When I transitioned into consulting more than 20 years ago, more than half my clients during those first few years were people looking to build self-service car washes. All of which had four or five wand bays and one or two in-bay automatics.

Back then, the self-service product class accounted for over a third of the fleet in terms of units and 20 percent of the total available market (TAM).

While the ratio of units hasn’t changed much, industry sales have. Today, self-service accounts for only 7.0 percent of TAM. Pundits point out several reasons for this.

There has been a decided demographic shift and trend from DIY to DIFM. Express exterior has caused self-service customers and home washers to migrate. And, more recently, demand has been influenced by subscription programs and digital car wash networks.

So, it’s been more than fancy technology and flashy light shows that has left self-service car washing behind. Of course, this is not to say self-service is going to disappear.

For example, while I haven’t worked with anyone in recent years that wanted to build a new self-service, I have worked with folks with robust businesses. By robust, I mean annual sales of between $200,000 and $400,000 and more.

Arguably, the business is still out there so the question is how to get it. A good place to begin is to fully understand the retail potential of the trade area.

A trade area or market range is the farthest distance consumers are willing to travel to purchase retail goods and services. The size of a trading area depends on a variety of factors such as type of product sold, geography, distance between stores, and consumers, etc.

For example, in a suburban or urban setting, people will usually only travel several miles to buy gasoline, whereas in a rural area scarcity might cause them to travel 20 miles.

MARKET SEGMENTS

Another factor that affects trade area is market segments. Segmenting a market is the process of dividing a market of potential customers into groups based on different characteristics who will respond similarly to marketing strategies and who share traits such as similar interests, needs, or locations.

A market could be divided into local residents, daytime employees, and tourists. For example, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties in Florida are separated by Tampa Bay and connected by a causeway and several bridges.

Each day, tens of thousands of people from Hillsborough commute to Pinellas and vise versa. Of course, time is of the essence for commuters. If they make purchases, it is usually of the convenience variety rather than a result of comparison shopping.

Pinellas County has a population density of over 3,500 per square mile but is hot and cold in terms of real estate. For example, parts of the county have a high concentration of 55+ communities. This includes clusters of small mobile-home parks filled with low, fixed income seniors or places like Top of the World community with its high-rise condos and almost 20,000 residents. Top of the World boasts a median age of 55, but the average is more like 72. Consequently, self-service car washes located nearby don’t see a lot of traffic.

A market could also be divided into demographic cohorts such as the percentage of population in terms of Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers in an area. Experience shows these cohorts have different characteristics and may not respond similarly to the same marketing strategies.

CUSTOMER DATA

Perhaps the best way to fully understand the trade area is customer data. This may be obtained from point-of-sale, license plate information, credit card transactions, or in-store surveys.

Of the various methods, the in-store survey may be preferable becauseit is both quick and immediate, it gathers specific insight and answers, and it is inexpensive to conduct.

In the past, we’ve used surveys to collect information about customers’ ages, sex, make and model of vehicle, personal income, distance from the store, time and date, type of residence, social media preferences, what amenities or new products they would like, etc. Not only can in-store surveys collect a lot of useful marketing information, it can also make customers feel more valued and heard.

After the boundaries of a trade area have been identified and the market profiled, the next step is to estimate market potential. For example, according to Auto Laundry News operator surveys, the typical self-service car wash has annual sales revenue of about $200,000. So, if a similar wash has sales of only $150,000, the operator might want to choose a growth strategy and objective of increasing sales by at least $50,000.

The task here would be to determine to what extent the market has sales leakage. Leakage refers to consumers who are spending money outside of the local market or trade area. If there is unmet demand, the next task would be to identify tactics capable of generating sufficient gross sales.

For example, if the customer database or results of an in-store survey shows that few customers fall into the Millennials age bracket, the operator would want to consider tactics that would increase access to this segment.

This would include things that resonate with Millennials such as responsive website, customer app, loyalty or subscription program, and mobile payment.

In the case of a David-versus-Goliath scenario, the appropriate tactic may be as simple as avoiding it. For example, it is not uncommon for a modern express exterior to produce an average of 400 or 500 cars a day, which is four to five times greater than what a self-service site is capable of.

Quite frankly, there is no practical way for a self-service location to make up for this type of competitive advantage. Instead, self-service operators would want to go where an express can’t and then mirror what it can.

This would include promoting the business as 24/7, target market touch-less users and owners with vehicles that can’t use a conveyor, and upgrade and retrofit to match value-added online products.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com). You can reach Bob via e-mail at bob@carwashplan.com.