Car wash revenues on forecourts have taken something of a nosedive in recent years and some fuel retailers have given up on car washing altogether. There are retailers that have chosen to just offer jet washing and others that have decided to compete with hand car washers head on by opening hand wash operations on their own sites. But there are others that are looking to new technology to differentiate themselves from facilities down the road.

Automatic touchless technology is one innovation that is helping retailers fight back by targeting the hand car wash customers who still believe the brushes on rollover machines can damage their paintwork.

Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, says: "As the battle goes on for operators trying to compete against the illegal practices of many of the hand car wash operations in their areas, many of our more legitimate customers are finding ways of fighting back, while still maintaining their margins.

"The cleaning efficiency of modern touchless machines has improved greatly over the past few years and they can provide a real alternative to hand car washing. Recently, we have been working extremely closely with one of our customers, Brian Tew of Simon Smith Group, and Otto Christ, to develop a tailor-made machine to install alongside his rollover."

According to Brian, business through the new touchless wash at the group’s site in Overmonnow, Wales, has exceeded his expectations. "Rather than cannibalise sales from the brush wash, the business appears to come from a completely new customer base looking for a different wash experience," he says.

Recognising that not all sites have the luxury of space for two car wash bays, Brian worked closely with Wilcomatic and wash manufacturer Otto Christ to design the latest in touchless combination wash machines for his new site, Junction Services in Daventry, Northamptonshire. They married a Christ touchless wash to a brush wash arch from the 1+1 range. The Aquatus 1+1 now offers touchless, soft cloth brush wash, triple foams and a gloss polish finish.

Says Brian: "This latest offer covers all the bases for customers looking for a low- priced quick wash, a true touchless wash with no brushes, through to a top-of-the-range combination wash offering all the features."

Michael Harris, managing director of WashTec agrees that differentiation is key if forecourts are to compete with the hand car washers. "It’s about how we can get retailers to offer customers something that they can’t get down the road," he says. "This is why we’re starting to talk about touchless systems, which are now being used by a small number of operators. Those people who still say that they won’t use a machine because it will scratch their cars might use a touchless system. If you get the chemicals right and get the wash timing right, a touchless car wash can wash a car as well as a brush machine."

WashTec’s Softcare2 Pro Touchless car wash is being made available as a pure high-pressure system or a combined system with the gentle SofTecs washing material, giving car wash customers the choice between touching, touchless or a combination of the two options. The touchless system uses ’spot spray turbo nozzles’ and chemical pre-treatment to achieve "outstanding" cleaning results. A drier unit with high-pressure nozzles rotates by 360° to ensure the whole car is dry. The combination system has been trialled for four months at Parkfoot Garages in West Malling, Kent, and is about to launch to customers this month (See Retailer View panel story, p35).

Another way WashTec is helping retailers differentiate themselves is through the development of new polish programmes. "ShineTecs are quite dramatic polish programmes and without question are a way of enforcing the same message of giving motorists another reason to use your car wash," says Harris.

"ShineTecs is about 10-15% of the cost of replacing a machine and can be added to an existing WashTec car wash so retailers can market their wash as having an entirely new programme improvement."

Indeed, marketing needs to play a huge part in holding onto, or improving, wash revenues. Forecourt Trader of the Year 2012 winner Symonds Forecourts, for example, is going to great lengths to make sure the rollover car wash at its winning site in Wells, Somerset, which opened for business nearly 18 months ago, is a success. Nick Lloyd, managing director of Symonds Forecourts, says: "Car washing is a big challenge in the industry and people were not used to having a car wash here in Wells, but we are confident we can get good volumes on washing. You have to work hard on the car wash category it’s not going to be easy. If you want to maximise sales you have to keep pushing, you can’t take it for granted. You have to use different methods of marketing and get the right message across to customers.

"Our site manager Jason Tamplin is being smart with the marketing," adds Nick. "At launch we offered every reader of the local newspaper a free car wash and we run promotions where customers can pay £2 extra for a top wash or buy-one-get-one-free offers. Consumers have been put off by badly presented rollover washes but our car wash provides a very good service and we get that message across. There is a well-organised hand wash operator in Wells so our tactic is to try to encourage people to use our car wash by making it less expensive, so we offer a £3 basic wash."

Good presentation

No discerning motorist wants to wash their car at a facility that looks untidy, unkempt and prone to breakdowns. As a consequence there’s been a renewed emphasis on maintenance service plans keeping machines working and refreshed through preventative maintenance rather than reactive maintenance, says WashTec’s Michael Harris: "The problem with reactive maintenance is that you can guarantee that when the machine is out of action there will be a queue of people lining up to use it and it leaves a bad impression," he says.

"More groups are challenging car wash companies to come up with credible service plans for them to tackle the problems before they occur rather than afterwards. The reality is hand wash businesses are here and they aren’t going away easily, although there are different moves to have the more blatant irresponsible operators tackled by the authorities. Independents need to start putting their energy into differentiating themselves from the local hand car wash or other car wash operators down the road, and present themselves with a freshness of offer, and professional look and feel."

WashTec has introduced the Back to Basics training module to remind operators of the fundamentals of car washing to keep their offer in top condition. "This doesn’t necessarily require you to have the newest machine it’s about getting your facilities into a freshened state," says Harris. "For example, you could improve the lighting, change some functions, have a different scent for chemicals or different coloured foam for different seasons. The training is a lot about presentation and also the fundamentals of making sure that you look after the basics of the business so the machine is available for use, has got some of the latest features and you’re presenting to customers something that’s fresh and up to date."

Meanwhile, Kärcher Vehicle Wash has been working on improving the image of jet wash facilities with branded bays. It now has five live Kärcher-branded sites on petrol stations with several more scheduled for the New Year. Peter Spencer, managing director of Kärcher Vehicle Wash at Kärcher UK, says there are a number of benefits that can be gained from high-profile branding: "Kärcher is known by those visiting the forecourt and is considered to be a high-quality cleaning product that comes with a long pedigree. Regular customers will appreciate the investment made by the indies, which helps to create loyalty.

"Through our broad range of marketing activities on radio and TV, females as well as males are now more aware of the Kärcher brand than ever due to the astonishing success of our Window Vac. Although the Window Vac is not necessarily a forecourt product, the brand awareness and positive recognition that it creates is what turns a glance into an impulse purchase.

"It is important when we brand a jet wash bay that we do more than make the jet wash look good," adds Spencer. "The whole area needs to be visually appealing and aesthetically pleasing and this can easily be done using large eye-catching graphics on the screens and changing cold, white plastic cladding into warm, rustic and inviting wooden panelling, all done cost effectively with 3M vinyl. The impact on the site is visual and financial the site oozes high quality and is more colourful and inviting. As a result loyalty is increased as is traffic and sales to the jet wash and valeting area."

Funding options

Investing in car wash equipment is a costly exercise but some suppliers are promoting ways to make it more affordable. Istobal, for example, offers a Forecourt Equipment Finance scheme that helps retailers spread the cost of their investment.

Dave Lindon, sales director of Istobal, said: "In these austere times, sites are finding it harder to borrow money, although many forecourts wish to continue investing in new equipment to increase revenue and meet customers’ demands. We take that problem away by offering the whole solution the equipment, servicing, chemicals and the finance all wrapped up into a package for five years to take away all the headaches.

"For just £9 a day a retailer could have £10,000-worth of equipment," adds Lindon. "When the client takes into account the fact that the majority of the rental is tax deductible, the rates are very keen indeed. Using a loan or your own cash might not be as tax efficient. Finance makes quality more affordable you don’t just accept the budget model and it allows you to acquire top quality assets that will improve the quality of your work and deliver longer term profits.

"Payments are fixed throughout the contract and can’t be changed even if interest rates increase, so retailers know exactly how much the equipment is going to cost and generate for them per month for the next five years."

Rise of pay-at-wash

The growing demand for automated payment solutions at service stations offers advantages for forecourt retailers, says Graham Round of PSD Codax, which develops token-free control systems for car care equipment. "Pay-at-wash technology is certainly much more convenient for motorists but it can also help retailers increase the number and value of car wash sales," says Round. "PSD Codax is currently piloting new pay-at-wash machines, including one at a manned Tesco site in Merseyside and another at a site on the M4.
"Our pay-at-wash pilots have revealed some interesting findings," adds Round. "At manned stations about a third of motorists choose to pay at the wash with their bank card, rather than queue in the shop, because it’s more convenient. Interestingly, 85% of those drivers who opt to use our pay-at-wash terminals buy the top wash programme. Those who pay in the shop tend to go for cheaper options. This suggests that pay-at-wash can help retailers increase their premium wash sales without really trying.

Retailer view

David Charman, owner of Parkfoot Garages in West Malling, Kent
"We used to offer touchless programmes when we first started car washing 12 years ago. We thought that it would be good to give people an alternative to brush washing but the technology and chemical application was not good enough and over time fewer and fewer people used it.
"More and more people were happy to use the rollover car wash so we built up a very successful and stable brush washing business, but we have seen a decline because of hand car washing and the perception that hand washing is kinder and nicer to motorists’ cars. We needed to find something new to attract people back to us and the technology for touchless car washing has improved massively.
"The technology has improved, the chemicals have improved and the chemical application has improved. We have been trialling the WashTec combination machine for about four months and will launch the touchless programmes this month. Quite a number of customers and friends have been testing it. We’ve tried lots of chemicals and ways of applying it. We will offer a full touchless wash and a touchless wash combined with a brush polish, which gives people the best of both worlds.
"Instead of offering a programme that does polishing, we are adopting the McDonald’s approach and offering a polish for an extra £2 on the top two washes and will encourage staff to up-sell that. Once our touchless programmes are launched we will have six programmes at prices from £5 to £10, which some people will say is still too cheap. Our industry is pathetic at increasing our prices on car washing we’re all selling at the same prices as we were 15 years ago."

Equipment developments

l Istobal has launched an entry-level rollover car wash called M’Start, designed for wash facilities with a capacity of 800 to 1,200 vehicles a month. The machine features a horizontal dryer nozzle plus vehicle scanning and optional diffuser to achieve a better dry on the rear of the vehicle. An alternative is two turbofans fitted to the top of the machine to perform the dry with no need for scanning. The ’on-board’ system of the M’Start has the high-pressure pump fitted inside the column, which means various high-pressure options are available without the high extra cost involved in installing that type of pump externally. High shine wax with polish, foam, chemical pre-wash and wheel-wash are available as options.
l New innovations from Christ have been aimed at bringing in new customers and improving the experience for existing ones. These include direct drive for the new top-of-the-range machines, negating the need for brush rotation gearboxes and increasing wash speeds. It has also launched a new wheel wash with two nozzles for high pressure, rather than one, and a new slimmer wheel-wash design that protrudes less into the bay to prevent customers from hitting it. In addition, there is a new design to the top brush shaft on the Varius/Genius which will allow the brush to be more controllable with a faster lift/lower action, and the Extra Foam device for rollovers is a new foaming system to give a creamy foam effect.
l Karcher has launched the CB Flex/5 rollover car wash with five brushes, which cuts the time taken to complete a high-pressure pre-wash, main wash and dry by up to 50% compared with a three-brush gantry car wash, making it ideal for very busy locations with up to 1,200 washes per month. The new five-brush system requires only two passes to complete a standard wash, as opposed to the usual four. It has also introduced the Karcher CP 901 alkaline wheel rim cleaner, which, when left for just a short time to take effect, gently removes even stubborn dirt such as burned-in brake dust, tyre dust or deposits of salt in winter. It is green in colour so the jet wash customer can see at a glance which areas have already been sprayed.
l In addtion, Karcher has developed a new wheel rim cleaning programme that enables car wash customers to apply CP 901 with a standard high-pressure spray lance, eliminating the need to change lances. The new wheel rim option can be easily retro-fitted to existing washes.The company has also put new textile brushes that have a greater polishing effect on its standard CB line of car washes, and redesigned the gantry so that retailers can incorporate their own graphics onto the machine.
l As well as launching a combination touchless machine, WashTec has developed a tyre shiner for rollover car washes, and the SoftCare Pro Classic advanced chemical system (ACS) to make replacement of cleaning and care products in gantry car washes easier. The new ACS uses a cartridge system for quick, safe and clean refilling of chemicals.