The Carriage House
Car Wash - Defying Convention

By 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 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 service.
    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 how."
    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 communications.
    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 car washing.
    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 hydraulic unit.
    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.

Video Monitors Save On Damage Claims, Curb Gift Shoplifting

    Dennis 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 behaving responsibly.
    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.


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