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Prestigious Market Creates
Unique Challenges
By Jim and Elaine Norland

A quick conversation with the service writer before moving on to the vacuum station.

How about this for a car wash marketing and management challenge?

• The area is popular with tourists, but they generally don't wash their cars while vacationing, "and we don't wash tour buses."

• Local residents are affluent and tend to drive expensive, often black cars, and they may mistrust machine-driven car washes.

• Two sides of the normal market rectangle around your wash simply don't exist. One side is a big "pine trees and rocks" camping area, and just a few blocks to the west is the Pacific Ocean, meaning very few cars will come from that direction!

• Local car wash labor is hard to find so most workers are bused in to your location. Yet daily volume is relatively low, making labor-intensive hand washing a risky business.

Those and other challenges faced Bob Wickline, general manager of Rancho Car Wash in Carmel, California, when he joined the then-new wash in 1997. Rancho opened in late September, and while Wickline was there before that opening, building plans and type of operation had already been decided by the owners.

Rancho Car Wash is located at 265 Carmel Rancho Boulevard, at the mouth of the Carmel Valley, not in Carmel itself. Its location seems appealing, right near two popular shopping centers, and the demographics of the area sound good, too. Prestigious residents abound, including Congressman Sam Farr, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, Clint Eastwood, and Doris Day.

Celebrities are drawn to the area by events such as the AT&T Golf Tournament in Pebble Beach and the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, a collector car show. While the visitors to such events may not wash their cars while in the area, the events mean local people are out and about more because of those events and want to keep their cars clean.

The numbers that translate into car wash volume are generally residents who live within a three- or four-mile radius, and will come back again because of a quality wash and convenient location. But because he has Big Sur to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Wickline could develop only 20,000 addresses in the applicable zip codes for Rancho Car Wash when he put out a promotional mailing a few years ago.

"We won't ever be a megawash doing 800 or 1,000 cars a day, not in our lifetimes," says Wickline, who
had managed a car wash in a much different city location for six years before coming to Rancho Car Wash. "In our better months (mainly spring), we average in the high 100's per day, and we have some mid-200-car days."

The uncertainty of Monterey Peninsula weather also plays hob with business predictions. With the ocean on one side and hills on the other, the area has a microcosm of varied weather, so what might
otherwise be a good car wash day can quickly become a dud. "When the sun comes out, the cars come in most of the year," Wickline observes.

"After a few years' operation here, we determined what business patterns we could expect," he recalls. "If you're doing 500 cars as a hand washing operation, you have enough volume to justify your labor. But if you have only 150 cars, the labor has a much bigger impact. I ran our numbers and realized the only way to increase our bottom line was to reduce our labor."

"The majority of vehicles we do are fairly new and upscale. We have Mercedes, BMWs, Infinitis, Lexus, Cadillacs, Rolls Royces, fairly exclusive and expensive cars, including all the better SUV types such as Navigators and Escalades. Wickline worried that owners, in some cases already warned by dealers not to take their cars to any car wash, might avoid Rancho Car Wash if it went to equipment rather than hand washing.

He talked to operators in other cities, some of them 100 miles or more away, who had converted
from hand washing, and weighed the different approaches. Hand washing can accommodate the contours of every vehicle, but sometimes wash line employees get tired and miss some spots during a busy day.

Equipment washing isn't miss-proof, but the areas likely to be missed are predictable, he says.
Other operators told him generally that hand wash customers would return once they found out how well modern car washing equipment can clean their cars. "One told me half a dozen customers had said they'd never return, but within a couple of months, four of the six had come back to his wash."

His research and the business history of Rancho Car Wash led to a transformation early this year from hand wash to machine wash. Careful attention was given to get the kind of equipment that would assure quality cleaning but wouldn't harm finishes with microscratches. Touch-free systems might seem ideal, but Carmel's extreme water restrictions made that impossible.

The wash already had a conveyor in its 100-foot tunnel. Wickline carefully evaluated the tech support he might get from various vendors, as well as the dependability of various equipment options.

"Because of our location, the closest company tech support is in San Jose, and that's 100 miles away. Such logistics come into play when you're trying to run a seven-day-a-week business, and you also want as good as you can get in maintenance, durability and other factors. I chose a company that I knew from my pastten years in the car wash business, one that would give me straight information."

Rancho chose Belanger equipment ideally suited to its clientele, choosing Neo-Tex units which employ a closed-cell foam material that won't hold grit or absorb chemicals and moisture. The washing action is one of extreme lubrication with soaps and a certain amount of pressure to remove dirt from vehicle surfaces.

Rancho already had a wheel blaster unit used in the hand wash operation, as well as a stationary dryer. The new equipment included a flex-wrap unit to cover the sides and backs of vehicles, rocker units to cover vehicles from the window line down, and a side-to-side soft cloth unit.

The wash's original water reclaim unit was replaced, at considerable expense, with a Con-Serv Water Recovery System. That equipment is of prime importance at Rancho Car Wash, which operates under some of the most restrictive water-use systems in the country.

The reclaim system enables the wash to operate with 95 percent reclaim water, reducing its average per-car fresh water use to 7 gallons per car, whereas most washes without reclaim systems consume 18 to 35 gallons of water per car. More amazing is that Rancho's per-car use accounts for all water used on site, including water used for irrigation, toilet and lavatory operation, and towel washing.

Recycled water is used for wetting down vehicles, prep guns, wheel blasters, and the flooding arch.
Towels other than those used for cleaning glass are all washed in reclaimed water.

"My final rinse is almost a mist rather than a flood, which is what most car washes have. So I have to run my conveyor at half the speed most others use, to allow reclaim water used in most of the wash to drain off before we get to that very limited fresh water rinse.

"No one else in the country that I know of is as limited in water usage as we are," Wickline notes. So limited are the area's water resources that homeowners can't even put in an additional bathroom or a hose tap, even if that would not necessarily mean more water usage.

The conversion to automated washing has reduced Rancho Car Wash's labor overhead by 8 percent, he reports, despite an increase in the minimum wage which took effect this year.

The exterior of the building housing Rancho Car Wash is a light peach color with copper guttering. A 720-square-foot lobby stretches the full length of the 100-foot tunnel, with a somewhat upscale gift shop offering artwork and a greeting card assortment from a prestige supplier. Restrooms at the wash have tiled walls to add to the handsome decor.

Rancho Car Wash's competition is limited, mainly a long-established wash about four or five miles away but over a hill and down in another area. "There never will be another car wash in Carmel because of the water restrictions," he adds.

Even though Carmel's ambiance suggests upscale pricing on many needs, car washing is the exception, Wickline observes. His wash charges $8.50 for a basic exterior-only wash, $12.95 for full-service. The top package of $24.95 includes shampooing mats and many other plus services. Average per-car revenue was running $15.90 to $16.20, including detail dollars, before the attacks on Sept. 11, but has since dropped by about 25 percent.

Both express and complete detail services are offered, and assume more importance in total site revenue since a lube shop can't be added. An express hand wax alone costs $34.95, but can be combined in a package to include rim cleaning for $44.95. Those prices include a full-service wash. Oversize vehicle surcharges apply; "it takes more to wax a Suburban than it does a Miata," Wickline explains.

A full detail costs $179.95, including a full array of inside and outside services including shampooing carpets and upholstery and carnauba paste wax. That service also includes a 30-day unlimited wash pass. However, if a customer is prepping his car to sell immediately, he can opt out of that wash pass and save $30.

Rancho Car Wash offers several wash discount options, including the 15th wash free, a 10 percent senior citizen discount, 10+1 wash booklets, and unlimited wash packages in 30-, 90-, or 180-day "sizes."

Catering to the concerns of its clientele and meeting the requirements of its community have shaped the evolution of Rancho Car Wash. It offers discerning car owners, from conservative residents
to celebrity-hosting businesses, attractive services, options and incentives in a limited-volume market while paying close attention to bottom line results.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.


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