There’s a lot to be said for the resurgence of “old fashioned business models.” Just look at local breweries. Nearly extinct following prohibition, it’s reported that the number of craft brewers has grown from eight in 1980 to more than 1,600 in 2010. Tremendous selections of craft brews are now the norm at outlets ranging from c-stores to grocery stores. Craft-beer consumers, willing to pay a premium for a distinct product experience, are driving innovation and variety. Although dramatically higher-volume output from the top breweries indicates that the market for a consistent and value priced product is substantially larger, craft-beer buyers are a significant force. So why am I writing about beer in a car wash magazine? Because it’s a good example of how there are two sides that exists in every industry. On one side of the line you have the commodity that is being sold. On the other side you have the experience of producing and consuming the product. In other words, consistency and cost vs. taste and preference. In car wash words, express-exterior vs. full-service wash.
Although there may be a tremendous ability to distinguish a commodity with branding and marketing, and even personalize the experience with technology, there’s a difference when we feel something is “hand-made.” Come to think of it, I would still prefer someone to pump my gas — not enough that I’d move to New Jersey or Oregon where it’s still the law, but it would be nice. Whether it’s craft beer, a restaurant meal, or having your gas pumped, there’s something more satisfying when we feel another human being has a hands-on role in crafting the experience.
As a car wash operator in this two-sided world, I am the co-owner of two express-exterior washes with free vacuums and no express detailing. If I were to convert either site to offer aftercare services, it would be in the flex-serve model. As a consumer, however, I have to admit that I prefer drinking craft beer, and washing my car at a full-serve wash. When I share this fact with other operators, the response I get is completely different depending on whether they’ve ever owned or managed full-serve washes in their career. With most investors in the last decade having opened express-exterior and flex-serve washes, I normally get a polite earful explaining how the value proposition at a flex-serve for aftercare is better not only for the owner, but the customer as well. And I agree. It makes logical sense. At a flex serve, the customer gets a value-priced drive-through wash in an average of 5 minutes.
They then have the choice to exit the vehicle to receive aftercare services that take about 15 minutes. It’s a win-win. The operator is able to consolidate labor in one area and control aftercare volume with pricing, and the customer gets a higher-quality service. All the same, personally, I wash regularly at an express exterior, and on Sundays, take all the family cars to the full serve in my neighborhood. Why? I could say that by having the two-step process that interrupts motion, the flex serve doesn’t have the same “flow” and that in reality the total service takes longer than 20 minutes — but that’s not it — the full serve takes about 20 minutes as well. The truth is I just prefer it. I like the experience of getting out of my car, perusing the lobby, and meeting my car at the other end. To me, it’s a nicer experience.
That’s why, when I share my full-serve preference with operators that have managed or owned full serves in the past, even if they’ve since converted the properties to flex, they don’t talk about the virtues of the flex model, they get nostalgic about their full-serve days. They start telling war stories about the experience. Every story starts with something like “oh man, I remember this one time when…” and ends with everyone laughing hysterically. During one of those conversations I found myself joking about training procedures I implemented at two full serves with lube and gas that I took over about 20 years ago. At the time, with youthful enthusiasm, I decided to promote a 12-minute-or-it’s-free full-serve wash at both locations that were struggling to process a car in 30 minutes. Let’s just say that getting the staff to go along with this march to double throughput in a year created some pretty funny moments. In between laughs, the operator I was talking to threw in, “and back then we had to wash wheels by hand!” It made me think. Has the industry moved away from full service because there aren’t enough customers willing to pay for it, or because “back then” equipment and chemistry deficiencies forced operators to rely on headache-producing inconsistent labor to wash the car?
Managing a well-run, full-serve car wash on a busy day is an exhilarating experience. Traffic peaks, carefully trained employees automatically adjust equipment and procedures, and rhythm takes control. There’s a lot of movement. There’s a lot of complexity. There’s a lot of customer interaction. There’s a reason so many ex-full-serve operators talk about it with affectionate nostalgia and pride. Years later, when the frustrating memories and struggles to make payroll have faded — in many ways, it was fun. It begs the question: “What if I ran a full serve with today’s technology?” Wheels are now perfectly cleaned and shined by equipment with no prepping. Online express waxes with buffing and drying machines dramatically reduce the effort to towel touch the car. Chemistry, equipment, and wash material advances deliver a consistent clean product eliminating the need for aftercare exterior cleaning. Advanced POS systems deliver better reports to forecast labor requirements. How much labor would you really need? At the end of the day, I may be a full-serve customer, but would I want to own one? Probably not. Would the decision to open a new full-serve car wash, like an executive at a large brewery venturing out to open a small, craft brewery, make sense to me — absolutely.
Good luck, and good washing.
Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at(800) 327-8723 ext. 104.