For the United States vehicle wash industry, early signs indicate that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was less than might have been expected. Sure, preliminary figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show a decline in vehicle use last year, but according to a market survey by the International Carwash Association, the industry was in a position of strength as it entered 2020, with more than 2 billion vehicles washed in 2019.
This assertion that vehicle washing did not become an afterthought in 2020 is buttressed by informal feedback from vehicle wash distributors that shows that chemical sales, along with the number of washes, remained strong in 2020, which is surprisingly good news at a time when so many other industries are struggling.
As we head into 2021, there are several revenue strategies and new service offering opportunities for operators of vehicle wash locations that feature touchless or soft-touch in-bay automatic (IBA) wash systems, whether they are traditional standalone operations or retail fueling/convenience store sites.
One of the key benefits of IBAs is that they require a smaller physical footprint compared to a traditional tunnel and are less expensive to operate, mainly because they do not require a dedicated staff to facilitate the wash process. Many drivers prefer touchless/soft-touch IBAs because of their gentle handling of the vehicle. Drivers also appreciate the many wash options that can be made available, creating a wash menu that ranges from the most basic to a top-of-the-line experience.
With so many ancillary wash services now available, IBA operators must develop a strategic plan when constructing their wash packages and pricing structure, one that optimizes the effects of the ancillary offerings. Specifically, an a la carte-type pricing menu does not always make sense. For example, if you call something a “premium” wash and charge $13 for it, does it make sense to ask the driver for an additional $3 for a high-gloss finish or targeted tire treatment? Does that make the upgraded wash “super premium?”
Instead, we are seeing more operators raise the price of a premium wash while offering the full suite of services with no optional add-on costs. This is a good approach to take because more and more drivers are using credit cards to pay for their washes, which just involves insertion or a simple swipe through a card reader, not digging through a wallet or purse to see if they have the exact amount of cash on hand to pay for the service.
In terms of specific additional services that can be a boon to generating ancillary revenue, three stand out, all of which have been used by the operators of tunnel washes for some years, but can be easily adapted for use in IBA systems:
This is a newer technology that has gained popularity in the tunnel market and is now available to IBA operators. In the ceramic coating application, a low-pressure layer of “ceramic” chemical is applied to the vehicle via the wash’s spray arms, with the result being a really smooth high-gloss finish on every vehicle surface, including paint, trim, and glass. IBA operators that have begun offering ceramic finishes are seeing that drivers are willing to pay $2 to $3 more for this option.
Part of the so-called “lava and lights” experience that so many drivers and their passengers find appealing, these application systems drape the vehicle in a thick sheet of multi-colored high-gloss wax while strategically placed LED lights flash on and off during the wash process. The result is a wash experience that keeps the customer engaged in the process while simultaneously ensuring that the vehicle emerges from the wash bay with a clean, high-gloss finish.
This service is quite common in conveyorized tunnel systems, but advances in the way that the tire treatment equipment is deployed can now make this a profitable additional service for IBA operators. There are currently two notable options for wash operators:
• High-pressure wheel “blasters” featuring a pair of stacked spinners on each side of the wash bay that are equipped with zero-degree nozzles that wash the tires at multiple angles.
• Advanced tire shine equipment that allows the extension of the application brushes to meet the vehicle’s tires. This provides a lucrative extra service for in-bay operators for which customers have shown a willingness to pay a premium.
More than ever, drivers want value when they wash their vehicles, but at the same time, they are looking for more than a “basic” wash — even, it appears, during the height of a global pandemic that has forced many people to modify their usual driving habits. While drivers are willing to pay more for a “premium” wash, they will only continue to do so if the additional services they receive are deemed to be worth the added cost, even long after they have left the wash bay. To that end, there is now a new suite of extra service options — many of which were once considered “tunnel only” — available to IBA wash operators. If properly deployed, these services can lead to more satisfied customers and a significant boost to the wash operation’s revenue stream and bottom line.
Kris Oliver is the eastern region and key accounts manager for OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions and can be reached at email@example.com. OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions consists of PDQ Manufacturing Inc., Belanger Inc., Kesseltronics, and Innovative Control Systems (ICS). PDQ is a provider of in-bay automatic wash systems and payment terminals, while Belanger is an innovative leader in soft-touch tunnel and in-bay automatic wash systems. ICS and Kesseltronics are providers of technology for the car wash industry. For more information on OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions, please visit opwvws.com.