It’s a love-hate relationship. We love bugs when they drive customers to our washes, and hate them when they refuse to leave the car without a fight. Like an illness, if caught early, they can be eradicated without too much trouble. If left to fester, they will etch the clear coat causing angst for both the car owner and the car wash operator.

Prior to the boom of express-exterior washes, wash operators were divided into two camps: those who charged a premium for bug removal, and those who included it in their wash as a cost of doing business. Now, with prep labor eliminated from the wash process at most modern car wash facilities, bug removal has reentered the spotlight as a key differentiator to boost average tickets, increase customer loyalty, and, in some cases, has come full circle and reintroduced labor to the wash process. So what’s the best approach to bugs? Well, it depends. Let’s take a look.

Option #1: On-line Application in the Top Package

On-line bug removal applicators are nothing new. During bug season, I have a supplemental application arch and floor applicators that I apply to every vehicle. In the off-season, there is a foot switch an attendant can activate if they see a vehicle with bugs. As of today, I’m still “old-school” for an express-exterior wash and don’t yet specifically promote bug removal in my menu. That may change. What’s fast becoming the norm at many washes around the country is including on-line “bug-prep” application as a year-round mainstay on the top packages, accompanied by a flashing green bug on the confirmation sign. From the numbers I’ve seen, this little green bug is a powerful incentive that helps move customers to a higher wash package, resulting in a higher average ticket. One cautionary note is that you’ll still need to prepare for the “real” bug season in order to manage customer expectations. Meaning, if customers receive a bug-free car off-season while paying for “bug-prep,” they’ll expect the same shiny product even during your heaviest month of bugs. Provided bugs aren’t a year-round problem in your market, there are many options to manage customer expectations, including DIY self-prep stations that I’ll review next.

Option #2: On-line Application Plus DIY Self-Prep Stations

I first tested my now-favorite approach to removing bugs many years ago at an express-exterior wash that opened in February with a $3 base exterior wash, free vacuums, and no manual prep. The wash was built with both a bug-prep arch and floor applicators in preparation for rough love-bug seasons expected in both May and September. The bugs hit harder than anyone expected, right when we were starting to build a loyal customer base. The on-line bug-prep application alone wasn’t enough at the chain speed we were running. I was faced with slowing production to increase dwell time, installing more equipment, or adding prep labor, none of which I was willing to do. After having conversations with colleagues, I decided to convert several free vacuum bays to self-serve bug-prep areas. Customers loved it. They came up to thank me. Years later we still apply bug remover to every vehicle on line during season, and provide DIY self-prep stations, which have become one of the most popular features on our property.

Option #3: Attendant Application – Before the Wash

Don’t confuse this with vehicle prepping to wash a car. This is an extra hand-prep service being offered as a “bug-prep” for $3 to $4 a-la-carte and is included in the top packages. Keep in mind that the goal here isn’t to get bug remover applied to the front of the car. Plenty of on-line activated equipment exists to do exactly that. Equally, the goal isn’t to hit the front of the car with high-pressure blasters — again equipment is readily available to perform that task more effectively and consistently. The objective is to provide a value added service and personal attention to customers willing to pay for the experience. It’s powerful. Seeing attendants scrubbing the front of their car with a hogs-hair brush dipped in foamy bug remover makes a strong statement, but requires careful management.

First, if you go this route, you must make sure you clearly distinguish the manual bug-prep as a paid extra service. Most locations use a lit confirmation sign to tell a customer that they paid for the extra service. When lit, this sign also alerts attendants to prep the front of the car. Provided your menu board is very clear, this should be sufficient. I’ve also seen some operators create a separate lane for manual prep or strap a “Bug-Prep Only $4” sign to the pole of the brush. Whatever you do, make sure to clearly distinguish any manual prep as a paid extra service; otherwise those not receiving it will feel cheated.

Also, operators offering a paid hand-prep service report that there is a relatively small increase in labor, but don’t fool yourself. No matter how you look at it, offering a paid hand-prep service will add labor and management complexity. On slower days, the existing guide-on attendant is performing the hand-prep service. On busier days, they’re adding additional attendants at the front of the tunnel to perform this service, from both sides of the vehicle. Although easily justified by the increased revenue, it’s a dramatically different level of responsibility for an attendant to safely guide customers onto a conveyor, versus, being responsible for the quality of the wash. Plan to train staff extensively. On a side note, if your climate experiences heavy seasonal bugs, it is still a good idea to include an automatic bug removal applicator to ensure consistency.

Safety

The last consideration before you decide to offer a manual prep service is safety. Without careful training and management, adding manual labor to the wash process is a potential recipe for disaster. Customers, in their car, have just been instructed to take their foot off the brake and put the car in neutral.

Attendants, racing to speed through those safety instructions in order to begin prepping the front of the car, are less likely to notice a customer’s confusion. Although outfitted with long handled brushes, the temptation for attendants to step in front of the car to work faster will be strong. You must ensure that the attendant you put in this role is physically capable of prepping the car, and if single staffed, from one side. Whatever you do, do not allow attendants to cross the front of the vehicle with a customer behind the wheel.

Traditionally manual prep work was done with foaming applicator guns sometimes followed by a high-pressure gun. This approach, although allowing attendants to remain away from the vehicle, lacks the perceived value of a foamed brush gently scrubbing. There’s a lot of evidence coming in that offering a paid hand-prep service with a foamed brush covering the front of the vehicle and even the windshield, is a powerful way to increase your average ticket.

So there you have it, my latest take on bugs. Whether you love them or hate them really doesn’t matter as long as you can profit from the relationship. That said, if you do make the decision to add labor back into the mix, make sure you’re prepared to make the necessary investment in management and training to do it safely, otherwise it’s money that’s best left on the table.

Good luck, and good washing

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext. 104.