Profiles in Success - July 2005

Quality, Economy, Speed
By Jim and Elaine Norland

That's What Builds a Tidal Wave

Drivers who want to wash their vehicles well and quickly, yet inexpensively, are finding express exterior washes meet their needs nicely. But not all such washes are created equal. Being better means the difference between success and so-so results.

Prominent signage and a glassed-in wash tunnel beckon passing motorists.

Tidal Wave Car Wash, with its first location in Jonesboro, GA and soon opening a second site a few miles south of there, is making waves to show how different it can be. Motorists in the southern sector of metropolitan Atlanta are choosing Tidal Wave in numbers that far exceed pro-forma expectations.

Tidal Wave is the latest venture of Scott Blackstock, a business veteran with a 25-year background in the tire and auto-service business. His Tidal Wave Car Washes provide express exterior washes in conveyorized tunnels for as little as $3 per vehicle and a time commitment of four minutes or less.

Customers who want more than the basic $3 wash can choose a $6 or $10 wash. The $6 wash provides a double undercarriage wash, Omni high-pressure blasters, a spot-free rinse, and extra treatment on tires and wheels. The $10 wash includes a further treatment on tires and wheels, as well as tire shine. All three washes include blower drying. By far the most popular wash is the $3 package. The 110-foot conveyor at Tidal Wave is outfitted with equipment from Sonny's. Vacuums are available free of charge for drivers who want to clean their vehicle interiors, and glass-cleaning and other vehicle wipes are available from a vending machine. Tidal Wave sells no soft drinks or other refreshments.
A stack that would make any car washer's heart pump a little faster.
 
Upselling right before the point of purchase.
 
An attendant guides a customer at one of two Auto Sentries.
 
With overhead mirror, instruction sign, and a little help from a friendly attendant, conveyor loading becomes a breeze.
 
A central vac allows for multiple stations.
 
Scott Blackstock (left) and Randy Ready front the Jonesboro, GA operation.
 
Both the signage and wash rack have great street exposure.

With such economy and convenience, it's little wonder that Tidal Wave's first express exterior wash cleaned some 80,000 cars in its first five months, without any advertising or promotion efforts other than a pole-mounted sign that beckons passing drivers with "$3 Car Wash." Just this past April, over 24,000 cars were washed at this one site.

Not surprisingly, Tidal Wave Car Wash is attracting imitators. Despite that growing competition, Blackstock believes his basics of a quality wash, highly automated yet well staffed, will not only retain his present customers, but continue to attract new ones.

His success may also be credited to careful site selection - the right traffic counts, demographics, and other criteria - and an unstinting commitment to professional landscaping and attractive construction.

The Jonesboro location has a daily traffic count of 112,000 vehicles and a population of 240,000 residents within a five-mile radius. Numbers for the second Tidal Wave Car Wash are nearly as good, with a combination of 92,000 vehicles on the intersecting roads and 212,000 people in the five-mile radius. Similar characteristics are likely to prevail at a third site soon to be built near Athens, GA.

Tidal Wave Car Wash operates with an ICS Auto Sentry to accept customer payment by coins, currency or credit cards, but at least two customer-friendly uniformed attendants are always on hand to help customers. The wash is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Attendants are essential, Blackstock and his director of operations, Randy Ready, believe. One might logically expect to invest in employee training, Blackstock observes, but a greater concern at his express exterior washes is training customers to properly use his washes.

The number of employees on duty depends on volume expectations. "You have to have one person guiding and helping customers onto the conveyor system," Blackstock says, plus at least one other employee to help keep the lot and facility clean. With a little more volume, a third person is added to help people through the Auto Sentry.

"On a really busy day, you need a fourth person just doing traffic control. On a super busy day, sometimes you have to have a fifth person just handling things, keeping the vacuum lines unclogged, keeping the vendors working and supplied with correct change."

Ready has been in the car wash business his entire life, but he's the only person with prior experience. Blackstock owns another car wash, a combination in-bay automatic and self-serve, in nearby Thomaston, GA, which he has operated for the past five years.

"We've trained all the other employees ourselves," Blackstock says. Key personnel include Renee Scott, manager, and Oscar Sifuentes, assistant manager, who have been with Tidal Wave since the wash opened last Thanksgiving weekend.

There's no lack of applicants to staff the wash, and Blackstock believes in taking "lots and lots of applications," then being "real particular which ones you hire.

"The things we focus on are politeness, customer friendliness, and willingness to keep the location and equipment clean. And they're not in uniform until they have a smile on their face. We try to hire smiling faces to start with."

With their backgrounds, both Blackstock and Ready can take care of most equipment or operational problems. Scott and Sifuentes have become very good at problem solving, too. Beyond that, the company has "a good support group" in its supplier, Car Wash Services of Georgia. "They're very good and responsive about helping out."

Blackstock chose the express exterior approach at Jonesboro to handle more cars in a limited space, just six-tenths of an acre. His next express exterior washes will each have a single conveyorized tunnel, but will have a little more space on which to add a quick lube center. Lube customers will get a free $3 basic wash. There's a possibility of adding lube service at Jonesboro, too, if the shopping center owner there okays building a lube center near the wash.

Despite the small site size at Jonesboro, Blackstock loaded it with tree and shrub plantings, featuring Sago palms. "We're real proud of our landscaping. In fact, when the inspector came to check us out, he said it was the first time he'd ever seen anyone put in twice as many TDUs (tree density units) as required. We wanted to make our wash as attractive as possible even though it's a $3 wash."

Structurally, one of the most striking and business-building features of Tidal Wave Car Wash is the glass wall covering one side of the tunnel. Passing drivers can see cars being washed, so they're tempted to come in and get their vehicle cleaned, too.

The rest of the wash is built of concrete block walls with brick veneer exterior. The tunnel interior is surfaced in Extrutech vinyl wallboard. A standing seam metal roof is topped with a glassed-in cupola for increased visibility of the wash.

The Jonesboro Tidal Wave is decorated in Hawaiian blue, with black accents, but the soon-to-open wash south of Jonesboro will be red and black, to harmonize better with surrounding businesses.

Credit for selection of ideal sites for the express exterior washes goes to Scott Blackstock's wife, Hope. "Hope is my real estate person, and found these sites which lend themselves to washing a higher volume of cars quickly," Scott says.

"Hope is involved in all of our businesses. She handles the paperwork on the car washes, and takes care of deposits for the combo self-serve and automatics in Thomaston as well. We have some self-storage buildings, and she runs them, too," he notes.

"You can't just plop one of these down anywhere, as some might believe, and be successful," Blackstock says. "Quite a few people have tried it and are struggling to make it.

"You have to have not only the traffic count and demographics, but you must qualify those numbers. That traffic has to be local, not commuter traffic. You want to be in a shopping area where you have great visibility.

"Both these locations (for the first two Tidal Wave Car Washes) are at traffic lights where people are backed up a large part of the day, sitting there looking at your wash. The traffic must be at moderate speed; a high traffic count at 50 miles per hour is not too good." Blackstock avoids industrial areas, too.

Competition is plentiful and growing near the Tidal Wave locations. "There's a full gamut of car wash options in the Jonesboro market, including several really good full-serve washes - very well run. There is only one modern self-serve

and automatic combo in that market, but plenty of old self-serve units, and many gas station in-bay automatics.

"We also have three more express washes coming in the area, which is probably our biggest competitive factor," Blackstock adds, but he's confident Tidal Wave Car Wash can do some things better than most.

"We truly get the car clean and almost totally dry, and we move people through quickly. From the time you pay until you leave the wash, even on our busiest days, takes just four minutes."

Water reclamation is actively practiced at Tidal Wave, both for environmental concerns and to save water costs. Blackstock estimates that about 75 percent of the water is reclaimed.

Tidal Wave is an active supporter of charitable causes, especially one in which the Blackstocks have a special interest. "My son has cerebral palsy and goes to a special school, the Joseph Sams School in Fayetteville.

"Through Tidal Wave, we sponsored this school becoming the first training site for MOVE, a very successful program founded in California to make handicapped children more mobile. It has enabled some of the children to progress from wheelchairs to less-restrictive walking aids such as walkers and canes." While their son has not made such progress yet, the Blackstocks are heartened by the many successes of the program, which is their primary focus.

Quality, quick, and economical car washes are making an impression on thousands of Georgia motorists at Tidal Wave Car Wash, and the expansion now underway is certain to reach thousands more. The company's commitment to community concerns, including greenery, water conservation, and charitable work is less obvious, but is spreading Tidal Wave's impact among tens of thousands more.

About the Author: Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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