On the Wash Front - June 2010

Downturn — Surviving and Operating
in the Black, Part II
By Anthony Analetto

This is the conclusion of our discussion with Mike Black, owner of Valet Car Wash in Guelph Ontario, about building and retaining his business during the downturn. In the May issue of Auto Laundry News, Mike shared his thoughts on cost control, refinancing, and marketing and advertising.

ANALETTO: Wow, you just threw out example after example of marketing promotions to drive traffic, is there one common thread that ties everything together?

BLACK: Yes. You have to build value. We did a package called the “Econoclean” which gave an $8 discount on interior services on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Normally $28 for an interior super clean with an express wash, the discount made this package only $20, which has been a magic number. These normally slow days are now some of our busiest. People stop in and ask “Don’t you have some special promotion today?” Everyone is looking for something. When you deliver a great value they talk about it.

We’ve had similar success with our “Kruz Klean — Unlimited Family Wash Pass.” Rather than try to control the pass to a single vehicle, we let customers register two cars for our middle package at $29.99 for the month. Kruz Klean has become a brand within the brand with its own logo and sticker. When customers put their card into the automated attendant it gives them a special menu with significant discounts. And now I’m going to other retailers and asking them to give my Kruz Klean customers exclusive discounts. The customer gets a tremendous value, and I get to sleep easier knowing that the revenue from the pass now pays the mortgage at one of my properties whether I open or not.

Drinking water (top) and wiper-blade replacement (above) are great add-ons.

You’ve told me before that you never changed your hours or closed early during the last four years that were slow. Can you tell us how you managed to do that?

At the end of the day it comes down to customer service. At Valet, rain days are “practice” days when we do our training, maintenance, and preparation for the next “game day.” Except Christmas day and on the occasional brutal snowstorm when we’ll close an hour early to get employees home safely, we never shut down. We were so slow at times over the last four years that we had to create training programs just to keep busy — but we’re in a better position now because of it.

Today’s customer is often tired and in a bad mood. If he can leave your site feeling like a winner, with respect, having received a great value — that’s the Holy Grail. When you deliver that level of customer service, you’re not competing for a car wash, you’re competing for the $10 that customer has in his pocket to spend on feeling good that day. We may be educated in car washing, but the slow times are a chance to read, learn, and train in customer service. You’ve got to train in the downtime to educate yourself and your employees to be ready for the next “game day.”

You’ve talked a lot about getting people on your property. What have you been doing to get more revenue from them while they’re there?

The real question is: What haven’t we done? For us, vended drinking water has been a great seller. We installed a freestanding, self-serve, RO-water filling station with an ozone rinse for the cap and bottle; put out a great big sign on the road that we refill 5-gallon jugs; and customers pull right up. It’s convenient for parents who can back in and fill the jugs while the kids stay in the car watching TV. And when a local business stops in to fill 10 jugs at a time, we’re out there asking if they use our car wash, free coupon in hand.

Windshield wiper blades are another great add-on. We offer free installation and when a customer buys blades we make a big production out of it. The attendant pulls out a tape measure to double check sizing, puts a towel down on the hood, lifts the wiper arm and places another towel on the cowling. By the time we’re done, the next customer in line is asking us to replace his blades too!

So what’s next? What are you doing now to be better prepared for the next slowdown?

The most important thing I’m doing is building ways to communicate directly with my customers. You’ve got to embrace the new stuff. You’ve got to get onto Facebook and the other social networking sites. I don’t do this myself, my employees do. My job is just to make sure it gets done. We also recently signed up for a text marketing service. Customers subscribe by sending a text message to a number we advertise to receive special discounts. Once we get the database built up, we can send a promo to every subscriber’s phone in a matter of seconds. Now when it’s pouring rain, I can send out a text message with a code for a free set of our discount wiper blades with an interior detail. Once on my property I might be able to upgrade their wiper blades to our premium brand or possibly offer additional detailing services. Most important is that I’ll have an opportunity to make those customers feel good about getting their car detailed on an otherwise wet and dreary day.

Conditions like weather and economy are outside of our control. What you have to remember is that everything you do during a downturn can put you in a better position when things improve. Over the last four years, it seemed at times like we weren’t getting anywhere. Now it’s obvious that everything we did prepared us to take advantage of the change in weather we’re getting now. As difficult as these times are, a good operator will come out more successful at the end because of what he does during the downturn.

Questions can be sent directly to Mike at: mdblack@sentex.net.

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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