The Federal Reserve is trying to tame inflation without causing a recession. A similar strategy should be the goal of every car wash, detail, and fast lube business owner, operator, and manager. But what are these terms, how do they impact car-care services businesses and how can their effects be minimized?
Inflation refers to the rising prices of goods and services.
Inflation occurs when prices rise due to increases in production costs, wages, shortages, a troubled economy, and supply chain issues, all of which appear present for the foreseeable future.
A recession, on the other hand, is a period of temporary economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are reduced. A recession is defined by a fall in the total monetary or market value of all finished goods and services produced in the United States, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in two successive quarters.
COPING WITH INFLATION
Surprisingly, although only 48 percent of respondents in one recent survey by Bloomberg cited rising inflation as the biggest challenge they faced in the past year, 71 percent of the small business owners surveyed reported inflation has had a negative impact on their business.
Contrarily, a recent Capital One survey found that the biggest problem faced was inflation. In fact, many small business owners had already taken the following actions to help mitigate the impact of inflation:
• 27 percent built up their cash reserves
• 23 percent preemptively raised prices
• 21 percent purchased more inventory
Building up cash reserves can be as basic as sweeping extra cash into interest bearing accounts. While interest rates have been so low that keeping cash in a regular or interest-bearing checking account didn’t matter, that is changing. The Federal Reserve continues to increase its federal funds rates -– rates that may rise to as much as 2.1 percent by the end of 2024.
OPTIMAL INFLATION FIGHTING OPTIONS
While raising prices isn’t an ideal strategy, it can be helpful in combatting inflation’s impact on a car wash or detailing business —if handled judiciously. Avoid dramatic across-the-board price increases. Instead, raise prices slowly in modest increments, which might make them less noticeable.
There are a number of steps that the owners and operators of every car wash, auto detailing, and fast lube business can take to help reduce the effects of today’s inflation. These steps include:
• Focusing on the customers. Now is the time to make an extra effort with customer relations. After all, with price pressure, customers may themselves be shopping around. Excellent customer relations may make it hard for them to want to do so.
• Analyze profit margins. Re-evaluating costs and analyzing the car wash operation’s profit margins faced today is a good, first-step of ensuring increases or decreases in those margins won’t impact quality or service.
• Streamlining and automating processes including commonly overlooked areas such as accounting, payroll, and scheduling is another step toward coping with inflation.
• Improve productivity. Productivity can be improved by stocking up on supplies and cutting expenses whenever and wherever possible.
• Renegotiate leases and rental agreements. Landlords and equipment rental businesses are facing the same skyrocketing prices as those in the car-care service industry. Weighing those increased prices with losing a good paying tenant or lessee, has opened the door for many renegotiations.
• Investing in technology in these inflationary times greatly aids in getting more work done with the same or fewer workers. It’s not always about robotics as radio-frequency identification, barcoding systems for inventory control, and artificial-intelligence-driven automation allow questions to be answered and workflow accomplished without human interaction.
•Buy Now. Many car wash operators, detailers, and fast lube business owners aren’t waiting for prices to reach their inflationary ceilings. Those with access to capital and bank loans are buying the core materials they need in order for their business to survive. They are also investing in property and equipment, assets which historically keep pace with rising costs in inflationary times.
BAD DEBT, GOOD DEBT
Many experts advise that this is the time to free the car-care services operation from debt rather than taking on any more unless absolutely necessary. However, for many car wash operators, detailers, and fast lube business owners this may be the best time to get access to financing.
Good times or bad, a “rainy day fund” is almost a necessity. Whether an emergency savings fund or a line of credit, planning ahead means having a ready source of cash if or when it might be needed.
A line of credit is far easier to establish before the car wash, detailing, or fast lube business begins struggling. A line of credit is extended by a bank or other financial institution to a business that enables the operation to draw on the funds when funds are needed.
TODAY’S OR TOMMORROW’S RECESSION
During a recession, the economy struggles, people lose work, businesses make fewer sales and the country’s overall economic output declines. Regardless of whether a recession is on the horizon or already here, “recession proofing” the car-care services business can ensure its survival if tough times occur — and a better bottom-line if they don’t.
Among the strategies every car wash operator, detailer, and fast lube business owner can employ that are equally valuable when coping with either inflation or a recession are:
Growing Your Customer Base
It bears repeating: the importance of increasing the number of customers the car-care services operation has can’t be overemphasized. After all, the unexpected loss of a big commercial customer can impact even the most financially stable business.
Make the Most of Current Customers
It is unfortunate that customers are usually the first to go during tough economic times. An economic downturn or recession means that now is the time to take care of loyal customers, since they could also bring new customers to the business. Telling customers how much their business is appreciated or rewarding them through discounts, loyalty cards, and gift certificates can reap big dividends.
Win a Competitor’s Customers
Any car wash, detailing, or fast lube operator or owner hoping to prosper in tough times must continue to expand their operation’s customer base — and that often means drawing customers away from the competition. This can be accomplished by offering more or something different than the competition does. Providing better customer service is often viewed as one of the easiest ways to outdistance the competition.
Better and More Aggressive Marketing
In tough economic times, many car-care services businesses make the mistake of cutting their marketing budget or even eliminating it entirely. Lean times are, however, exactly the time when the business needs marketing. Customers are restless and make changes in their buying decisions.
Clearly this is a time to help prospective customers find your services, meaning the car-care services operation should become aggressive in marketing. Prospective customers, who could also be feeling the same economic pinch as the car wash operator, detailer, or fast lube business owner, will likely be on the lookout for special offers and freebees that can provide them some financial relief.
Incentivize the Workers
During any economic downturn, employees will have financial problems of their own. That means their first priority will usually be to take care of their families either with a raise from the operation or from a job change to one of the business’s competitors.
Losing well-trained, quality workers is something no business, large or small, can afford to let happen — especially in this economy. Employees should always get fair compensation for doing their jobs. When they go above and beyond, however, they should be rewarded through a formal, tied-to-profit, pay-for-performance plan. This can mean developing a pay-for-performance plan tied to profit for each key individual — and involving the worker in the planning process.
CONTINUING SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES
A supply chain is a network of people, organizations, and activities that move a product from a supplier to a final customer. A supply chain disruption is any sudden change or crisis — either local or global — that negatively impacts that process.
Surviving today’s supply chain disruptions means making sure you still have suppliers and a steady flow of parts and materials. Keeping a bank of spare parts easily accessible, especially those that are the most in demand, is an easy way to reduce pressure.
Of course, as suppliers feel pressure, be alert for quality degradation and late deliveries. Fakes are also a growing problem when supplies are scarce. The answer, whether for spare parts, supplies, or key products, is to know your suppliers, both new and long-time.
The economic challenges notwithstanding, most small business owners are confident their business will be operating in the next six months. Unfortunately, despite that confidence, there is nothing that will make any car wash, detailing, or fast lube business 100 percent inflation-proof. However, implementing some of the strategies outlined can help ensure the operation survives tough times and, perhaps, even enable it to profit from them.
Mark E. Battersby is and Ardmore, PA-based freelance writer, specializing in finance and tax issues.