There is a new family of towels in town: courtesy towels.
You heard of body towels, glass towels, polishing towels, and even vending towels. But what about courtesy towels? What are they?
Well, the answer starts with a story. Car wash business models, like towels, have changed during the last 20 years. In the old days, full-service washes were plentiful, and one would often see fifteen or more attendants busily drying cars at the end of the tunnel. Today, “work sharing” is common with flex-serve and exterior washes. The customers are put to work doing their own vacuuming and towel drying.
As you can imagine, it would not be practical for customers to bring their own vacuum cleaner to the car wash when they needed the interior of the car cleaned. Vacuums are usually provided at the wash for the customer’s personal use.
What about towels? Drying and interior cleaning still need to be done. Exterior, express and flex washes quickly learned that some form of towel availability was needed as well.
The customer’s requirement for towels was filled in a variety of creative ways. Hence, the birth of the courtesy towel. Some washes sell towels, some provide free towels with the “top wash,” while others provide towels for the customers’ free use on the property.
A large segment of washes even gives towels to all patrons, regardless of the wash package being purchased. These would include treated dash-wipes, disposable towels, and small microfiber towels.
Many innovative washes used this new-borne opportunity for marketing as well.
A phenomenon known as “towel exchange programs” started appearing at car washes.
This is where a unique towel is sold to a customer one time. Each time the towel is returned to the wash where purchased, it is replaced for free. Often the towel is printed or embroidered for branding.
Let us unpack this trend one sector at a time, starting with the most popular courtesy towels: provided for the customer’s free use on the property. This, of course, involves an investment in a washer and an extractor on premise. But it affords the greatest flexibility. One can use cotton or microfiber towels, towels of differing weights, various sizes, and even different colors.
One possibility is buying closeouts. These are discontinued towels, often microfiber, that can be purchased at a fraction of their original selling price. Color availability will change from time-to-time, but the quality is often excellent. When your customers take off with your towels, your costs are not as great. Your towel vendor should be able to offer a large selection of low-cost closeout towel selections in various styles and colors.
Another way to go is with all black microfiber towels. The black color will never show the towel stains. If theft is a problem, washes often go with a smaller 12”x12” towel. If pilferage is less of an issue, a 16”x16” heavier grams-per-square-meter (GSM) towel is preferred. It is more sustainable, and frankly works better.
Perhaps the second most popular courtesy towel is the giveaway towel. At the entrance of the wash, customers are given a towel to use after the car is washed. It could be a disposable towel. There are many options for disposables: paper, DRC, hydro-entangled fiber, and non-woven. Another possibility would be a dash-cloth, which is a pre-moistened towel for cleaning dashboards and even windshields.
Most popular in this genre, however, are microfiber towels. With sonic edge sealing technology (edgeless), and other advances in manufacturing, it is now possible to obtain low cost “pop-up microfiber towels.” Packaged in portable and affordable dispenser boxes in the manner of facial tissues, operators can now hand out something of value with modest expense. The towels are available in six vibrant colors including “brilliant black.” Pallet pricing can bring the cost of this towel down to less than 27 cents each.
A further alternative would be a towel replacement program. This option offers the bonus of creating customer loyalty by design. The car wash sells a unique towel one time to the customer. When the customer returns the unique (soiled) towel they are given a new clean towel without charge. This concept also adds a layer of security to your cherished monthly wash plan customers. If they leave the fold, they relinquish their towel rights. The unique towel cannot be replaced at any other wash.
So what is a unique towel? It is any towel that cannot be easily obtained somewhere else. It could be something as simple as a black towel with red edge binding or a towel with the wash’s logo and/or name printed or embroidered on it. Just a note of caution here: Do not go cheap on the customer or you will regret it. When you sell a unique towel, you are making a statement about the quality of your wash. If microfiber, it should be plush and have a high GSM. It is also recommended that it be a dark color to not show stains easily. I would also suggest that it be made from a high-quality yarn to add sustainability. Full-service car wash towels have these characteristics. They are crafted to be washed hundreds of times. Long-lasting is good for the environment and good for your wallet.
Not to be forgotten are vend towels. A corkscrew-type vending machine offers endless possibilities for additional profit for you and convenience for your customers. Microfiber, cotton, and paper towels are available packaged for vending. It is also an easy way to provide your customers with air fresheners, pre-moistened towels, vinyl dressings, etc. Vending is a smart business practice. There is no point in leaving money on the table.
Some washes provide more than one way for their customers to have towels available for their use. One of the car washes that I patronize in Naples, FL offers embroidered hand towels for sale at the automated pay station (you collect the towel at the entrance) and also maintains a vending machine offering microfiber towels in the vacuuming area.
That brings us to the last subject of this article: Name That Towel! In each area of courtesy towel conversations there is an opportunity for promoting brand recognition. If you are providing a towel for a customer’s use on premise you can have your logo and name printed on the towel and/or the label.
This is done in two ways. The first is with inkjet sublimation. This is a process where specially formulated inks and a heat-transfer fuse text, printed designs, and images to cotton and microfiber fabrics. The second is silkscreen printing. This method uses a fast-drying solvent-based ink to deliver a soluble permanent dye into the fabric. With modern advances in chemistry, both processes transfer images to the towels that are vibrant, permanent, and have the same soft touch as the towel. They will not scratch the clear coat or paint.
Finally, there is embroidery. This presents the most beautiful of images. Gold and silver color filament thread can be used to enhance any business logo. However, it is the most expensive form of towel branding and the rear of the image (the back of the towel) is not so beautiful. Nevertheless, it is a good option, and many car washes choose it.
All towel printing and embroidery is custom. Printing small quantities can be expensive and require setup charges. Large orders (pallet sized) are less expensive and can be completed in three to five weeks in the United States. The least expensive way to print or embroider towels is to have it done offshore. The China route also allows the printing to be done on rolls before the towel is cut and sewn. Roll printing also grants the customer department-store-quality printing and larger images if required. The entire towel can even be printed if desired. When you make the overseas decision, it takes 12 to 16 weeks for delivery.
There is no one best way of taking care of your customers’ needs for courtesy towels. The only mistake would be not providing towels. Let the good doctor give you a free towel diagnosis today. He will cure your ills without the pills.
Joe Gartland, AKA Doctor Joe, is the founder of Towels by Doctor Joe®, longtime vendor to the car-care industry. You can reach the good doctor at firstname.lastname@example.org.