Todd Davy, director of sales for DRB Systems, has some straightforward advice for car wash operators looking to start an unlimited wash program: Fully commit to selling the product, prepare to see a lower average price per ticket, and focus on building your club membership one customer at a time. Those who stick to the plan should be richly rewarded over time.
“Thousands of car washes are offering monthly plans; those that are most successful are those that live and breathe selling monthly plans to all customers,” Davy said. “Monthly subscription plans will drive loyalty to your wash. Once a car wash consumer signs up for your monthly plan, they no longer visit your competition. You will not only grow your business, but you will pull customers away from your competition.”
Unlimited wash programs are seeing a surge in popularity, according to the International Carwash Association’s 2016 U.S. Consumer Study. In 2014, only 11 percent of car wash customers were enrolled in these programs, but just two years later, that figure had jumped to 21 percent. And 87 percent of unlimited wash members said they were satisfied with the value they receive from a car wash, compared with only 61 percent of nonmembers.
Chris Presswood, co-owner of Finish Line Car Wash, which has seven locations across Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee, said his company has had an unlimited wash program for about eight years. He said the program is a tremendous value for customers because they can get as many washes as there are days in the month, which essentially removes the weather forecast from their decision-making process. So what if it rains tomorrow? You can always go back for another wash.
Finish Line’s single-wash prices range from $6 to $18, and unlimited wash membership costs just more than twice as much, ranging from $12.99 to $34.99 a month.
“Now, customers can wash their car whenever it’s dirty,” Presswood said. “The obvious thing is that it locks them into your facility and makes them an annual customer. I think at the core of this, we’re changing car wash customers’ habits, making them more frequent car washers.”
Unlimited wash programs aren’t for the faint of heart, and the change in business model from pay-per-usage to subscription-based can include some growing pains. But in time, the increased volume and enhanced customer loyalty can give a car wash a predictable, dependable stream of revenue each month.
“Those early adopters are going to wash quite a bit, and it’s going to be tough to make the numbers add up initially,” Presswood said. “You have to stick through that before it’s going to work. There are a lot of gaps between cars on those conveyors. We might as well fill them with cars. The old saying about car wash equipment is that you can either wear it out or rust it out, and I’d rather wear it out.”
Some car wash operators are understandably concerned that many customers will show up almost every day, producing long lines and driving down the car wash’s margins, but according to the ICA study, less than half of unlimited wash members say they wash their car more than once a month.
“While it is true that you may have a few customers who will ‘abuse’ the plan by washing every day, it’s important to remember two things,” Davy said. “No. 1, those customers are generally the folks who tell all their friends about what a great deal they are getting at the car wash, giving you very inexpensive advertising. No. 2, there are many more of your plan members who are washing two times or fewer per month. Don’t get mad at your frequent washers; embrace them, and thank them for using your plan!”
According to the ICA study, there is a specific consumer profile that is most receptive to unlimited wash programs:
- Younger, ages 18-44
- Employed full time
- Higher household income, $75,000 or more
- Newer vehicles, 0-3 years old
When it comes to pricing unlimited wash clubs, less is more, according to Aaron Green, president of the Focused Car Wash Solutions consulting firm.
“You have to build your program around what speaks value to the largest percentage of your customer base, and that’s the people who wash on average once a month,” Green said. “If the bulk of your customer base doesn’t wash more than once a month, then charging double that price for club membership doesn’t speak value to them.”
John Cassady, cofounder and chief executive of EverWash Car Club, which manages unlimited wash programs for car washes purely on a commission basis, said the strategy for communicating with unlimited wash members is somewhat counterintuitive. If a member isn’t using the service, a car wash operator might think it best not to call attention to that monthly fee on his credit-card statement, lest he reconsider whether his membership offers real value. But Cassady said the opposite approach makes more sense in the long run.
“You have to keep them connected to the brand,” he said. “You have to keep them aware that they have this service and keep them using it, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them on a regular basis.”
For some carwash operators, the hefty investment required to purchase RFID readers and point-of-sale systems is a major reason not to launch an unlimited wash program. EverWash Car Club seeks to eliminate that burden by managing programs through a cloud-based app that customers download to their smartphones, so carwashes don’t have to purchase RFID readers or new POS systems. The app generates a unique QR code each time a customer visits, and each service attendant downloads an app to his smart device that includes a QR scanner. The service attendant simply scans the QR code on the customer’s phone when he pulls up to the wash.
To sign up, customers select their desired wash program from a list of options on a service attendant’s tablet or smart device, their credit cards are swiped, and the car wash collects their email addresses. Customers don’t have to fill out membership forms onsite. Instead, they receive an email directing them to a website where they can enter their information, such as license plate number and the make and model of the car. Customers can cancel or change their plans anytime either online or through a call center.
Cassady said the app can send push notifications to members when they are driving near the car wash, or when they haven’t visited the car wash for a while. And members can earn discounts by referring friends to the program through the app, which can access their social-media sites and smartphone contacts.
Cassady said the key to a successful unlimited wash program is a full-court press to encourage signups. The company helps car washes redesign their menu boards and signage to heavily promote the program and deploys sales professionals to the car wash to train service attendants how to sell it properly. Greeters are given a script and encouraged to engage with each customer, saying, “There’s a better way to wash your car, and it will save you money,” Cassady said.
“When the customer drives onto the lot, oftentimes they don’t even know that the car wash is selling memberships, so they’re just not displaying it properly,” he said. “And we train the wash attendants, greeters and cashiers to make sure they tell every customer about the program. They’re already used to upselling on a tire shine, so with the same amount of time and effort, they can upsell on a membership. We ask car wash owners, ‘What would you rather sell, a $5 ticket item or a $200 ticket item?’ ”