Are you kidding me? I was astonished twice this week. Something I assure you is quite rare for someone my age.

            First, I could hardly believe that it’s been three years since the last remodel on the site I manage alongside my son. I always pride myself on sticking to a three- to five-year overhaul plan, but somewhere along the line, time slipped away, and we’re a few months late in planning. I’ve decided to attribute this memory glitch to either pandemic disruptions or possibly vaccine side effects. Regardless of which one, I’m firmly blaming COVID-19.

            The second surprising revelation occurred during a conversation with a colleague. They operate in a different market but with a remarkably similar demographic, and I wanted to garner some inspiration to guide my upcoming decisions. Remodeling involves far more than mere site maintenance. It’s a comprehensive overhaul involving training, equipment updates, signage revamp, branding tweaks, marketing strategies, landscaping, construction, process readjustments, and technology enhancements — every customer interaction is up for reconsideration.

            Given that neither time nor resources are unlimited, it’s impossible to overhaul everything every three to five years. Remodels are progressive steps to remain relevant with customers. Hence, I called my friend to get their take on what they’ve been doing that has delivered the biggest bang for the buck.

Paint Your Brain White

            This expression, along with much of what I know about professional car washing, came from Sonny Fazio, the founder of Sonny’s The CarWash Factory. As he explained, before planning something new, start by “painting your brain white.” Then, talk to experts you trust who have successfully done what you’re trying to do.

            Put those ideas on that freshly painted white wall you created in your mind and start to fill in your ideas between them. He would also tell everyone who took his advice, such as myself, that if you did this, you must also share your ideas — which is why I suppose I write these articles.

            That second astonishment I mentioned happened when my friend admitted they also have sites running for more than five years without a remodel. Whereas I blamed COVID-19, they realized they’d just put so much energy into adding locations that they barely realized older sites, still hitting their numbers, haven’t had the love they need to keep growing. I get it. That doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you. 

Customers Are Fickle

            “You don’t bring me flowers anymore.” Nobody in any relationship likes to feel like they’re taken for granted. Customers, albeit more patient than many relationships, still must be wooed.

            Defined as changing frequently, especially as regards to one’s loyalties, interests, or affection, keep that definition of fickle front and center in your mind as you’re deciding how frequently you need to remodel each of your locations. Today, each touchpoint, each customer interaction, and each micro-moment matters and makes a significant impact on the customer’s perception of your brand and your continued relevance to them. 

            Before we delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of strategic remodeling, it’s vital to underline the distinct differentiation between ‘retrofit’ and ‘remodel.’ Retrofit broadly pertains to upgrading your equipment within the existing framework to enhance performance metrics such as throughput, wash quality, and consistency or to decrease labor, water, utility, or chemical consumption.

            Conversely, remodeling encompasses a more comprehensive and strategic transformation. It refers to enhancing the customer experience to maintain interest, loyalty, and affection. It’s noteworthy that a remodeling often incorporates an element of retrofitting, though the reverse may only sometimes be true. Below are the three basic steps to a success remodel.

Step 1: Evaluate Your Current State

            This encompasses a comprehensive audit of your equipment and technology, a meticulous examination of your existing and potential customer base, and an in-depth assessment of your facility’s current state. Here are the key components you need to examine:

            Market and Demographic Survey. While your intuitive understanding of the market carries significant value, don’t place your bets exclusively on instinct. Instead, leverage the expertise of a research firm that can conduct a detailed market and demographic survey, specifically within an eight-minute drive of your site. Compare this data with any older reports you might have to identify shifts or trends in customer behavior. Keep a close watch on changes in local retail or service company trends. Are there new entrants? Which existing stores are thriving? Have any new washes entered the market or changed their wash format?

            Objective Facility Evaluation. An unbiased assessment of your facility is crucial to getting a clear vision of where you stand in relation to your goals. This entails a deep dive into the physical attributes of your facility. To break the “echo chamber bias,” get candid perspectives from third-party experts.

            Equipment Audit. This is a multi-layered process that should ideally cover all types of equipment — from the primary wash components to supporting equipment, computer systems, motor control centers, water treatment systems, and chemistry, to name a few. Prioritize maintenance or upgrades to your existing systems before considering replacements.

            Utility Audit. Review your electrical requirements, along with the volume, pressure, quality, and sewer capacity of your water. The outcomes of the utility audit will be a key determinant of your options during the equipment retrofit stage and, hence, should be evaluated in tandem with your equipment audit.

            Brand Audit. This is a checkup to evaluate your brand’s position in the market, its strengths, and weaknesses. It should cover internal branding that guides your company culture. External branding evaluation should include  everything from your logo and signage to your social media presence. Customer experience includes your sales process, pricing options, customer support, and service policies.

Step 2: Identify potential opportunities

            Once you have a comprehensive perspective on your existing state, it’s time to brainstorm and list every potential opportunity for business improvement. Don’t limit yourself during this ideation phase — the goal is to cast a broad net that includes the following areas.

            Increase Capture Rate or Acquire Market Share. List every potential strategy to attract a larger customer base and induce loyalty towards your business. Areas to include:

            Advertising. Scale your brand visibility through creative and targeted campaigns.

            Innovative Physical Spaces. Rethink your onsite experience by incorporating new visual treatments, lighting, or signage that triggers customer interest.

            Fundraising Partnerships. Establish alliances with other entities to raise funds collabo ratively, leveraging mutual benefits.

            Elevated Online Experience. Simplify and streamline customer interactions via online account management for a smoother customer journey.

            Premium Applications. Introduce new, premium offerings that strengthen your wash packages and improve the quality of the finished product.

            Identify Opportunities to Reduce Expenses or Improve Quality and Consistency. This is where the findings of your equipment audit report will come in handy. Ensure consistent service quality regardless of whether your customer drives a sub-compact or a full-size SUV. Lastly, identify opportunities to optimize cleaning while minimizing utility consumption.

Step 3: Craft A Well-Thought-Out Proforma

            Account for all expenses — including permitting costs, equipment costs, installation expenses, anticipated downtime, and potential manpower requisite. Estimating the probable impact on traffic flow, customer volume, and capture rate can be tricky. However, leveraging industry associations and resources can help you arrive at more accurate estimates.

Seize the Opportunity

            Henry Ford once proclaimed, “The best we can do is size up the chances, calculate the risks involved, estimate our ability to deal with them, and then make our plans with confidence.”

            Embracing this mantra, your remodeling planning should combine a clear vision, meticulous planning, and comprehensive research. A remodel is not merely an aesthetic overhaul — it’s a strategic transformation that redefines your business’s potential, aligns it more closely with profitability goals, and prepares it for the future. Get moving. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to blame COVID-19 next year.

            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.