Learning New Tricks from the Local Car Wash

Discussion
Jun 16, 2006
Al McClain

By Al McClain


Can mainstream retailers learn anything from the local car wash? If you’ve ever heard retailers lament, “the big box guys are killing us,” you know there is room for improvement,
and car washes may have a few ideas.


A Wall Street Journal article reports on some of the added services car washes are introducing to better differentiate themselves at a time when big box retailers like
Costco, Home Depot, Sam’s Club, and Wal-Mart are at least testing car washes, and many supermarkets and c-stores offer them as well. (Typically, though, retailers offer limited
service or “outside only” washes, versus the full service and higher priced approach.)


If you’re a do-it-yourself car washer, you might want to check out a few full-serve car washes in your neighborhood to see how things have changed. Turtle Wax car washes, for
example, have cut the time it takes for a wash from 15 minutes to ten, while adding Wi-Fi in waiting rooms; and next year will roll out aromatherapy scents for cars, internet
kiosks, and turtles in aquariums (to amuse the kids, one would assume).


A number of car washes offer pick up and delivery service and/or wash your car while you shop or work. Others offer a satisfaction guarantee, and rain checks if it rains within
the first 24-48 hours after your wash. Some have even opened companion dog washes.


Many car washes offer frequent washer cards with various offers and some offer monthly passes for unlimited washes, or discount coupon books for 5-10 washes – looking to increase
revenue and frequency from existing customers.


In my area, the local car wash chain “Splash” offers a fast “hand wash,” with a nicely decorated waiting area and a substantial greeting card section to keep you busy for a few
minutes and add some margin. Another local chain offers free internet access and a spray gun for kids to squirt their car as it rolls by.



Moderator’s comment: Can other retailers learn anything from the efforts of full service car washes to compete with bigger retailers offering self service
or limited service washes?



Too often, retailers (and all businesses) are tempted to look only at direct competitors on a regular basis. All it takes is one good idea from another
channel to spark new sales and profits. How about Wi-Fi access and internet kiosks targeted towards men waiting for women at department stores? Maybe an express greeting card
department near the express checkout?

Al McClain – Moderator


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8 Comments on "Learning New Tricks from the Local Car Wash"


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Tom Shay
Guest
Tom Shay
14 years 8 months ago

Adding to the comments of Professor Richard George, we referred to this concept of the 5/1 or 1/5 rule. As a business, do you have one product that you sell to five customers? Does each of your products individually appeal to customers?

Or, when your business adds a new product (or service) does it appeal to five of your existing customers?

The latter is always more profitable as your customer is spending a larger portion of their dollars with you, making your business harder to do without. And, making it less likely that the customer will try to locate, or stumble across your competition.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
14 years 8 months ago

The lesson from the car wash industry is that to be successful one needs to offer differential advantage. In other words, find unsatisfied needs and meet them. It sounds simple, but consider each of the examples provided. Each one provided a solution to a potential problem. Note that hardly any of the examples involved a lower price. In fact, most require an additional outlay of cash. The moral of the story is that profitable add-on business can be achieved without simply cutting price. Find out what problems your customers give you permission to solve and solve them.

Dan Nelson
Guest
Dan Nelson
14 years 8 months ago

Differentiating in concert with building customer loyalty is the key, and not simply adding on a service that may or may not fill a particular store shopper’s desires. Car washes are an example, but if they don’t meet the specific desires of that store’s shopper, then it’s an added expense vs. an advantage for that location.

Some shoppers may want “concierge curb service parking” (i.e. an older clientele or a cold weather market) while other shoppers may want in-store child care while they shop, (i.e. young families with kids). The key is to understand the specific shopper’s needs and wants for that market, and serve those needs with specific benefits. Find a need and fill it, market by market, and store by store and you will win the shoppers loyalty and frequency to visit.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
14 years 8 months ago

It’s a little hard to generalize about the car washing industry. Probably the best barbeque joint in L.A. is located in a car wash less than five minutes outside the gates of LAX, but it only has seating for two. The labor model (at least here in Detroit) is also a factor in success and failure. But, one thing is true; car washes are (given the limitations of the enterprise) mini-hot beds of constant innovation. So, the big message may be — never rest on your laurels.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 8 months ago

Lateral thinking should be an automatic form of behaviour if you’re running any sort of business. It isn’t simply a matter of copying being the highest form of flattery but one of learning from best practice. You don’t necessarily have to do what anyone else does, just be open to suggestion and find ways of adapting and applying success to your own business. The best example I can think of is with cookery books – good cooks read them for inspiration but rarely follow any recipe they find. More often they use someone else’s idea as a basis on which they can build and imprint their own preferences.

Mark Burr
Guest
14 years 8 months ago
Car washes just may be a great example of where operators best understand their customers, know what they want, what they can afford and what makes them return. Simply, they seem to know and understand their demographic better than most retailers. In my region, their is no shortage of competition even with some strong locally owned chains present. I have a favorite for when I want a quickie, a favorite when I need a little more, and yet another favorite for when I want the works. (And that doesn’t mean the $9.00 wash v. the $5.00 wash.) It’s also a service that is being performed for you on something that many feel passionate about. For me, its a treat, and one of my favorite outings is to set out on a Saturday morning for a great cup of coffee and a real full service car wash. Not that I have a great car, but I simply enjoy keeping it well and consider the help in doing so a ‘value’ and a more often then not… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 8 months ago

The most successful car wash I’ve ever heard about was in Queens, New York. The work was performed by attractive topless young ladies, until the police shut the place down. Other topless or nude car washes were successful ($24.95) in Columbus, Ohio (the Wet Spot) and Moscow, Idaho, until local authorities objected. Clearly there’s a market for Hooters-type car washes at premium prices. And probably other retail businesses that use X and R rated staff.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
14 years 8 months ago
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from car wash innovations and the number one lesson is to look for ways to be different from your competition and at the same time provide a solution for your customers. The best innovations may prove to be the simplest. They would include a great cup of coffee, clean and attractive restrooms (now that is unusual!), greeting cards, car accessories, food and snacks, and detailing and related services. Offering a squirt gun for kids to use is a real innovation and provides fun for the family. And discounts and frequent shopper cards are appreciated by many. Pick-up and delivery services for a car wash may be stretching it a bit, but some customers would probably be willing to pay for this. The logistics seems a bit complicated though. Offering car washes in parking facilities seems more realistic to me and a true differentiator. I have seem this in a few instances and wonder why it is so unusual to find. In my experience, there are many women as… Read more »
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