On the Wash Front - September 2008

Back To School:
The Last One In is a Rotten Egg
By Anthony Analetto

"It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” I doubt I’m the only one who recalls the Staples office-supply store TV commercial a few years back depicting a smiling father plunking pencils and notebooks in a shopping cart. He merrily anticipates sending his kids back to school, while dancing through the aisles to this classic holiday song. Recognized as a crucial period for most retailers, it often seems that few car wash operators specifically target their marketing to take advantage of the season. No, parents and students won’t be stocking up on car washes, but there will be a huge shift in their daily activities and priorities. With a little planning and legwork, there are a lot of opportunities that can help build your car counts during the coming months.


I expect a growing sense of urgency from schools and organizations looking to raise money this school year. Many areas will see decreased property tax revenue related to the housing slump. Fuel prices have spiked so dramatically that more than a few districts will be scrambling just to meet increased operating expenses. Budgets for sports and extra-curricular groups will likely be scaled back, sending out veritable armies of students with greater need than usual to raise money to sustain their activities. The community car wash with strong fundraising programs, proactively marketed, stands to become their best friend. Do you have a brochure detailing the various fundraising opportunities you offer? When the band teacher types the word fundraising into a search engine, will they get an advertisement linking them to that page on your website? Have you scheduled appointments with the head of every organization in your community that could benefit from fundraising partnerships with your wash? Albert Einstein once said, “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Let’s look at some of the opportunities.

First, consider the old standbys. Hosting charity wash days with a percentage of the profits going to the organization can both increase traffic and present a great opportunity for media coverage. Another favorite is for kids to sell wash books and keep a part of the profit. More recent fundraising programs leverage technology to improve performance. For washes with newer gated kiosks, it will be increasingly common for these units to allow a customer to enter a code to donate a portion of their payment to a favorite charity. For example, you may negotiate with the local band that every time a customer buys the top package and enters the assigned code, you’ll give the band two dollars. If you don’t have one of these hi-tech kiosks and can stomach a chaotic lack of control, this can also be accomplished with printed and even electronically distributed coupons that you allow to be duplicated. Imagine all the students and parents sending out electronic coupons to friends and relatives through the social networking sites to buy your top package. Picture thousands of potential customers planning a trip to your wash to help the people they love. Grassroots marketing can deliver exciting results, but normally only the first business in a community to do something new will reap the reward.


Back to School means your customers drive and behavior patterns are changing. Parents are leaving for work earlier to drop off kids. College students are commuting to or arriving on campus. Summer vacation season has ended with many family vehicles in serious need of interior detailing. Look for small operational changes you can make to better align your wash with these new patterns. Evaluate your hours of operation. Maybe promote an early bird special, promising a discounted wash. Try offering a free cup of coffee to go with an exterior wash. Distribute free washes to new students at your local university. Promote interior detailing specials. Whatever you do, realize that your customer’s routines are in a state of flux. Failure to give them an incentive by making a wash convenient with their new schedule can lead to a slow couple of weeks. Your job is to show them how fast and easy it is to incorporate a car wash into their new schedule.


I’ve run washes that every year experienced a drop in volume starting two weeks prior to the start of the school year. That slowdown could last for several weeks. Student discounts were offered with flyers posted all over campus. Detailing specials were promoted on coupons for customers looking to get their car thoroughly cleaned after vacation travel. Despite tremendous effort, these and other promotional efforts seemed to have little impact. Maybe customers’ routines were disrupted and it took a couple of weeks for them to return to the wash. Maybe budgets were simply too strapped from buying clothes and pencils. I know some operators who have written off this season and use the time to perform site maintenance and renovation to get ready for the winter. So why am I writing about building traffic during back to school? Am I off my rocker? Maybe. But maybe the rules have changed.

There are a lot of things going on in the economy right now with unknown and unpredictable results. No doubt there will be difficult times ahead for some. But I keep coming back to Mr. Einstein’s quote that “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Maintaining the status quo may not be enough. Businesses that can identify and implement new ideas first are likely to find more success in these uncertain times. I have not yet tried the computer code fundraising program I outlined above, and welcome letters from anyone who has. Will it work? I can’t answer for certain. But I remember when I was in school we had a saying: “the last one in is a rotten egg.”

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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