Over the past few years legitimate car wash businesses have suffered as hand car wash operations paying no regard to laws, such as the national minimum wage, taxes, local rates and environmental regulations were able to undercut them, but there has been renewed optimism in the sector recently.
"There are definitely fewer of the rogue hand car washes remaining in the market. Many of them have become a lot more legitimate and are doing the job properly, and are therefore charging the right amount of money to wash a car, so it gives us an even chance to compete in the market," says David Charman, chairman of the Car Wash Association. The former Forecourt Trader of the Year award winner owns the Spar Parkfoot forecourt, on the A20 in West Malling, Kent, which has two WashTec rollover washes and two WashTec jet washes.
He says: "It is not as easy as it was years ago, you’ve got to go out there and compete and we haven’t done that in the past decade. That doesn’t necessarily mean on price it’s the product and you’ve got to look at what your customers tell you. Where people have invested in car washes and improved them, largely they have been successful because there are fewer players and if you do a good job you will get the business."
He adds: "For retailers there are strong alternatives now to washing cars on a petrol station forecourt, but where it is done well it can be very profitable."
Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, also sees signs of recovery in the legitimate car wash market. He says: "This could be the year that is looked back on as the one where the tide started to turn in the battle between legitimate car wash providers and rogue hand car wash (HCW) operators. At the moment the figures are ambiguous, but we are not seeing the exponential HCW growth we have seen in previous years.
"The feedback we are getting is that a lot of our customers are fighting back with the speed of our rollover machines, catering for motorists who want the cars clean, but do not have 20 minutes to sit around waiting for a HCW to finish; not to mention the queueing time.
"For those who still prefer HCW, we are now getting enquiries from customers who want to set up their own legitimate operation. Some of these are planning to run them in tandem with rollovers.
"Despite the authorities still not taking the whole HCW problem as seriously as they should, the legitimate trade is fighting back with the help of new machine features, better technology and much improved service and promotion."
This year has certainly seen good business in the car valeting sector for Istobal, culminating in a deal to supply 630 air and vac units to number one ranked Top 50 Indie MRH (see page 18 for more details). Key account manager Tom Byrne says the company has been averaging 60-70 installations of car washes each year. He adds: "The M’Start, which was launched last year, is now the car wash of choice for MRH and Morrisons and many independents. We’re finding the high-pressure pre-wash and high-pressure wheel and rim wash plus gloss polish option is a real winner with the clients, gives superb results and is very competitively priced. We’ve sold a lot of those machines this year."
In addition, the Flex 5, a five-brush machine, is just about to be launched, and the M1 was launched in the early part of this year. This is a stripped down version of the M’Start and offers an entry-level car wash. Istobal’s N’Joy jet wash also has a new cabinet design, which is coming out very shortly, and which is designed to increase its competiveness on price.
Active Car Wash Systems (Active CWS) has also had a busy year, which included changing the company’s name. Director Tony Davies explains it was originally called Ma Fra, after the Italian car wash chemicals it was supplying, but has changed its name to Active Car Wash Systems to reflect the expansion of the services the company provides.
He says: "Chemicals are important but we also provide and service jet washes, vacuums and air and water machines. We have them for sale, rental and profit share, and we also repair machines."
The company is also working with consumables supplier Tate Business Group, which is selling both car wash chemicals and forecourt cleaning chemicals through its telesales operation, giving Active CWS UK-wide coverage.
However, Davies says the greatest interest has been in their service offering car wash relaunches, bringing what is often a neglected feature on forecourts back to life and generating huge increases in income in the process. He adds: "We tell dealers not to just let the hand car washers take their business but fight back and compete with them."
Active CWS starts its relaunch service with a mystery shopper audit and checks the machine is working correctly. Davies says: "We found 99% aren’t working properly. We’ve seen 160 sites and we found one site where the machine was working perfectly.
"If your machine isn’t working correctly how can you expect a good wash out of it? The problem is that car washes are not seen as a priority and the owners wait until customers complain before they do anything about it. But it’s too late then, because the car wash has already got a bad reputation."
Faults they have found include machines not delivering any chemical at all, jets incorrectly positioned, tangled brushes, and blowers and wheel scrubs not working. He adds: "Some of it is not the machinery’s fault. It could be there is no lighting in the bay."
After the audit the site manager is given a checklist to carry out on a regular basis, so if anything is found to be not working they can get it fixed promptly, and before it becomes a major problem. Davies says: "Simply checking becomes preventative maintenance and means things are less likely to go wrong."
Next Active CWS installs its chemicals at its flow rates, which Davies says are significantly lower than most others, and can often result in savings of 60-70% on chemicals.
Once it is working perfectly the next step is to give the facility a new brighter image and promotions to encourage customers to use it. Davies says: "In one recent case we saw car wash takings up £300 a week on a seven-year-old jet wash, and customers thought it was a new machine."
Davies adds that after working on a number of sites owned by Certas Energy, Active CWS has been made a preferred supplier to Gulf. A Certas Energy spokesperson comments: "Service and reliability with Ma Fra has been excellent, largely down to the quality of the product itself. The multi-coloured foam has really caught customer attention and is attracting a new level of clientele. This is measured by collector cards, which are part of a customer loyalty programme. This was put in place at the time of conversion to the Ma Fra brand and we are promoting the car wash using the shampoo as a selling point and are experiencing noticeable growth."
Ruth Burns, store manager at Certas Energy’s Kirkie Filling Station has used Ma Fra chemicals for nine months. She says: "During this period we have noticed an increase in sales for the drive through wash. Customer feedback on the chemicals has been positive with all noticing a great shine on the car. There is also a lot more foam on the cars now during a wash and the customers are commenting on the lovely smell while they are in the wash. I have noticed a beautiful smell lingers on the forecourt after the wash has finished. I would highly recommend the Ma Fra chemicals for any rollover car wash."
Ramsay MacDonald, retail director of Certas Energy, is a firm advocate for car washes if they are run correctly. He says: "Car washes continue to be an important part of the dealer armoury, offering much higher margins than almost anything else on the forecourt, if promoted well. The days of installing and customers just turning up have long gone, however with strong marketing and a sales focus there is good money to be made."
He believes the market changed with the emergence of hand car washing, but forecourts have fought back, introducing high-quality and well-maintained products and placing greater emphasis on the marketing of their assets. At the same time, consumers have seen hand wash prices harden and are more understanding that there is absolutely no come-back from most pop-up hand wash operators, should anything go wrong.
He says: "Certas Energy is able to speak with authority on car washes. We supply fuel to more than 300 dealers with wash operations, and within our company network we have recently made a significant investment in car washes, working closely with Active Car Wash Supplies and its Ma Fra products.
"Our introduction to Active came from the Falcon Sharma Group, who we invited up to Scotland to visit our company network and share best practices. They provided some very good advice, which we took on board.
"The best operators identify key differentiators and market these while incentivising staff to sell and upsell to the washes generating the highest margins. They keep a close eye on the percentage of top washes sold, cross promote and provide wash-specific consumer incentives supported by marketing activity on and off site."
He emphasises that it is important that the facilities remain just as inviting to potential customers as both the shop and forecourt. That means cleanliness, ongoing maintenance and good presentation. There is also a compelling case on many forecourts to re-brand the wash area, presenting it with its own identity to differentiate it further from the rest of the forecourt and its local competitors. He adds: "The car wash market remains buoyant and it’s no surprise to us that the supermarkets are muscling in on this market."
Graham Round, managing director of PSD Codax, says his code access systems provide control of the revenue for the operator as well as ease of access for the customer.
He explains: "There is control because the car wash can’t be used without the POS knowing about it, and when it is linked to the POS it provides a seamless operation for the cashier. It can also link into the back office so operators can analyse sales data from the car wash."
One of PSD’s latest upgrades prints out a barcode, so rather than having to key in a code, customers are handed a barcode which is scanned at the car wash. Round says: "Barcode scanning at the wash bay alleviates the issue of needing to stretch out of the car window to key in the access code, and when linking the barcode feature to the station’s POS system your wash will be the smartest car wash around.
"Our survey of users reported customers saying: ’Should have added this a long time ago, it’s perfect’."
For larger sites there is a self-service, pay-at-bay option, which eliminates the need to queue at the till in the shop. Payment is by bank card and it is able to handle contactless transactions.
Case study: Dragon Service Stations
Darren Briggs is the managing director of Dragon Service Stations, which has two forecourts with thriving car wash businesses in west Wales.
He recognises the value of washes as an important revenue stream on his forecourts, and says: "I aim to make my two sites a local destination point in their respective areas, and providing car washing facilities helps to achieve this.
"At Crossways Service Station, Neyland in Pembrokeshire, we have both an Istobal rollover and jet wash.
"We understand the importance of investing in high-quality products and supporting them with strong marketing and promotional activity.
"We believe our brand new Istobal rollover is the most environmentally friendly wash in Wales with a 95% water reclaim system.
"It is very effective and extremely popular, and customers also have the peace of mind that Istobal products are fully biodegradable and environmentally sound."
Case study: Simon Smith Group, Highworth
Wilcomatic customer Brian Tew, director of Top 50 Indie the Simon Smith Group, is a firm believer that an excellent car wash facility is as much a part of a successful forecourt operation as a petrol pump, and is one of the reasons the Simon Smith Highworth site won this year’s Forecourt Trader Best Valeting Facilities.
The Highworth site is one of seven Simon Smith sites, all of which have car washes, and two of them have hand car washing.
At Highworth the valeting area which houses a Wilcomatic Christ Genius Vitesse soft cloth rollover car wash, two jet washes, two vacuums and two air water towers is branded ’Aquashine’ throughout.
All staff at the site have been trained in all of the facilities, with two being encouraged to become champions of the wash facilities, with a higher level of expertise.
Staff are supplied with a crib sheet to ensure they can explain to customers exactly what happens in each process of the wash cycle, and they will frequently assist customers with driving their cars into the car wash if they are unsure of what to do, putting air into their tyres and even explaining how the jet wash works.
Brian says: "Upselling is actively encouraged, and there is an incentive scheme, offering a bonus to the member of staff who can sell the most of our top car washes." And for users of the automatic soft cloth wash, there is a Car Wash Club Card incentive. Customers have their card stamped each time they have a top wash. If they collect four top washes, they get their fifth wash for free.
The site actively seeks contracts with local businesses to bring their vehicles for regular washing at a discounted monthly fee and encourages business and regular jet wash users with its top-up key system.
The key, used to operate either of the jet washes, is purchased in-store with a monetary value pre-loaded at a discount, thus encouraging loyalty and regular use. Customers can top-up the key with additional money at any time.
Water for all the facilities at Highworth comes from the site’s own borehole, which is filtered and softened before use.
Final rinse water has all minerals removed through reverse osmosis equipment, supplied by Wilcomatic’s sister company Working Water. This ensures a streak-free finish.
Brian adds: "In my view, to get the most out of a forecourt site, you have to provide the complete package, which means fuel, a convenience store, food on the go and car wash facilities. All of these play their part in the marketing of a site and making it a destination point. But car washes are not only ways of attracting customers, they are important revenue streams in their own right."
Wilcomatic managing director Kevin Pay adds: "We never just install and walk away from the equipment, we like to work very closely with our customers and Brian is someone who always likes to get the best out of his wash facilities which helps us in continually developing what we offer. The Simon Smith Group was a very worthy winner of Forecourt Trader’s Best Valeting Facilities award."
Case study: Chidswell Service Station
Chris Cundall is the owner of Jet’s Chidswell Service Station in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and he believes a good car wash offer draws extra customers to the site.
He says: "We have three separate car wash bays at Chidswell which are contained in a purpose-built, centrally-heated building that is adjacent to the forecourt."
Two of the bays offer identical programmable jet washes and the third has a ’buy time’ Kärcher jet wash, which was installed 18 months ago. All three bays offer a Kärcher coin-operated vacuum. The car wash facilities are all self-serve and are open at the same time as the forecourt (6.30am-10pm, seven days a week).
He explains: "We chose Kärcher as we felt the brand would draw in customers and we were right. All three washes have cherry-scented soap and all operate on a partial reclaim system whereby wash/soap water is reclaimed water and the rinse water is fresh mains water.
"Our facilities are very popular, with many customers choosing to come to us over any of the numerous nearby hand car wash facilities because everything at Chidswell is under cover and heated in cold weather which customers say is a real selling point.
"It’s a cut-throat market and we want to attract and keep our customers so we operate a car wash loyalty programme whereby customers get every sixth wash free. They also receive a free seasonal gift with every jet wash purchase and can choose from an edible gift or an air freshener. It’s just a little added extra to thank people for their custom."