On the Wash Front - September 2010

Swimming Upstream —
Full-Serve Success by Going Against the Grain
By Anthony Analetto

Elimination of labor has been the battle cry of nearly every car wash operator I know for as long as I can remember. This passion has inspired equipment innovation and made automated kiosks a prevalent feature at many locations. Our industry has created self-serve car washes and 24-hour unmanned in-bay automatics. Most new tunnel washes opening are either express-exterior or flex-serves, designed to minimize labor. And the traditional full-serve car wash, with its substantial labor requirement, has fallen from grace for most new investors. Now let’s meet Tim Jones, the owner of Champion Car Wash in Nashville, TN.

Starting with his first self-serve car wash in 1993, Tim is a visionary leader credited with helping build one of the largest self-serve car wash chains in our industry. Going out on his own in 2007 to open Champion Car Wash, the company has quickly grown to five locations. His first four washes all had combinations of self-serve bays and in-bay automatics. At two locations, he has since converted some of the bays to a hugely successful express-exterior tunnel offering with automated pay stations and free vacuums. For his fifth wash, Tim bought an older rundown full-serve, closed it for a complete renovation taking three weeks, and reopened as — the least likely thing anyone would expect — a full-serve car wash. After 17 years as a predominately self-serve operator, Tim spoke with me about his first full-serve location. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.

ANALETTO: Were you having issues with your other locations that led you to want to enter the full-serve market?

JONES: Not at all. We were a little late getting into express-exterior, but the mini-express tunnel conversions we’ve done have been very successful. I remember at first being concerned that the tunnel would cannibalize sales from the ongoing touch-free automatic and the reduced number of self-serve bays. That didn’t happen. In-bay sales remained stable and self-serve revenue didn’t drop. Even our coin-op vacuum revenue remained about the same although we give free unlimited vacuums to tunnel customers on the same property. It’s really exceeded my expectations. That’s why we converted the second location to a 75-foot tunnel with one touch-free automatic, three self-serve bays, and a dog wash. And at the double touch-free automatic site, we’re converting one bay to be a 63-foot mini-express tunnel. That automatic will be moved to our other location, replacing one of the six self-serve bays, so we end up with a tunnel, a touch-free automatic, and five self-serve bays. I really like that model, having a touch-free automatic with an express tunnel, and self-serve bays on the same property. It appeals to more people and lets us bring in a different customer.

So if things were going well, why did you decide to buy a full-serve wash?

When I came across this property, I saw a real opportunity. It’s located in a thriving bedroom community in Nash-ville where people have money, and there’s not another tunnel wash in a 10-mile radius. It was built 20 years ago and passed to the last owners 15 years back. They were tired of the business and it really showed. Everything was dark brown, drab, and dreary. Nothing jumped out. Although it was a 110-foot tunnel, the equipment was 20 years old and in really bad shape. Cars were mainly washed by hand and towel dried. And despite everything, they were still washing a decent volume of cars. The potential I saw with a modern equipment package and remodeled building was huge.

Were you able to salvage anything?

I hoped to salvage some of the equipment, but ended up gutting the entire tunnel. We put in enough equipment to eliminate all prep except for really heavy bugs. We also invested in a POS system so that we can offer gift and loyalty cards. But a lot of the renovation was about changing the customer’s experience at the wash — building in a “wow factor.” Our logo is bright yellow and red and we re-painted the building in those colors. It really jumps out on the street. Also, we lined the tunnel walls and ceiling with white plastic panels so that everything feels clean and safe. Lighted signage now tells customers what extra services are being applied. And the quality is there. Customers see their car go into a bright tunnel with lots of foam and come out clean and shiny. There were also three lube bays attached to the building that we turned into three express detailing bays. We’re offering a super interior for $40, an express wax for $50, and a combo of the two for $65 that includes the $22 wash. When we first started, the staff was skeptical. They insisted that they could never sell those services. Well, guess what, they’re selling them, and with a little training, realizing it’s easy.

Did you keep any of the existing staff?

I did. But it was total chaos. The issue was they didn’t have any training. Nobody really knew what they were supposed to be doing. All my friends thought I was crazy for buying a full-serve — and during those first couple of weeks before closing to remodel, I started to agree. Fortunately, while we were renovating the property, I also had a company that specializes in training and consulting for the car wash industry come down to train my staff, establish our operating procedures and documentation, and create new wash packages with clearer incremental value. There was some resistance from my employees at first. But after they saw that it would make their jobs, and mine, easier, they bought into it. Now I have a great team that’s motivated to deliver a better product. So far, I have to say, I love the full-serve model. The customer interaction is different. They scrutinize things and expect more than at an express. But when you provide them with a clean, dry, shiny car, they truly appreciate the work you’ve done — and will let you know what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. I’m spending a lot of time there myself and that customer interaction gives me a lot of satisfaction. I have a good manager and the right people in place at the other four locations so that they can run without my daily involvement. Ultimately my goal is to do the same thing with this wash, but for now I’m really enjoying full-serve car washing.

You said you changed your pricing structure, how did customers respond?

We’re seeing some really positive results and are only just beginning to market the wash. So far with the new menu, our average ticket has gone from $16 to $22 per car and volume is up. When we took it over, pricing was very confusing for the customer. There was a low base-price wash, different pricing for cars, trucks, and SUVs, and a lot of a la carte services. Nobody actually knew exactly what they were getting. We raised the price of a basic full-serve to $13 and have on-line wash packages at $15, $19, and $22. We’re also offering an exterior-only option at $5, $8, and $10 with decent volume mostly driven by some of the local used-car lots. Express detailing has been a huge success.

What issues did you encounter with the renovation?

I thought we’d have problems with customers by being closed for three weeks and raising the price, but they just loved the changes we made. Also we were lucky that we had no problems with permitting or the city. I thought we could salvage some of the equipment. After using it for little while, however, I realized it was better to replace it all, which cost more than I had originally planned.

The other issue we had was getting the existing employees to buy into the training program. We had a new direction for the business and they had to forget everything they knew in the past if they wanted to continue with us. There was some resistance but that was quickly resolved too as they became motivated by the training. In all honesty, the best money I’ve spent outside of replacing the equipment was on the training. It’s changed everything. It expanded my insight and afterwards it was like a light bulb went on. My service advisors are now armed with sales techniques that work. They’re recommending services that customers need, and selling them with confidence. There’s no way I could have built this from the ground up for what I spent — I feel like I got a great deal.

What are your future plans?

We’re already offering an exterior option, but in the next few months are planning to open an actual express lane. To begin, we’ll use a handheld POS where the attendant can swipe the card, but if the demand is there we’ll add an automated attendant. My big plans are for marketing the wash. Having shut down for three weeks for the renovation, we’re getting ready to have a grand re-opening in a couple of weeks after we make sure all of the procedures that we trained on are being followed consistently. From there, we’ll be doing Moving Targets, birthday connections, and some cable-TV advertising, which has worked well at our other locations.

I’m also really excited to start the fundraiser program we have planned — it’s going to be a big part of how we promote the wash. Basically, we’ll be signing up local charities to run a month-long promotion. They’ll distribute fundraiser cards with a code and we’ll track every wash sold using that organizations number through the POS system. At the end of the month, we write a check for 20 percent of sales, which helps our community and generates loyalty for our wash — which is what the full-serve business is all about.

Questions can be sent directly to Tim at: championcarwash@yahoo.com.

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years of 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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