Everything I know I learned at a car wash. Lessons like “shortcuts make long delays” or “if plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters.” I was the kid that was handed the keys to reap the coins from the self-serve bays at one of our family’s car washes after a stretch of rain. Which I now realize taught me one of my most valuable lessons: “you have to make hay when the sun shines.” Or in adult speak, businesses must identify and capitalize on emerging opportunities to grow.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham LincolnThis year, the express-exterior wash model is celebrating its 20-year anniversary. Consumer demand for its value priced drive-through tunnel with free vacuums is skyrocketing. And it feels like every banker and their mother is lined up trying to invest money in building express-exterior properties.

Which begs the question, what are you doing today to take advantage of the opportunity? How are you planning to grow your business in a way that’s sustainable and rewarding? The status quo is the enemy of opportunity and hard work. Keep reading.

The Sun is Shining. Are You Positioned to Make Hay?

The conditions are good — readily available financing, increasing consumer demand, and a retail real estate-based business in a time when traditional retail is shifting to online. We provide a service that drives traffic to retail locations. We are purchasing or leasing land where there are increased vacancies, making good land [slightly] easier to find. From an investment standpoint, we carry limited inventory during an era of supply disruptions. We are forging ahead with innovations in controls, equipment, and chemistry to provide a fully automated business with minimal labor during a time where finding staff is less certain. And our free vacuums and pay stations are spaced accordingly during a time that “socially distanced” is the social norm. Seems to me the stars are aligning for each of us to win our unfair share.

If I Were a Banker, I’d Be Excited. As an Entrepreneur, I’m Downright Giddy

If you’re an owner that wants to build out your market, it’s possible the sky is the limit and there’s no better time than now to plan and execute. You may be reading this from the exhibit hall of our industry’s largest convention, The Car Wash Show 2021, happening Nov. 15-17 in Las Vegas, NV. Some of you will leave with a plan to further dominate your markets and increase earnings from every square inch of your properties. Others will be actively searching for new innovations and ideas to reduce operating costs, improve wash quality, and deliver a unique and compelling customer experience. And many will be looking to do both. Let me remind you of more life lessons from car washing: “by failing to prepare, you prepare to fail” and “someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Now is the time.

Luck Is When Opportunity Knocks, and You Answer

Here’s the deal: installing the latest applicator to keep up with the wash down the street doesn’t cut it anymore. Whether you’re physically at The Car Wash Show, or researching what’s new in car washing online, those that will rise to the top are constantly evaluating their current situation, prioritizing investments to enhance their customer’s experience, and executing ahead of the curve. Opportunity rarely knocks twice. When something good comes your way (and we have something good) jump on it, ready or not.

Document Your Current Situation

Delivering a clean, dry, shiny car is vital, and to do so you must conduct a periodic equipment audit. This is a crucial component of successful planning. But equipment is only one of three areas you need to regularly examine. The second is an analysis of your existing and potential customer base. And the third is scrutinizing the condition of your facility. Documenting your current situation helps provide a clear picture of what is changing. It identifies gaps in what you’re doing now and reveals opportunities for future growth.

Update Your Market and Demographic Survey

How long has it been since you’ve conducted a market and demographic survey of your wash? It is likely you conducted such a report before building or buying each of your washes and it shouldn’t have been a one-and-done project. With regular market and demographic surveys, you can identify changes in traffic patterns and customer preferences, and you may discover underserved areas to build new locations. You will also be able to narrow the scope of marketing efforts, so time and money aren’t spent pursuing people who are unlikely to become customers. Whoever understands the customer best, wins.

Narrow Your Field of View to the Customer’s Point-of-View

Compare your signage, landscaping, and building appearance from across the street. Evaluate the uniforms and positioning of your staff and ask yourself, “Does my car wash look busy and inviting even with moderate volume?” Don’t trust your own eyes. Ask friends or colleagues from within and outside of the industry for their candid feedback. Customers gravitate to businesses that look clean and fresh. Giving your location a facelift with thoughtful branding and extending it across your location can pay off with increased customer capture rates and retention.

Audit Your Equipment

Evaluate your tunnel system’s ability to deliver clean, dry, shiny service consistently across all makes and models. Expand this audit to include support equipment, computer systems, motor control centers, and water treatment and vacuum systems. At the same time, perform a complete utility audit. Review your electrical, water volume, pressure, and quality, along with available sewer capacity. Utilities and efficient use of utilities can play a major role in your expenses and in equipment retrofits. Always evaluate utilities in conjunction with your equipment audit.

Rank Opportunities

I’ll admit I’m just as subject to the trap of loss aversion as the next guy. Meaning I’ll typically work harder to avoid losses than pursue gains. But the lesson is to not limit yourself with tripping over dollars to save pennies. Absolutely list the projects that shave two cents per car in cost, but also list the projects that require an investment to see a 10 percent uplift in revenue. Projects like new landscaping, LED lighting, better vacuums, or running a new digital marketing campaign to improve your capture rate. And then prioritize by ranking each opportunity based on its contribution to improving your bottom line.

Move Beyond What’s Comfortable

Twenty years ago, I can remember standing with a group of car wash owner/operators at Benny’s Car Wash in Baton Rouge, LA. We were there to tour the first express-exterior car wash. The wash had gated entry and free vacuums. More than half thought it would never work. Provide a free service and make a profit? No way. Not possible. That’s foolish. Or is it? It’s possible a new monthly wash club with license plate recognition gate

control is just what your customers want. Don’t limit your potential with misconceptions.

It’s a Sunny Day

For 20 years the express car wash business has had significantly more sun days than rain days. And in current times, the sun is shining a little brighter. The opportunity to “make hay” is abundant but it won’t fall in your lap without working for it. Take the time to research, plan, and execute. Hard work compounds like interest, and the earlier you do it, the more time you have for the benefits to pay off. See you at the show!

Good luck and good washing.

Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.