Auto Detailing - May 2002

Strange Partners: Doing the Unexpected Can Attract More Business
By John Lamade

About a month ago I was driving past the post office and I noticed a white and red box underneath the sign. When I took a closer look at the box I noticed that it was a FedEx box. In front of a post office?!

The presence of the box from a traditional competitor was surprising to say the least. A little voice kept telling me that there was something very important happening here and somehow it relates to detailing.

Of course, when I started to write this piece I wanted to tell you that there was an UPS person behind the counter taking boxes, but that wouldn't be true. Or is this coming, too?

Seeing something unexpected tells us much. Perhaps, by doing the unexpected we, too, will get noticed and attract more business. Well, this is the theme for this month: doing the unexpected - and discovering that the best surprises are the ones that shouldn't be surprises at all!


Do not let opportunity surprise you! Look for new things to do with what you already have. That is what FedEx did. Read the summary in the sidebar. Now FedEx is working with the post office, but are they really doing anything differently? No.

The beauty of the FedEx/USPS deal is that FedEx gains not only more drop-off locations but also finds an application for under-utilized assets - its fleet of planes that are idle during the day.

When you think about the deal, FedEx really cannot lose. If the post office increases its overnight business, FedEx still carries the mail.

Well, how can you tap your under-utilized resources? Many shops say that they are working at 100 percent capacity. If they wanted to do more cars, they would have to open another location. The assumption is reasonable for a 9-to-5 mentality. But what would happen if the shop were open 24 hours per day? Rather than using your assets for a third of a day you could use them all day long!

As I write these pieces, the theme often evolves as I write. When I started this month, I wanted to show a prime example of recognizing a "natural" opportunity and then showing how detailers can find their own opportunities for growth without "stretching" too far beyond what they are doing now. The article is displayed before me and in the background Lyle Lovett is singing about long, tall Texans, and the thought occurred to me that I should write about the 24-hour detail shop.

Now 24-hour car care really isn't new. Many business owners seem to run 18-hour businesses already. In Europe, many car care businesses are all-day operations. Real estate is expensive and to survive shops use their locations all day long. One of the challenges is knowing what your customers want.


Several years ago, I heard a story about a camera shop owner that owned a business in a business district of a major city. The owner believed that he should be getting more business. His shop was only busy from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. He could not understand why his business was not more even. After all, he was open from nine to five. The owner could not understand why the mall stores in the suburbs did so much more business. He offered a wider selection of products, superior service, competitive prices, and his salespeople knew the products they sold. One day, a customer complained that he never could get to the shop when it was open. And then the owner recognized the problem: His shop hours were based on his convenience rather than those of his customers. He was surrounded by potential customers who could not reach him, but they could get to the mall. What was the solution? A change of business hours to ones that matched his customers' needs brought an immediate increase in business.

I imagine that I am not writing for camera shop owners, but the point of the foregoing story is this: If you do not understand all of your customers' needs, then you will not realize the true potential of your business!

Passion can blind us. When our goal is extremely focused, we can lose sight of the major details. Many vehicle owners can accept the inconvenience of losing the use of their vehicle during the day, but how many customers do you lose because they cannot afford to be without a vehicle overnight?

Perhaps a promotion or special called "Drop 'n Swap" could provide your customers with a "free" loaner vehicle while their vehicle is in your shop. I can hear the "insurance" objection from here, but what if you worked a deal with a car rental agency like Enterprise? Setting up a program might not be easy, but once it is in place you may find that the increase in business justifies the investment. Just
remember that your customer base includes vehicle owners who would like to do business with you but cannot because they do not want the inconvenience of losing their vehicle.


Certainly, there are many sound reasons why a 24-hour operation might not work for you. Many of you could give me a list of really good reasons why a continuous operation wouldn't work. And, for you, it might indeed not work. Only you can speak for yourself, but what if you looked at the opportunity and realized that if you could get the management and staff together, you might find the business to fill the time? Would you refuse the income?

One of the things you could consider is filling the gaps with more wholesale work. Since your operation now has extended hours of operation, your overhead costs per vehicle should drop. This means that you could afford to be more competitive with other daylight detailers. If you worked with dealer customers, working on vehicles at night would mean that the vehicle could be pulled and cleaned without losing much display/sale time (based on the assumption that a vehicle must be seen to be sold).

Understanding your customers' needs should provide guidance. If you know what your customers want, then you can shape a program to match. Let's say that you wanted to create a temporary promotion to experiment with detailing after dark. Car wash operators who do express detailing could offer a late program called, you guessed it, Midnight Express. Just remember that a new and startling program must be effectively communicated. Don't just tell your daytime customers. Find ways to reach the customers that cannot or will not lose their vehicle during the day. One cool way to promote the service would be to get a story in the local paper. Think of an angle.


Beating the after-hours opportunity to death is not my goal. The evolved goal was to present an idea that would not tax your passion for detailing. It was an example of meeting the needs of your customers. But can you do more? Certainly!

After you have read this article, browse through the rest of this month's ALN. In particular, look at the additional services that you can offer: glass repair, leather and vinyl repair, paintless dent repair, etc. There are tons of things that you can do, and there's more. How about wheels and trim? How many vehicles have damaged pin striping? What about small area paint repair - you know, chips, dings, and rust spots?


You say that your passion is detailing. Is that all?

Oh well, here's my reference to the ICA: As you all know, I think that the ICA is swell and that you all ought to be members (and someday I'll be invited to speak about something or other at Car Care World Expo). The ICA does understand. They have created a really big umbrella -they call their show Car Care World Expo. Perhaps you will see more opportunities if you consider yourself as more than just a detailer. Why limit yourself?

Could you think of yourself as a car care specialist? Think about the things you do, and then think about all the things you could do. How many opportunities for services other than detailing do you turn away?

Realizing that you can do more is not always easy. FedEx and the post office have been serving their customers for years, and they did not think of cooperating until mid-2001. If these billion-dollar giants missed the obvious for so long, you can feel less guilty about missing the obvious aspects of your business. The regrets can be short term if you start seeking and developing opportunities today.


You can find some customers by moonlight, but how can you find more? By now I've had enough of Lyle, and I've used too many inches of text, but I want to end with an idea. Why not have an open house? Schedule an event and invite everybody for free. Talk about the services you offer and then teach your guests about the things they can do to help maintain their vehicles. Not only will you meet many new customers, but you will also be able to discover what you can be doing to meet the needs of your customers. An open house - especially if you can link it with one or more related events (Scout car wash, Corvette Club meet) - can help you build a reputation and increase your ties to your community. Your investment will be rewarded.


On June 19, 2001, FedEx announced the national rollout of FedEx Drop Boxes outside post
offices in major US markets. David J. Bronczek, president and CEO of FedEx, said, "The expansion of our drop-off network is designed to benefit all FedEx Express customers, from small, neighborhood businesses and individual shippers to large, worldwide accounts."

This program will be expanded to over 108 markets around the US. FedEx already has 36,000 self-service drop boxes, 1,214 staffed FedEx World Service Centers(r) and 8,001 staffed FedEx ShipCenters(r) nationwide.

In addition, FedEx gets to provide USPS with airport-to-airport movement of 3.5 million pounds of Priority Mail, Express Mail and First-Class Mail daily. According to FedEx, 3.5 million pounds of mail will fill 30 wide-body DC-10s, which is a good thing because FedEx uses the planes at night for its shipments and now has a customer for daylight movement of freight.

How does FedEx benefit? Over the seven-year life of the agreement, FedEx plans to make $7 billion. The Post Office will be paid for the drop box placements.

John Lamade has extensive experience in the marketing of detailing products and is a contributing editor to Auto Laundry News. Contact John via e-mail at

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