Finishing Line - February 2010

Flex-Serve —Is it for Everyone?
By Robert Roman

Proponents of the flex-serve car wash have long debated its pros and cons on the industry forums, in some cases, ad nauseam. Yes, flex-serve does provide owners with the opportunity to gain significant operational and customer service benefits. Due in part to these benefits, it is often described as a panacea for the numerous ills that supposedly affect many full-service and exterior-only operators. However, is flex-serve necessarily the “best” or “right” business model for every market or owner/operator?

Investors who are interested in having an inside store that offers the customers beverages, food services, and merchandise may be disappointed with flex-serve because the site design does not evoke the level of impulse buying that is critical to this type of high-volume convenience retailing. This is due in part because a large percentage of customers are not made to transverse the lobby. In order to capture them, it is often necessary to provide additional parking spaces or drive-through services, which require more property and development.

A flex-serve car wash may also be more expensive to build as compared to other formats. Unlike a full-service or express-exterior conveyor where the overall design can be contained within a single building, the flex-serve design requires more property and structures to accommodate separate car wash, detail, and customer care facilities.

Converting an existing full-service or exterior-only car wash to flex-serve does provide operators with certain efficiencies and service benefits, but it also brings with it a certain level of risk. For example, common experience has shown that most people are creatures of habit that may not function well when separated from what they are used to. Consequently, some markets may have a large percentage of customers who may not be willing to do new things because there is a certain level of comfort in what they already know.

Flex-serve doesn’t have a lock on operational efficiency. Today, it is possible to pull the technology off the shelf to transform a well-worn full-service conveyor of any length into a powerhouse that is capable of consistently producing a clean, shiny, and very dry vehicle with virtually no manual labor. Automated tellers, self-loading conveyor, tire shiner, advance chemistry, reclaim, and energy efficient dryers can be used to achieve faster process speeds and significant labor savings without sacrificing customer service or profits.

Partly due to the overall design of the flex-serve process layout, it is more difficult to provide the production capacity necessary to offer valet services to 100 percent of the customers. Moving platforms, ergonomically designed production cells, and other components that are used to achieve this high level of volume are more expensive to build and maintain than their counterparts.

Flex-serve is also not a guarantee of success. Flex-serve may embody the principles of continuous improvement, but it is not a magic pill for a leader who charges a group of individuals with improbable goals and expects them to function as a team.

Car wash operators who are interested in the flex-serve operating platform should carefully consider the benefits and costs.

For example, if I were considering a conversion to flex-service, I would want to know if the segmentation of the market is conducive to this business model. If so, how would flex-serve affect the existing customer attraction rate, and what change could be expected in sales volumes, operating expenses, and profits? How might the competition respond? How expensive is it going to be to upgrade and modify the building and equipment? How much lost income can be expected due to the disruption of business during the conversion process? How much is it going to cost to retrain employees and customers and promote the new business model? What is the return on investment and when is the payback? In other words, what are the intangibles of upsetting the apple cart, and is the conversion commercially viable?

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com). You can reach Bob via e-mail at bob@carwashplan.com.

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