LPR rendering showing a back-plate scan.

Every industry that has competition finds new growth in one thing — innovation. Innovation seeps into every segment and category of business and is essential to sustaining long-term growth.

So it should come as no surprise that, whether it is the high-tech world of Apple and Google or the car wash industry, innovation drives leaders to create improved methods and systems for their customers. When car wash manufacturers set out to innovate and change the game for loyalty programs, they set their sights on the previous high-water technology mark — Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags.


For many in the car wash industry, vehicle wash systems went through a level of innovation when RFID tag readers hit the market. These systems helped to create more convenient customer identification and to automate incentive, loyalty, and subscription programs.

So, how do you create a better experience than RFID for the end user, while making it more convenient and more cost effective for the owner/operator? How can you obtain a seamless customer interface with the data access of current RFIDs — but without the need of RFID?

License-Plate Recognition

In the case of car washes, license-plate recognition (LPR) technology is the future. The evolution of LPR technology for car washes comes at a time when face-to-face contact with your customers is at a premium. When it comes to LPR systems, leading-edge technology ensures your customer experience is effortless and secure.

This innovative process, which takes only seconds from the moment the license plate is scanned and referenced in a cloud-based system, delivers messaging tailored to each loyal customer at the pay station screen.
It works like this:
• A vehicle enters the wash lane and stops for pre-wash identification
The LPR camera reads the license plate
The license plate syncs with the customer’s account in the wash loyalty system
The wash is activated within seconds

Additionally, there is greater marketing potential while using LPR technology to track washes from users not currently in your loyalty program. Once a scan of a license plate has been made, the vehicle can be identified as a non-loyalty member so that the driver can be prompted at the pay station with an option to join the program. If a customer has been to the wash three times in one month, but is not yet a club member, the pay station can be programmed to offer a special promotion to entice them into joining the loyalty program.

Once a customer has been identified as a loyalty member, they can be prompted with custom screens saying, “Thanks for returning John Smith” or with buy-up messages based on their typical behaviors. If they usually purchase triple foam, and on a particular visit they do not select that option, a message can be generated to ask if they are certain they do not want triple foam.

The camera reads a license plate image.

Loyalty Systems

Working in conjunction with the pay station is the loyalty system. This web-based data management system allows operators to manage a successful loyalty program for multiple sites from one central location. This system offers infinite code variations and tracking abilities to identify the very best customers and to create a host of different loyalty programs.

The addition of subscription capabilities allows customers to sign up for a monthly wash program right at the pay station before they enter the wash. This also limits the amount of customer-account-management work for wash attendants and specifically eliminates the need for attendants to handle credit card information. The loyalty program includes an e-commerce member portal that also allows customers to register and/or purchase washes on the Internet, as well as manage their accounts online.


For car wash owners/operators, the importance of retaining even a small fraction of their customer base volume can mean substantial increases in revenues. Research data suggest that retaining just 5 percent more of the customer base can mean as much as a50 percent gain in revenues. When the numbers are that obvious, it’s not surprising that owners/operators are willing to invest in loyalty programs.

Subscription and “unlimited wash” programs are hugely popular with today’s consumers and with fleets that require daily washes. Those loyal customers, who can be counted on to return to a business time and again for a product or service, often do it to feel special, to feel appreciated, or as a convenience for their personal time — it isn’t all about saving money. That being said, like most aspects of successful businesses, loyalty comes down to bottom-line decisions. Many of those decisions must be made by the owner/operator who must invest, maintain, and staff whatever system they choose to employ.


While RFID technology has improved the entry process and enhanced loyalty-program growth, it has some significant limitations. Smaller operators, who do not have a wash attendant dedicated to their in-bay automatic operations, have struggled trying to maintain an RFID operation. Larger tunnel operators, who have to allocate staff to manage tag installations, must incur the additional cost and time spent managing the RFID process once it is initiated.

While RFID technology has allowed the pay station process to move to a level of minimal interaction for the car wash customer, it does come with some notable caveats. The initial investment in the RFID reader is a significant expense that is just the first step in initiating an RFID program.
The expense for the individual RFID tags, one required for every loyalty customer won, is yet another cost on top of the reader and system fee. The cost of each RFID tag must be absorbed by the owner/operator, packaged into and (hopefully) recouped in the loyalty program, including the replacement of broken or damaged tags.


Innovative technology continues to change the landscape of the in-bay automatic car wash. The introduction of LPR technology, along with the integration of essential customer-interface and loyalty-management systems, is delivering a new level of customer ease, satisfaction, and security for a car wash industry that pushes the innovation bar and sets the stage for the next big idea to emerge.

Brian Garavaglia is a business development manager for PDQ Manufacturing Inc., De Pere, WI. He has been in marketing and product development for more than 10 years. With specific emphasis on Internet-based products, his current focus is on interface and new product development in the car wash industry. Garavaglia can be reached at brian.garavaglia@pdqinc.com.

You can visit the company on the web at www.pdqinc.com.