Profile in Success - October 2008

Presence Makes the Customer Grow Fonder
By Jim and Elaine Norland

The reader board announces a vending surprise.
Vending and change facilities are conveniently located in the center of the wash.

College Park Car Wash exudes tradition in its 18th-century Georgian architecture, but the constant improvement in its equipment, technology, customer awareness, and offerings makes it a modern wonder of convenience for drivers in the area north of Washington, DC. With continuing improvement comes increased business volume.

The wash is a popular choice for customers ranging from college students to ordinary motorists who want quick and reasonably priced choices to clean their vehicles. It is located on U.S. Highway 1 right across from the University of Maryland’s main campus. Its three automatic wash bays and five self-serve bays are open for business 24/7.

Two full-time employees and one part-time worker assist owner David DuGoff in greeting and helping motorists and maintaining the wash from about 8:30 to 4:30 each day. Much of the time, however, the wash operates unattended except for customers including area law enforcement agencies who are frequent visitors.

College Park Car Wash is brightly lit and monitored by eight video cameras. It is laid out so motorists enter bays from the front, which faces the busy traffic artery. The layout doesn’t show clean, shiny cars emerging frontward from the bays as many washes do, but it provides greater security for customers and discourages thieves from wrecking coin collection boxes. The building is set back from the front — incoming cars can stack up if necessary while others finish their wash.

DuGoff, who had been in the oil business with his family for 20 years previously, opened College Park Car Wash in 1997 on one of the family’s former service station sites. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 and the resultant erratic petroleum markets, the DuGoffs decided to get out of the filling station business, but the process of selling their nine locations took five years.

David DuGoff noted at the time that self-serve car washes at some of the family stations were generating more net income than the fuel pumps.

The site near the U of M campus seemed ideal. High traffic count at virtually all hours and a site that allowed a layout parallel to the road — eight bays plus the center equipment room, lined up north to south — favored the selection. Good visibility and easy access were additional plus factors.

Getting zoning approved for the site, however, was a two-year process with Prince George’s County officials. “I began the zoning for it in 1992 or 1993 and it took two years to get it approved, even though we had had a gas station with a car wash at that site,” DuGoff recalls. Construction began in 1996 and College Park Car Wash opened the following year.

Credit cards accepted here - entrance to the automatic bays.
One in the bay, one in line. Note the FRP wall panels.

Solid construction including Miami Stone masonry walls and sturdy FRP panels lining its eight bays marks the wash as an enterprise that will keep its good looks. The building’s red exterior color and the cupola atop a gabled roof match the prevailing Georgian architectural style of the University as well as the rest of the College Park community.

DuGoff began with one automatic LaserWash bay and seven self-serve bays, the latter outfitted with GinSan equipment. Growing use of the automatic led him to convert one bay from self-service to an automatic bay in 2000. In 2006, another bay was converted and now all three are equipped with PDQ LaserWash M5 units, replacing the two LaserWash 4000 units to achieve faster vehicle throughput. The third automatic bay cuts down the line, and lets customers feel they won’t have to wait long.

The three automatic bays are served by a SoBrite water reclaim system. The Prince George’s County officials mandated water reclaim for the automatic bays. DuGoff hasn’t used that system to reclaim water from the self-serve bays because “you never know what your customers are putting into those bays.”

He is careful, too, of what flows into the reclaim system from the automatics. “When we added the Blendco DuraShield car protectant over a year and a half ago, we had to be careful about the quantity of product going in because it does affect the reclaim. We also were able to incorporate a Blendco reclaim-friendly presoak which we’ve been using since early this year.”

Those changes exemplify the constant upgrading and improvement that DuGoff practices. Some of the improvements are obvious to customers and some not as evident, but still important in assuring a safe, pleasant, and convenient experience for every customer.

An example of the latter is the repaving of much of the wash, incorporating a snowmelt system so that as cars exit the bays during colder weather, water dripping off won’t freeze and create a skid hazard. That is especially important since cars leaving the wash must make a left turn to go around the side of the building. “Will most customers be aware of that?” he asks. “Probably not, but it all goes to assuring a safe and pleasant experience at the wash.”

Last year he expanded the credit card system to add readers in the self-serve bays, expanding the system to work with the Hamilton DAN (Data Access Network) terminals in the automatic bays and at a token vending station. Internet-based approval changed the card-acceptance timing from a 20- or 30-second wait to a 3-second swipe. The shorter waiting period is tremendously important to customers, he says.

Lighting is provided a mere 10 feet off the ground to aid customers at night.

Adding quick credit card access to those bays has had a great impact on business, and credit card use is steadily growing among self-serve customers. That helped boost average revenue in the self-serve bays to $8 per vehicle.

Another improvement for the self-serve bays was the installation of Air Shammee handheld vehicle dryers this year. The additional service option is another example of adding convenience features for customers as well as increasing vehicle revenue.

DuGoff is an active, involved manager and spends considerable time at the wash, carefully monitoring its performance, appearance, and customer appeal. “Running this car wash is my only business,” he says. “The more time the owner spends on site, the better,” he believes.

“Having the site manned by an owner and attendants who can help people, make change for them, fix little things when they break, restock vending machines, and keep the whole site clean is very important.” While his equipment seems to be self-sufficient and well signed to guide customers, “the totally unattended wash where someone just comes through for an hour in the morning and again in the afternoon can never really reach the maximum potential of the site.”

He made some quality-oriented decisions right from the start when building College Park Car Wash. The exterior walls are of Miami Stone, a brick made for the car wash industry with color throughout. “Inside the bays we have 3/16-inch FRP white panels, a very solid construction that is far different from the thin FRP sheets that typically line gas station bathrooms.” Those white panels bounce light all over each bay, he notes. While the material is very heavy and expensive compared to some options, “It has held up well and cleans up very well.”

From the beginning DuGoff has focused on creating pleasant customer experiences. Customer security is one concern, and College Park Car Wash has ample lighting to make customers feel safe no matter what time they may visit. Women customers, including students, staff, and faculty at the university, are at the wash until late in the evening, DuGoff reports.

Two 1,000-watt lights mounted 25 feet above the ground on both north and south sides of the wash provide overall illumination. Wall packs light up the back and sides of the building

A clean car passes under the dryer as it exits the automatic bay.
Hot water for the wash, floor heat, and snow melting.

A pair of 175-watt metal halide lamps, positioned 10 feet off the ground, illuminates each of the 12 vacuum stations. A lighting engineer recommended placing those lights higher to give wider illumination, but DuGoff insisted on placing them just 10 feet above the ground so light reaches into the vehicle at night and customers could see what they’re vacuuming. “He said I’d burn the hair off a man’s head having the lights mounted so low, but I’ve never had a complaint that the light is too bright.”

In 2006 DuGoff replaced boilers in his wash with three high efficiency ProPak units. One supplies hot water for the self-serve bays. The automatic bays each have their own hot water heaters. Two of the ProPaks supply the floor heat and snowmelt needs for all the bays and the entire back of the wash. The improvements more than doubled the size of heated pavement at the wash.

College Park Car Wash rewards its customers who prepay wash credits by giving them a 20 percent discount on its unique wash tokens. Only the single-token purchaser ($1 for 1 token) misses out on that discount, but from $5 and up, customers can get 20 percent added value. Tokens, good only at this wash, also provide a convenient way to give wash credits to friends and family. They can be purchased outside the wash’s centrally located equipment room with cash, credit, or debit card.

Each token is good for 1.5 minutes in the power wand bays, 3.5 minutes of vacuuming, or $1 in the touchless drive-through automatics. All bays also accept quarters, Golden Dollars, and credit/debit cards.

DuGoff also offers a combo package for those with $10 and $20 U.S. currency bills. For a $10 bill, his changer will dispense five tokens plus a free token and five Golden Dollars. A $20 bill will earn the six tokens plus 15 Golden Dollars.

College Park Car Wash supports University of Maryland athletic teams as well as Washington’s new Major League Baseball team, the Nationals. DuGoff promotes at the university’s home games in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and lacrosse, giving free car washes for either the dirtiest car in the lot or some distinctive fan wear. He promotes interest in upcoming games by listing the next event on the wash’s reader-board sign.

DuGoff buys season tickets for major Terrapin sports and hides envelopes with a pair of tickets for upcoming games in his vending machine columns. A customer buying a package of towels, for example, may be surprised when his intended purchase comes with a “bonus” pair of game tickets.

DuGoff supports and promotes Washington Nationals games at the new ballpark in the same way, both on his reader board and with those hidden tickets. While the team had more losses than wins at this writing, the Nationals were drawing a season average of nearly 30,000 fans per home game, so the ticket giveaway is welcome among College Park customers.

Owner commitment, regular improvement and support of community interests all contribute to growing the business at College Park Car Wash. More and more motorists like what it delivers.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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