By Kati Wilson Wright
Lone Star Car Wash Systems
When I was a kid, my parents owned a full-service car wash in a tiny West Texas town. Some of my fondest memories are tied to that car wash, and the sunny days spent at what felt like a home away from home.
It’s hard to believe that it has been close to 20 years since my parents sold their site and moved on to the other side of the car wash industry.
Since then, car washing has become faster, easier and more convenient for customers and operators alike.
But what is the driving factor that has enabled the transition from what was once an extremely labor intensive and cash-based operation to the modern car wash model?
As always, I turned to someone within the industry to help me identify the methods and practices and what role they have played in contributing to the car wash industry and process.
Bob Kopko has been with DRB for nearly 30 years. I called Bob because he actually remembers the car wash my parents owned and operated in the late 90s and early 2000s.
There was no Wi-Fi, dial-up internet was a luxury and not necessarily reliable. Credit card transactions were rare. Cash (and checks) was king. While you could share data between sites, you had to have a diskette physically delivered to each site, and then manually upload data. If you had a telephone modem, you could send it that way, if the modem was working.
I can remember the sheer amount of literal man-power that was required in order to operate a wash daily. Without unlimited access to the internet, the typical consumer had a much different profile. The typical employee had significantly different requirements.
Bob noted that much of the convenience and ease of access we have today was at best “cumbersome, and more often impossible” not only 20 years ago, but as recently as the last decade.
Before unlimited data and Wi-Fi access was available, consumers relied on phone books, business cards, word of mouth, and radio and television advertisements to know that a business even existed. There were no social media blasts, emailed coupons, or online map services to guide consumers to the nearest wash.
Going to the wash was not even close to the same experience that it is, today. You were always greeted by a human, ready to write down your wash preference and service requests. From there, you would be guided to a cashier inside, where you would likely find a waiting area to lounge in until your vehicle was vacuumed, washed, dried, and returned to you upon proof of receipt. Getting a car wash was not something you could do between school drop-off and your 9 a.m. meeting. The process didn’t just require labor, it required time.
Wash clubs were virtually non-existent. Data sharing between sites wasn’t impossible, but according to Bob, it was a process that required a lot of moving parts, and that wasn’t even a reality until Y2K.
Even implementing vacuums at the exit-end of the tunnel that were free was highly debated before becoming the reality for the majority of tunnel car washes in this country.
When it comes to what the driving factor was for the change to an easier process that is more readily accessible to consumers, it really is a chicken vs. egg conversation. Was it the need to reduce labor and increase throughput that lead to the innovation of modern technology such as pay stations and point of sales systems? Or, did the idea come at the right time to be implemented and bring the industry into the modern technology world? How did internet access play into the implementation of those ideas and processes?
Imagine that your access to key performance indicators was completely gone. The only way to know what was going on at a car wash was to either be at the site, physically, or find a landline and dial the site, wait for a manager to become available, and hope that he had the information you needed handy to discuss over the phone. Hopefully, you weren’t using long distance, because those minutes could really add up!
If you needed to contact a manufacturer, you better find the catalog and fingers crossed, get to use a toll-free number to dial up your rep. Parts availability was nothing like it is today. There was no instant gratification or readily available tech support in the field.
Information like wash counts, sales, labor stats and other key performance indicators are now easily accessible in real-time. Remote access to vital hardware such as tunnel controllers, allows operators to be in control of their site and maintenance, from anywhere with a wi-fi signal. We no longer have to calculate labor and profits based on cars per man-hour.
My dad told me that he used to have someone at the wash calculate their labor percentage every 15 minutes. That person would then be responsible for paging him over the loud speaker to give him a code that would indicate what percentage they were operating at vs. the number of cars washed in the past hour. Eventually he upgraded to an actual pager, and the same information would be relayed every hour.
Now, we can base our calculations on real-time rates and percentages, and we can make changes instantaneously to correct course when something isn’t in tune. Finding out information from the office is as simple as sending a text or talking to one another via headsets and radios. The information is waiting for someone to read it and use it, there’s no need to have an employee dedicated to making the same calculations manually.
Not only can operators run their business from anywhere at any time, but Bob pointed out that now consumers can interact with businesses 24/7 through the use of websites and mobile applications.
The use of data analytics while using web browsers and social media is extremely powerful, Bob says, and I whole-heartedly agree. With capabilities such as geo-tagging or targeted ad placement, you could be placing a coupon for a “Free Basic Wash” into a digital wallet with less effort and more ease than handing a printed copy of the same coupon to a potential customer. And the best part is that anyone, including the small “mom and pop” operations, can utilize this technology for relatively low costs.
If you can remember what washing looked like before the internet, then it is easy to see how far we have come as an industry with modern washing. Labor costs have plummeted, profits have increased and operators are continuing to build, build, build while the economy is sustaining the rapid growth.
To learn more about Kati, check out this CAR WASH Magazine feature: http://bit.ly/KatiWilsonWright