A wash costs more than at most other establishments,
including the relatively few full-service washes in the Portland metro
area, and certainly takes longer and requires more intensive labor.
But Carriage House's whole reason for existence is thoroughness and
top quality in
professional car cleaning. The Johnsons - not only Dennis and Merlynn
are involved, but also son Troy and his wife, Olga - bill their services
as "The Ultimate Car Care Experience."
Carriage House Car Wash's attractions range from
car wash and express detail to a gift shop that stocks an immense variety
of greeting cards (the standard inventory is 30,000 items). Golf gifts,
books, and other gift items, most priced under $20, can be found in
the waiting area.
"We wanted to create a friendly, upbeat,
and relaxing atmosphere for our customers," the Johnsons explain
on their web site (www.carriage housecarwash.com). While drivers wait
(even longer than the 40 or 45 minutes if they buy any detailing services),
Carriage House offers tastefully furnished waiting areas; deli choices
such as soups, sandwiches, and a wide variety of bakery goodies, all
made on-site and fresh from scratch; and refreshing drinks including
espresso, tea and even fruit freezes.
A motorist can get an exterior-only wash with
towel drying for just $7.50, but the average per vehicle through the
wash is $24, roughly a dollar more than Carriage House's most thorough
wash package, "The Works."
Priced at $22.95, "The Works" includes
soft cloth wash, interior cleaning, polish wax, interior fresh scent,
custom wheel cleaning, rubber dressing, underbody wash and poly-sealant
wax. Seventy percent of customers choose "The Works."
How can you average $24 when your top price
is less? Extra services, explains Dennis Johnson, most frequently floor
mat shampooing -- $10 for cars, $15 for vans. Carriage House also charges
$2 extra on all its wash packages for all vans, trucks, SUVs, 4-by-4s
and similar vehicles.
Besides floor mat shampooing, Carriage House's other "express cleaning"
services are hand waxing andcarpet express, each priced at $39.95.
Carriage House offers an additional range of
express detail services, with orders for each accepted up to an hour
of closing. Packages range from "The Platinum" which includes
"The Works" wash plus carpet shampoo, upholstery shampoo and
hand waxing, all for $79.95. "The Gold" express detail package
includes "The Works" plus any two of the three features in
"The Platinum" at $69.95. "The Silver" package gives
the customer "The Works" plus one featured express detail
A la carte express detail services include "Upholstery
Express," $39.95; "Complete Express," $64.95; and interior
vinyl/leather protectant, $21.95. Detail services are handled in a building
about 30 feet away from the main Carriage House structure.
Another popular added service is polymer paint
sealant, regularly priced at $79.95 but offered with an online coupon
at $59.95. Carriage House recommends the polymer sealant (for which
dealers typically charge $200 to $500, the web page explains) every
six to 12 months, plus waxing every three to four months.
Lesser wash packages offered at Carriage House
include "The Classic," $20.95, which doesn't include the poly-sealant
wax or interior fresh scent services. The lowest-priced interior/exterior
package, "The Buckboard," at $14.95, includes soft cloth wash
and interior cleaning with towel finish. That towel finish is a feature
of every wash. Carriage House also has an interior-only vacuuming, dusting
and windows service, at $11 for standard passenger cars.
Very few customers get the exterior-only wash. Most
vehicles in for that service are drivers returning for a free wash,
offered in a web site coupon to full-serve customers if it rains in
the Portland area within 48 hours of having purchased a wash.
Such a guarantee might seem pretty risky, given
Portland's rainy weather, particularly in the wintertime. But it keeps
customers coming in. They purchase other items, and that's a profitable
plus. "The variable cost of that wash is maybe a buck," Dennis
says, "and all they have to do to cover that is buy a cup of coffee."
Johnson was talking to his cashier one day when
a customer walked up, not knowing he was the owner, and wondered aloud
at the "idiocy" of such a guarantee. After the transaction,
he pointed to the $29 gift she'd just bought and said, "That's
All employees are neatly uniformed, and all
must meet grooming standards such as no facial hair or earrings for
men. Fluent English is important for customer-greeting personnel such
as cashiers, supervisors and service writers, and the Johnsons have
held free evening classes in English for their Hispanic employees (who
make up about 75 percent of the staff) and friends in the past. They're
currently looking for an instructor to resume the classes. Olga Johnson
is Hispanic and interviews and trains new employees and handles employee
If an employee leaves, say to visit relatives
in Mexico, Johnson and his managers have abundant applicants to review.
Three employees have been with Carriage House since opening over 15
years ago, and several count more than 10 years' service. Most non-supervisory
workers at Carriage House average $8.50 per hour, plus shared tips which
boost their pay typically another $2 per hour. After 90 days of full-time
employment, Carriage House begins paying for their health insurance;
workers can buy additional health coverage for their families.
The Johnsons promote from within whenever possible.
"We seldom go outside to hire a supervisor," says Dennis.
Key managers at Carriage House include John
Whitehurst and Brian Manley. "John is our retail manager responsible
for operation of the gift shop, food and beverage department, customer
relations, and controlling payroll. Brian is our car wash manager responsible
for day-to-day operation of the car wash and express detail departments."
Carriage House carries out the theme suggested
in its name with a landscaping-surrounded, cupola-topped red brick structure
resembling an old-fashioned carriage house. With its distinctive blue
steel roof, the structure has become a familiar landmark in the west
Portland metro area.
Floors of the waiting room and gift area are carpeted,
and walls are pleasantly finished with wallpaper and oak wainscoting.
Dennis Johnson rethought the use of that space several years ago. Recognizing
its third dimension, height, he now uses available vertical space to
add to his merchandising area. Sales productivity of the space has soared.
An ATM machine adds to customer conveniences in the waiting area.
Carriage House uses the Blue Coral two-step
washing system to bathe vehicles in low-pH, high-pH cleaning solutions,
employing 130-degree wash water for top cleaning power. A set of Belanger
wraparounds, two Sherman mitters, and a Peco high-pressure wash arch
combine for a quality wash, supplemented by wax arches.
The system is so efficient that no prep work
is required. One spray wand with a chemical for trucks is all the preliminary
treatment to be found here.
Water recycling saves on water and sewer fees
and reinforces the message of environmental responsibility in professional
The Johnsons replace about a third of their
equipment every three to five years. They're on their second conveyor.
Four years ago they added a Tunnel Master computer system from ICS.
The high-pressure arches were added three years ago.
The car wash itself is meticulously maintained
with weekly service from an outside firm. Given the quality of its wash
service and the comfort level of drivers of even the most expensive
cars with Carriage House care, "We can't afford to break down,"
Dennis Johnson observes.
With that attitude and attention to regular
upkeep and renewal, it's not surprising that downtime at
Carriage House runs less than 10 minutes a month, according to Johnson.
Some redundancy is built in for critical systems such as the conveyor
Carriage House advertising is currently limited
to the two company SUVs emblazoned with the logo and web site address,
and the web site itself, where one of the company's most successful
coupons, the discount on paint sealant, is posted along with a multi-page
tour of Carriage House, its features and prices. The web site was designed
by Troy Johnson.
The Johnsons have tried coupons, radio, newspapers,
flyers, and discounts with limited success. "I think our customers
just may not be the discount- or coupon-clipping type," says Dennis.
The company scored well on a cable TV promotion that
ran for 12 years using the same two "silly" ads. One showed
Dennis himself going through the wash in his jogging suit, emerging
smiling, squeaky clean and repeatedly proclaiming, "I Feel Good!"
as the song of the same name plays in the background. At the end, Dennis
appears tuxedo-clad and well-groomed, leaning against a well-groomed
and expensive automobile. People as far away as Hawaii have recognized
him as the character in the ads.
Dennis Johnson got into the car wash business
by buying a couple of Shell car wash franchises. He left Shell Oil's
employment and fast-moving promotions and got into business for himself
so he wouldn't have to leave the Northwest. A University of Utah grad
with a degree in marketing and economics, he has nearly finished his
master's degree work at Portland State University.
At the outset, he wasn't satisfied with what he saw
in car washes, including the exterior tunnel wash he bought where Carriage
House now stands. He felt motorists might welcome an alternative to
the typical wash, and the idea of Carriage House evolved.
The concept caught on slowly at first, he recalls.
Even now as newcomers come into the area, they may take a while to understand
the Carriage House Car Wash difference. But there's no doubt that many
embrace it enthusiastically and prove a market exists for a high level
of professional car cleaning.
Jim and Elaine
Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.
Monitors Save On Damage Claims, Curb Gift Shoplifting
Johnson installed a $20,000 video monitoring system at Carriage House
Car Wash expecting to spot thefts and possible "acting up"
by employees. He got a pleasant surprise in a positive view of his employees
What's more, Johnson has nearly recovered the
cost of the system in just a year's time. Johnson figures he's saved
by spotting some shoplifting in the gift shop of his Carriage House
Car Wash, and most dramatically in thwarting claims for theft from cars
and damage that claimants say was caused by the car wash itself. He's
even spotted burglars at neighboring shops in an automotive center where
Carriage House is located.In two recent instances, Johnson dealt with
customers who claimed designer sunglasses had been taken from their
vehicles. In at least one case, the video at the cashier's counter clearly
showed the sunglasses atop the customer's head.With eight cameras, most
stationary and two that can rotate and otherwise change their view,
the all-digital system monitors virtually everything that goes on at
Carriage House Car Wash, from entry and exit to the cashier's areas.
One camera is in the food storeroom where supplies for the in-house
bakery and delicatessen are stored. Johnson can monitor what's going
on not only when he's at the wash but even from his home. He can also
zoom in on a car's license plate and read it clearly even in a long
view as cars move through the tunnel. There's no room for disagreement
about prior damage when each vehicle can be clearly seen as it enters.
The system, purchased from Cascadia Corp., Coeur
d'Alene, Idaho, stores all the images on a removable hard drive that
will hold 15 to 20 days of activity. If there's a reason to retain the
images longer, or lend them out to, say, police, the hard drive's storage
unit can be replaced with another.