Starting on page 54 in this issue, Bob Roman takes a look at car wash operations at c-store sites. He points to the decline in the percentage of c-stores that feature car washes and follows with an examination of why this may be so.
This reminded me of my visit to such a car wash, recounted in this space in the April 2016 issue, which, while producing adequate results, could not have been described as a wholly satisfactory experience. I wanted to find out what had changed, if anything.
It was my intent to purchase the wash at the pump, as I had done previously, but this time there was no sign of a wash menu — just a pump topper promoting the top package. I did not want to press yes at the car wash prompt without first having seen the menu. I had to go to the counter inside the store to find a menu and discovered that the top package was new, the added service being a sunscreen, “specially formulated for the Southwest.” Previously the price points had been $5, $7, and $9. Now there were four packages with price points at $6, $8, $10, and $12. Wanting the total experience, I went for the top package.
Access to the wash was as clean and neat as it had been before and had a comprehensive menu on display. The automated pay station, however, showed further signs of deterioration. There was no improvement in the sound quality. The synthesized voice still crackled and broke up so often as to be nonsensical, the screen still difficult to read. To add insult to injury, a handwritten note was duct-taped over the card-reader slot, informing customers that it was out of order. This did not deter me as I had a code to punch in.
The in-bay experience, too, had not improved. The gantry still jerked, groaned, and stammered with every pass. This is not a smooth operator. To me, it looked like the dryer countdown timer was not functioning at all but, in all fairness, the glare of the sunlight might have made it impossible to read, a difficulty I pointed out after my last visit.
A short three miles to the south, there is another c-store/IBA car wash combo — different chain, different gas brand, and different car wash equipment. There is a huge banner affixed to front of the store that reads: “Try Our New Car Wash.” This is in fact a long-established car wash location; the old equipment has been replaced with new.
This wash also has a four-package menu, the top package featuring the same sun protection as the wash I visited, though a different brand. The price points, however, are $5, $6, $7, and $9. The store also offers 12 cents off per gallon of gas with the purchase of any wash and a free 17-ounce bottle of water. That’s quite a deal.
What motivates one location to upgrade its equipment and aggressively promote its car wash services while another allows its operation to go to seed — even as it raises prices? Could it be due to the fact that one has no competition in sight, while the other must contend with a self-serve/short-tunnel-express combo a mere 100 yards down the road?