Avoid the Pitfalls - Design and Operational Challenges
By Trent Clark
The design was out-there, brash, in your face different and got plenty of attention. The designer wanted a product that would create excitement and loyal buyers. It begged for attention and eventually customers. But enough about the Nissan Juke or the AMC Pacer. One of the mistakes car wash owners can make is to work too hard to make their brand stand out and be different — then end up losing customers. It’s a balancing act. From leadership and arrogance, to communication and budget, these can also determine car wash success or failure.
STICK WITH YOUR PLAN
I know good owners who had great initial ideas for their car wash: good location, great demographics, and a solid program. Just washing cars, how could they fail? Then, as things progressed, they changed this and that along the way based on feelings not solid logic. It becomes a pet project where all the dreams of one’s life can finally express themselves. The car wash project took longer to build, cost a lot more than expected, and they missed opening at the best time of year. Now they are backwards and fighting for life. If they had stuck with the simple initial idea, they would have saved money and started making money sooner.
I know a full-service operator who has a bar in the lobby, and the customers love it. It works great because it was part of the initial plan and they stayed with it. It’s a best practice to stick with your plan, and don’t waver unless unforeseen items force you. There will be unforeseen items, I can almost guarantee this, but don’t let it knock you off the rails.
Another common issue for owners is trying to do everything for everybody. The late Stephen Covey once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” Washing cars should stay “washing cars.” Once you decide to split your focus there can be a price to be paid. The second you add a pet wash, hail and dent repair, windshield repair, a playscape for kids, coffee shop, and other really nice things, the car wash will become secondary, and the service can suffer. Your quality and attentive staff needs to be taking care of the customers, cars, and buildings, not scooping poop and cleaning the aquarium.
If you have an ugly wash building and site, change it immediately. I have heard many older car washerssimply say, “It’s fine, I still wash a lot of cars.” Why fix what isn’t broken right? But look at the new washes coming closer every year. The new washes are not looking to wash 50 cars per day but 300 per day, and they will take your “lot of cars” away from you. Even a minimal investment can take care of paint, landscaping, and new signage. The new washes are investing $4 million to $6 million for new, slick, well lighted, nicely landscaped, and incredibly equipped facilities. The best bet for a tired
car wash is a complete renovation and new equipment.
But if that cannot be had, do the best you can. At least, when you need to sell, you will be marketable and can get a better deal.
With regard to leadership and management, car washing is still largely a mom-and-pop service industry. A lot of new money is in the game these days, and we don’t really know how this will play out in the end. My money is on the true owners and stakeholders taking care of business daily.
If you build it and walk away, it will eventually go the way of the Edsel, and we see this happen a lot lately.
New owners will be found and once they take care of the facility and customers every day, it will thrive again. I have watched this unfold recently with an out-of-town company that built a nice wash on a great lot — lots of traffic and opportunity. After a few years, though, it was run down and losing. It took new owners to get it out of the hole. Even with two new shiny washes built within a mile, the new owners were on the site every day working like soldiers taking care of every customer and the equipment. This wash has thrived and is now busier than the new washes down the road.
Arrogance can quickly kill a business. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” The owner’s attention must be focused on taking great care of the customers. Owners also need to lead staff members and ensure they are properly trained and can treat every customer like royalty. True leadership is seen and learned by serving everyone else, including your own family. Working for and around a captious person will drain everyone’s energy and desire to do a good job. An overly proud owner will not keep customers coming back. Swallow your pride and have a servant’s attitude. Be a leader worth following, and people will follow.
DON’T BE PENNY-WISE
I heard this recently from a well-respected car wash guy: “Don’t go cheap on lawyers, doctors, or toilet paper.” I agree. If you are building a new ground-up or renovating an older wash, be sure you plan on adequate funds to do it right.
There is a local car wash on the busiest street in a thriving city. It was old, tired, and dirty, and no one would go there. Someone bought it and came to us to get some ideas. They didn’t want to spend much to get it up and running again. They took a few of our ideas, spent some money on new vacuums and pay stations and fixed some of the tunnel equipment. It is open and doing okay.
They did go cheap in some areas and it shows. The tunnel is still dark and the staff are untrained and not uniformed. The new POS system works some of the time so a staff person has to be close by to help out. I don’t know if they just ran out of money or decided to go cheap, but without consistent quality service, customers will look at other options. This is where going cheap can cost you more in the end.
Don’t be smothered, covered, chunked, and diced in your signage, marketing, and pricing. Provide clarity in your message and service. Using every color in the Crayola box, wavy signs, inflatable gorillas, even risqué mannequins, is not clarity, it can be downright annoying.
Watching the recent Super Bowl, I found most of the commercials very confusing and missing their message. Advertisers paid millions just to leave the potential customer saying, “What?” Only the halftime show was clear on what it was selling — and it wasn’t music.
Mirror and represent the type of customer you want with your offerings and facility. Car salesmen still get a bad rap because of the polyester suit, psychedelic ties, and lack of veracity of yesteryear. The car washes of the past have a similar marketing history that thankfully is exactly that — history. New washes can have some flash and color, but it can be designed in a clean, modern, and tasteful way.
The Ford motor company decided in the late ‘50s to build a totally new car, the car of the future. They named it the Edsel. This car was intended to help Ford better compete with GM and Chrysler.
Ford spent hundreds of millions and marketed the car as the best in the world. When the customers finally came and looked, they saw an ugly, expensive, and overhyped Ford. The Edsel brand did not have clarity, was built out of arrogance. They were cheap and tried to be everything for everyone. It quickly failed.
You don’t see any AMC Pacers on the road anymore and you will not find one on a used-car lot. They crushed them quickly and with purpose. Don’t let your business or competition crush you. Stick with your plan, keep the main thing, the main thing, manage locally, be a leader worth following, don’t be cheap, and provide clarity to staff and customers. Just don’t get me talking about the Pontiac Aztec.
Trent Clark is an architect with A Plus Design Group, a firm that specializes in car wash design nationwide. He is also a car guy as you probably figured out. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.