Because of the economic conditions that we are faced with in the car washing industry it is time to follow the lead of our own customers. Now is the time to take care of the car(wash) that we already have and focus on getting the most out of it we can. There is far too much waste on labor, lost sales due to equipment failures, and not nearly enough attention on marketing and finding ways of appealing to the next generation of wash customers.
10. Fresh Paint and New Bulbs – This may seem insignificant but now is the time to realize that those customers that are still washing their cars want a clean and well lit environment to wash their car. Applying a fresh coat of paint and replacing old light fixtures (or bulbs) is a great way to appeal to the consumer populace that assimilates 83% of their information visually.
9. New Equipment Decals – Now is the time to contact your equipment dealer and order up some new equipment decals to spruce up the hardware that you already have. For a small additional cost wash owners are also turning to replace their old peeling decals with new customer equipment decals as part of their business branding efforts and onsite marketing and promotions.
8. Targeted Marketing Campaign – Every community has it’s own form of “New Neighbor” program for people moving into a new area. These are those packets you get in the mail containing coupons from local businesses and information about the community. Wash owners have had great success when offering a valuable promotion to those new potential customers moving within 5 square miles of their car wash location. Wash owners such as Robert Greene of Carwash Express in Georgia (USA), offers a redeemable coupon for a free $20.00 prepaid card usable at his location – which has had a great response and according to Robert is bringing in lots of new first time customers to his wash before they visit another wash in town. The call to action here is that you need to start building your customer database ASAP if you don’t have one already. Don’t know where to get started? Get a customer loyalty program that gives incentives for customers to register online through your website. Don’t have a website to collect customer data? You had better get one because a website is a LOT more than just a digital billboard that people find by searching for carwashes on Google, far from it!
7. Join the Chamber of Commerce – This advice is perhaps the one suggestion I hear over and over again from car wash owners that are looking to establish business-to-business relationships. The Chamber meetings will offer many networking opportunities and puts you face-to-face with actual business owners and decision makers. Brett Pace of Swipe-n-Shine Carwash (swipenshine.com) in Murray, Utah (USA) has found a lot of commercial fleet customers at his local Chamber networking events.
6. Remote Wash Monitoring – Wash owners that take advantage of a system that monitors their wash equipment, tracks, revenue, and alerts them to critical situations is a proven way to reduce unnecessary trips to the wash, reduces service calls, reduces employee theft/fraud, and prevents lost revenue from running out of chemical. The reporting offered by these systems also allows for smarter staffing by identifying the slow and busy periods of a wash operation which allows for greater efficiency at the wash.
5. Develop Business-to-Business Relationships – Car wash operations that reach out to businesses in their community as part of their marketing plan find that their peaks and valleys in wash counts are far smaller than those washes that rely solely on consumer washing. Most of these business operations are looking for ways in which to reduce their administration and labor costs starts by finding an automated “Commercial Fleet Program”. Reducing these costs starts by finding an automated solution that leverages computers and software – many times involving a card-based or code-based system of some kind. Increasing business and reducing labor – thats a win-win situation.
4. “Go Green” with Sustainable Chemicals and Practices – Whether you want to admit it or not, car washing AND the environment will be finding it’s way into the spotlight more often in the coming years. It is far more important to be seen as a trend-setter than it is to be a trend-follower in situations like this. It’s a lot like buying a stock when it’s only valued at a few dollars a share (knowing that it’s going to go up in value) and cashing in at a high point. There is a growing sentiment among the consumer populace that is looking for more as the years go on.
3. Credit Card Acceptance – Now that we have had a chance to evaluate the spending habits of consumers for 2008 it has NEVER been more clear that should be one of the top equipment upgrades that every car wash operation needs to consider. Consumers are reducing the amount of cash they carry due to the current economic crunch. On top of the contributing factors of consumers keeping their cash in the bank, the service and retail industry is reporting record numbers of card-carrying customers in the past three years and the numbers are growing every year. Consumers that fall into the age demographic of 16-43 are now falling into the ‘cashless society’ that companies like Visa and MasterCard have been eagerly awaiting. Now that the cat is out of the bag there is no putting it back in – consumers now demand that they can pay for their goods and services with their credit or debit card. Failing to provide customers with the ability to pay with their preferred form of payment in 2009 is going to hasten the loss of customers to competitors that will accept their convenient cards in the bay.
2. Customer Loyalty Programs – I had the opportunity to sit in on the Future of the Industry panel at the NRCC in Atlantic City and listened to leaders in our industry (as both manufacturers and successful operators) and they explained that of all of the challenges for 2009 that car wash owners will face fall into a few specific areas. Wash owners need to find ways of engaging their customers and capturing their business. Two key areas of this involve marketing and retention – the second half of the equation requires technology to step in and automate the busywork. Automation is what keeps the labor costs down and allows a business owner to leverage one of many customer loyalty programs. The panelists made reference to the importance of taking advantage of a prepaid loyalty program, unlimited wash pass program, and commercial fleet business programs. The walk-away is that you must not confuse ‘Advertising’ with ‘Marketing’ – because customers are changing with the times. Advertising brings a customer in for the first time, customer loyalty programs get them to come back a second time to your wash. These industry leaders that were talking to the assembly of car wash owners and operators were very clear about the times that we are in. In 2009 the primary focus of a business is going to be to increase their focus on marketing and customer retention rather than making that the first budget to be slashed or reduced.
1. Raising Prices – Whenever talk about raising prices is brought up amongst wash owners there is a general consensus of both fear and disbelief. Now is not the time to cut your own wrists and build a marketing plan based on “hope” by staying the course and living on reduced margins. Secretly every wash owner wants to raise their prices but is so fearful of losing business it is this very paralysis in the decision making process that leads to nothing happening at all. Admittedly raising prices may not be feasible in some markets, but in MOST markets if you are showing that you are making visible improvements to the wash (see points 10, 9, and 4) and you are finding ways in which to reward frequent wash use and improve convenience (see 3 and 2) you are well within your rights as a business owner to ask for more money for your services. I’m blown away with how much money is left on the table because of ‘fear of change’ or a fear of losing your worst (and cheapest) customers! When you make more money per-customer you need to wash fewer vehicles than before for the same amount of profit and lower operating costs. You spend less on water, electricity and chemical when you make more per car. Be smart about your price increases and make certain that your customers see a visible change to the facility that coincides with the price increase. The only change in your business will be that you are taking more money to the bank every month and you will be sending the low-cost ‘cut throat’ customers to your competitor who can keep trying to survive on on their razor thin margins. Final closing thought – when the economy takes a dip or gas prices go up, which consumer do you suppose can afford to continue washing their car?