Most of the industry is turning its back on the self-serve concept. Opting instead to build flex and exterior-only locations as self-serve volume and revenue continues to slip across the car wash landscape.
But self serve is not dead. It is still a viable and thriving concept. It just requires investment and reinvention.
“The idea that self serve is deadis interesting to us,” says Dennis Dreeszen, owner of Autowash in Denver, CO. “We see that as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Owners feel like self serve is dead so they don’t invest in it. And then guess what? Self serve is dead.”
Dennis and his wife Erin are certainly not afraid to invest in the concept. Since opening their first Autowash location five years ago, the couple has opened six more self-serve and in-bay automatic sites, with a seventh set to open its doors this month. That is some serious investment and a clear dedication to the self-serve model.
With seven and soon to be eight Autowash locations under their banner the Dreeszens have certainly put their money where their mouths are in terms of the future of the self-serve car wash industry — but they are not done yet. The car wash entrepreneurs are not even half way to their ultimate goal of 25 Autowash locations.
“We are looking at aggressive expansion,” Dreeszen says. “Over the next five years, as we are ramping up and beginning to grab scale we are looking to build a couple of locations each year and also take over a couple of sites each year.”
With just five years of experience under their belts, the Dreeszens can still be placed in the car wash newcomers’ bracket, but the couple is far from green. The car wash investors have been ardent students of the industry since 2006, when they first became enamored with the industry and began saving and planning for their first location.
When it was finally time to pull the trigger and open their first location, the Dreeszens didn’t dip their toes into the shallow end of the car wash pool, opting instead to dive right in head first and swim with the big boys. The couple’s first location in Stapleton features three self-serve bays, three in-bay automatics, and two pet-wash tubs.
“When we built the first one we took seven years to think about it, stew on it, and organize,” says Dreeszen. “The thing that changed our entire future outlook on the business was we never got into it to build a car wash. We got into it because we wanted to build a business and our business just happens to wash cars.”
With an investor’s mindset the Dreeszens spent years exploring various car wash concepts and the Denver market before deciding to open their first location. While the couple is well aware that their choice to invest heavily in the self-serve model might leave many industry pundits scratching their heads, it was the right decision for their ultimate goal of building a large-scale car wash brand. The Dreeszens are not just opening up a bunch of sites slapping their logo on the front and moving onto the next development project, they are carefully selecting and building locations that personify the Autowash brand and showcase that the self-serve model can still be vibrant and profitable — if it is done rig
“There is always going to be a need for self serve,”says Dreeszen. “There are so many people that we see out here who want to love on their cars themselves. There is still a market for that. Probably 60 to 70 percent of the people don’t want to do that, and that is fine. I don’t think self serve is the primary look of the industry, but for us it is our niche and we do it well.
“I would say we do it 60 percent better than any of our competitors. When we look at our revenues, Stapleton is pushing close to a million in revenue and on average our self serve bays are doing $8,000 a month. The industry is nowhere close to that. We have found a way to capitalize on a piece of the market that no one else is really paying attention to.”
A major portion of the Dreeszens’ success is thanks to their ability to build Autowash into a brand. A brand that delivers a consistent experience and consistent results regardless of which Autowash location a customer chooses to frequent.
That consistent experience starts from the ground up with an ideal mix of three in-bay automatics and three self-serve bays. All Autowash locations that were new builds sport this configuration, while acquisitions are as close to an even split between in-bay and self-serve bays as possible.
To ensure a familiar and consistent user experience across the growing brand, all Autowashes are outfitted with the same equipment. All automatic bays sport Kärcher equipment, while each and every self-serve bay has the same high-pressure wands, low-pressure foam gun, foam bush, and hand-held dryer.
“We have an expected level of service and this goes with the brand,” Dreeszen says. “This is where we think 99 percent of the people in the industry make a mistake. They don’t have a constant experience between locations.”
In addition to the dependable equipment array, Autowash has another key weapon in its brand-building arsenal: its unlimited wash club. Traditionally self-serve locations have struggled with the logistics and technology investment unlimited wash clubs require.
The Dreeszens have solved both of those challenges with the development of their own unlimited wash club mobile app.
Dennis has a background in information systems and designed and developed the geo-fenced mobile application.
When an unlimited car wash member enters any Autowash location and launches the mobile app they are given a unique code which they can enter into the point of sale to activate the equipment.
Membership entitles customers to one service per day — self serve, the top wash in the in-bay automatic, or a dog wash. While most unlimited wash programs limit the customer to just one automobile, Autowash’s solution places no such restriction. As long as the club member is onsite they can use the equipment to wash any automobile, or pet, they choose.
“We decided to create the app to continue to perpetuate the Autowash brand,” says Dreeszen. “We wanted to integrate and work around some of the barriers of technology and develop a method that is not dependent on any other service provider to make the app work.”
That independent spirt is what sets the Dreeszens and their chain of washes apart from the competition. They refuse to simply follow industry trends. They are blazing their own path to success fueled by a dedication to providing customers a differentiated experience and filling an ignored need in the market.