Competition is getting fierce for in-bay automatic car wash operators! You might be shaking your head as you drive down the street and see that everyone is building an in-bay automatic. According to an Auto Laundry News survey, 80 percent of in-bay automatic car wash operators have at least two competitors.
C-stores kicked off the trend in the recent years by building beautiful in-bay automatics to go alongside their c-stores and multi-pumpers. According to CSP Magazine, 11.6 percent of c-store retailers were looking at car washes to boost profits in 2005. Next are the investors who have pulled money out of the stock market and are searching for a better return, popping up in-bay automatic washes like they are bags of microwave popcorn. Then you have the conveyorized express exterior washes that are trying to use their volume to muscle their way into the quality space (great price, quick services, quality wash) that was once owned by the in-bay automatic crowd.
Just when you thought you had seen it all, fast lubes entered the market and are adding in-bay automatics to their facilities - many times they are giving away the wash "free" with an oil change. There is no need to shake your head, since competition is a good thing. It helps operators stay on top of their game. However, do not get swept behind the competition - be on the offensive with new and innovative ways to serve the in-bay automatic customer.
As an in-bay automatic car wash operator, you have an inherent advantage over your competitors. This is your business day in and day out. You are in tune with what your customers need and want, and you have one focus - in-bay automatic car washes. You are not a c-store with so many profit centers on the lot that you cannot concentrate on providing the best wash experience. You are not an investor who wants to be an absentee business-owner, running an unmanned location 24/7 without knowing what your customers are doing. The express exterior wash teams are stilling trying to figure out if they have a viable long-term product and what their customers want. Then of course you have the "free-wash" lube locations that are confused about their service focus and what they are trying to offer their customers.
Now is the time to capitalize on your experiences as an in-bay automatic car wash operator and your customers' loyalty. The first thing that you need to look at is how to distinguish yourself from the pack of would-be operators. Start with the outside of your location and your grounds. Does your location have the curb appeal that it once had, and how does it compare to that of your new competitors? If your site falls short, hire a professional landscaper to help you update and spruce up your location. Make sure that you do not have trees blocking visibility (your landscaper will know about local laws) to your location. Try planting shrubs that will flower for multiple seasons and that do not need extensive care.
Next look at the lot's state of repair. Are all your guidelines freshly painted, do you have oil stains on your pads, and do you have a fence that is in need of repair? Do you have stains, standing water, or mold in the bay? Is the paint faded in the bay or is the bay so dark that consumers feel like they are in a tunnel? If so, make sure that you address all of those issues. Make your location look like new.
What does your street sign look like? Is it faded, does it have burnt out light bulbs or are the graphics dated? Maybe it is time to update your graphics package - from the street sign to the wash itself - with bright colors and clean graphics. While you are looking at your graphics package, you need to look at how your parking lot is lighted at night. Is your lot poorly lit? If so, add high-intensity lighting to make sure that your customers feel comfortable washing their car 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Making sure your customers feel comfortable using your facility at night will mean repeat visits and higher profits. Image can never be discounted when it comes to any business, especially a car wash business. If your image is not clean and modern, your customers will not have the confidence that their car will be properly cleaned. Lastly, make sure that you have a maintenance program to keep your entire site looking new month after month.
Now that you have accomplished some or all of the suggested appearance fixes - from sprucing up your landscaping to updating your graphics package - take a critical view of your current car wash building. Is your building like a dark tunnel for your customers? Perhaps the building is missing some windows. Again, the car wash business is about creating a clean and bright image. Nothing creates this image better than a light-filled, modern and open building. Consult with an engineer, and see what your options are to improve your building. Ask for suggestions on how to make your building more prominently visible from the road - and also how you might improve your customers' visibility while they are in the wash bay. If your location needs new equipment, it might be a viable option to construct a brand-new, high-visibility building.
In next month's issue of Auto Laundry News, we will discuss the need to update or replace equipment to keep your wash competitive. In addition, we will offer some marketing suggestions to help you stand out in an evermore crowded field of operators.
Alan Slothower is a car wash consultant with over 17 years of experience in the car-wash and convenience-store industries. AUTEC, Inc. has partnered with Alan to create presentations and editorials about the in-bay automatic car wash business. Alan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact AUTEC, Inc. at (800) 438-3028 or via e-mail at email@example.com. You can visit the company on the web at www.autec-carwash.com.
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