Car washing continues to offer some of the highest margins on the forecourt, but it’s not without its challenges.
For retailers in the south east this year’s lack of rainfall and consequent Drought Orders have caused serious concern, while the ubiquitous roadside hand car washes are treading on traditional forecourt territory. Added to this is the ongoing competition from the supermarkets, some of which have been investing in higher-specification machines aimed at encouraging customers to spend even more money with them.
For independent forecourt operators, the major manufacturers agree that these challenges call for a renewed focus on their car wash offer. "Independents can take advantage by looking specifically at their local market and making themselves as different as possible," says Paul Bruen, business development director for Wilcomatic. "They have the ability to be very local, rather than having the one-size fits all approach of some larger businesses. They should look at what the competition is doing, find a unique selling point and make sure people know about it."
Meanwhile, Dave Lindon, business development director for Istobal, says: "The sites that are holding their own against the increased competition are those that are investing more in new equipment, improving the wash quality, putting their existing machines into a nice new building or spending more on marketing.
"Some retailers use hand washes as a convenient excuse for not doing very well when really it’s more because they haven’t been prepared to invest in their site. It’s up to the retailer to give the customer something better. A petrol forecourt has got far more to offer than a typical hand wash operation."
With environmental issues being pushed to the top of the public agenda, coupled with industry pressure, most people believe it’s only a matter of time before the government cracks down on unrestricted hand car washing in car parks. If this happens, traditional car washes will have a chance to take back lost business and pick up new trade, says Colin Russell, head of sales and marketing at Car Wash UK.
"Hand washes have succeeded in getting more people used to having their cars washed commercially," he comments. "But most set-ups rely on cheap labour, and once legislation does come in they are unlikely to invest in proper drainage. Many will disappear and when they do, the people that use them - most of whom weren’t previously using car wash facilities - are unlikely to want to go back to doing it themselves with a bucket and sponge."
In the meantime, forecourt operators should try to offer a quicker, better service, in a cleaner and more pleasant environment - but some are not keeping facilities clean enough.
"A machine that’s only two or three years old, but never been properly cleaned can look 10 years old," says Russell. "Customers don’t want to use a tatty, old-looking machine. They will think it’s more likely to break and cause damage."
The wash bay should be swept out every day, even if it doesn’t look particularly dirty, as any debris can affect the performance of the machine. For example, sensors can pick up faulty signals just from a discarded Coke can or cigarette pack. At this time of year, leaves are also likely to cause problems if left unchecked.
Many major retailers are opting for regular professional deep cleaning to keep their bays in peak condition. Car Wash UK, for example, offers such a service, where someone will come and clean the whole machine, including floors, ceilings, walls and doors. "If you do this on a bi-monthly basis it can pay for itself. The machine will last longer and it will look newer for longer," says Russell.
Housing the car wash in a modern building is becoming more popular in the bid to attract customers. "Car washing is a very weather-dependent business, so sites with a good quality building, with doors and a heater, will be more appealing all year round," says Istobal’s Dave Lindon. "A well-lit modern building will illuminate the site and say ’please use me’. They will tend to be far more successful than an old machine in an open bay."
In general, glass buildings are proving more popular than the old-style brick building with white cladding, and these have the added advantage of being easier to clean.
A sparkling site will still be redundant if the customer doesn’t know what’s on offer, and promotion is another area where some retailers could do more.
"Too many sites invest a lot of money in a new machine and then don’t educate their customers on what that machine can actually do. Just a simple flyer will let people know," says Istobal’s Dave Lindon. "Sites could help promote themselves by going around local businesses, such as taxi firms, and offering a special account for washing. Some retailers just expect to get a percentage of the customers coming on site using the wash, but there are lots of opportunities to make more money."
Multi-buys are another way of encouraging repeat business. PSD Codax, which specialises in car wash access systems that are now widely regarded as the industry standard, can make this easier with its latest upgrade - the Codax Smart Card system. It allows the retailer to charge a blank card with a certain number of washes, making it easy for them to run loyalty schemes, such as ’buy five washes, get five free’ - or any promotion they choose. This is then used in a card reader, which is easy to install next to the normal entry code pin pad at the wash. The cards can be liveried with a site’s branding or logo, making them an advertising opportunity too.
PSD Codax managing director, Graham Round, says: "We’re always looking at the ability to help retailers promote their machines, through things such as off-peak tickets, which can only be used at a certain time, and now the Codax Smart Card. In the past, multi-buy promotions or car wash clubs were done by vouchers, but these can get lost or damaged. It’s also trickier for the retailer to account for all the voucher books that might be laying around a site. With this system the card is blank until the money goes in the till."
Pay-at-wash has been another focus for PSD Codax. Having previously worked with magnetic stripe readers, the company has gone through a redevelopment programme to meet the more demanding standards of Chip & PIN.
Atlantis International has worked with the company to develop its self-service PayPost, which allows customers to make their car wash or jet wash purchases with either card, cash or Codax code. The unit uses on-line authorisation for card transactions and can be mounted centrally as a Codax ticket generator or at the entrance to the wash bay for direct transactions. Atlantis aims to offer this as a retro-fit and as an option on its Revolution jet wash machine.
The major suppliers have continued to develop their ranges, with new products available to suit both small and larger car wash operators. Rollovers continue to be the most popular format for UK forecourts.
Wilcomatic, distributor of the Christ range, has adapted its offer this year, with the aim of making it more inclusive. Paul Bruen says: "Christ is our core range and a premium machine with advanced technology, but some of our customers are looking for a more basic, machine that still offers a great wash quality, which is why we’ve also become the UK distributor for D’Aerg rollovers."
In the Christ range, two new machines have just been launched. The C160 Genius and C163 Varius are said to implement features that operators have asked for, such as larger wheel brushes and machine access doors that open into the bay, making it easier to perform routine maintenance tasks.
Karcher’s latest rollover is the CB2, which completes the three-strong CB range. The new top-of-the range model is aimed at larger sites with high wash volumes.
Peter Spencer, managing director of Atlantis International, Karcher’s UK distributor, says the CB machines use a common platform, which makes servicing much easier. The modular nature of the machine also means it can fit into a shorter wash bay - as little as 8.4m - and can be built inside an existing building.
"The CB1 and CB2 are identical to look at, the difference is the CB2 has more programmes, including the option of 60-bar high pressure," he explains. "There’s also a special polishing programme, with an extra pass-over that puts on a special solution that’s polished into the surface of the car to protect against future dirt and wear."
The first CB2 has just been installed at the Lightfoots Shell Garage in Bracknell, where it’s said to be a hit with the site’s affluent customer base.
Meanwhile, the first mid-range CB1 machine was installed at Eastleigh Service Station in June 2005 and has, says Spencer, since then done 40,000 washes without any fault that could be attributed to the machine itself. "Because the CB machine is so reliable, we’ve dropped our service price," he says. "For a fully comprehensive contract you would normally pay £3,000-£3,500. We’re offering a 12-month contract with all parts and labour, for £1,600."
The CB machine price starts at around £30,000, with the higher-spec options of the CB2 taking the price up to around £40,000.
Over at Istobal, the M18+ five-brush rollover is aimed at high-volume sites looking to minimise queues, and Dave Lindon says the company has recently won a contract to supply nine machines to a major independent dealer. "It’s a very fast machine, but it still enables people to have a lot of grade options on it without being detrimental to the speed of the machine," he explains. "We’ve already installed around 25 on forecourts in the UK, mainly on very busy sites. People will leave a site rather than queue, so by putting in a faster machine, typical revenues can go up by £20-25,000 a year."
The M18+ fits into a standard size bay and can do a rapid wash and dry in as little as two and a half minutes. Prices start at around £40,000.
For smaller sites looking to make a more modest investment, Istobal has just launched the M7.1. This is the most technologically advanced of the basic range and said to be very quiet thanks to a new top-drying system, which delivers 8kw of power at lower decibel levels. Prices start at £24,000 for a wash and dry unit, with extra options available, such as wheel wash, under chassis wash, textile brushes and triple foam.
Wash Tec’s biggest-selling machine is the Softcare Pro, which is said to account for over 60% of sales and is currently on around 500 forecourts, including a Fraser Group site. The machine is aimed at sites washing at least 600 cars a month and features all the latest technology, including SMS fault diagnostics and SoftTex brushes. The company is also launching a new lower-volume machine early next year. Called Softwash, it’s aimed at sites doing 4-5,000 washes a year.
Another new high-speed rollover is Cecatto’s Hyperion, a twin-frame machine, which is said to be capable of washing and drying in just 2.5 minutes. Launched in September, the top-of-the-range machine shares many features with the Cecatto Pegasus, which has started to appear on UK forecourts this year and is expected to become distributor Car Wash UK’s main machine.
Patented features for the two models include Vectorial Brush Control (VBC), which ensures the top brush perfectly follows the contours of the car, including recesses and rear spoilers. There is also a Turbo Side Dryer (TSD) system, which boosts air flow to those parts of a vehicle that are often badly covered by traditional drying systems. And finally, the Multicolor Foam Stripes (MFS) system allows you to create attractive block foam effects. It mixes colour at the nozzle, meaning it can be programmed to generate almost any colour, such as a company’s corporate colours.
With retailers increasingly looking to add revenue-enhancing upgrades to their offer, Ryko will be introducing some innovative extras over the next year. The company already offers Tri-Foam coloured detergent, which has been adopted by Tesco across its network. And next year the supermarket is set to add two seasonal options to its washes. Bug Blaster - a chemical sprayed onto windscreens to melt dried-on insects - will be offered as a summer upgrade. The winter upgrade will be Rain Shield, a chemical application applied instead of wax to protect paintwork from the dulling effects of wet weather. These options will be available as retro-fits to all Ryko customers.
Ryko’s managing director, Craig Nugent, says: "The supermarkets don’t have to go looking for customers, but they want to up-sell by adding new options. These are a great way of raising prices without actually being seen to raise prices, because you’re giving the customer something extra. Additional options don’t cost the retailer much - and it’s going to be at least 90% profit."
As well as supplying Tesco with its five-brush Premier Plus machine, Ryko also recently won a three-year sole supply contract with Somerfield, for more than 70 of its 3-brush Excel machines.
It’s all very well having the latest high-tech kit, but it becomes an expensive white elephant if a Drought Order means the retailer can’t use it. Last summer saw four water companies threaten to use wash restrictions, while one, Sutton and East Surrey, did enforce a six-month ban on systems using more than 23 litres of fresh water per wash, affecting around 67 sites.
The industry consensus is that water recycling is set to become the norm, and in the future, operators will be expected to demonstrate at least some form of recycling to be able to continue washing. Some major retailers - the supermarkets in particular - are already planning ahead and either installing recycling equipment, or are at least having the necessary ground work done in advance, particularly when redeveloping or building a new site. Tesco, for example, is installing partial reclaim systems, supplied by Ryko, on all of its UK sites and promoting this to customers as an environmental policy decision.
Ryko’s Craig Nugent says: "Some form of system can be fitted on just about every site, but what form it takes will be dictated by the limitations of the site, such as space to extend plant rooms. A full reclaim is a big capital expense. It could cost between £12,000 to £18,000, depending on the brand and specifications. The average price for a partial reclaim is around £7,000. This needs less space, as it’s a smaller system, however, you still need three-stage interceptors, so there will also be civil works to do."
Most companies offer a free site survey to discuss the most cost-effective solution. The price of installing equipment will also be further reduced if, as expected, it is soon included on the Water Technology list of the government’s Enhanced Capital Allowance scheme. This would allow retailers to off-set the costs against tax, which could mean savings of as much as £3,000.
The recycling systems of old didn’t get good press, but suppliers have been making improvements, primarily making them easier to service.
"A recycling system requires a specific service regime to make it work properly. In the past this wasn’t always done properly, so the system gave off bad smells," says Atlantis’ Peter Spencer, whose company supplies systems to Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. "The recent changes are in the build and simplicity of the systems, making them more modular and simple to install and service."
Istobal’s range, meanwhile, also covers jet washes. "We can actually work a car wash and jet wash on the same system, which is quite unusual because jet washes tend to use harsher chemicals, which most reclaims can’t handle," says Dave Lindon.
Most suppliers agree that a partial reclaim with a fresh water rinse at the end of the cycle offers the best wash finish, and this can be achieved with a drought-compatible machine, using just 23-litres of fresh water.
Many modern machines offer remote diagnostics or SMS alerts to let the retailer know when there’s a problem, and this is proving useful for multi-site operators, making it easier for them to monitor an entire network.
However, a good service contract and regular preventative maintenance remains vital. "It’s crazy to run a wash without this," says Ryko’s Craig Nugent. "Some smaller independents will try and maintain their own washes. This isn’t sensible because if they have a major failure it tends to be very expensive, whereas if you buy an all-inclusive contract, the risk is carried by the maintenance provider."
A minimum of four service visits a year is the general recommendation.
In chemicals, there has been a move towards more premium, concentrated products, which offer the obvious advantage of not needing to be topped up by site staff so often. Some companies are also offering topping up contracts for these new chemicals.
Steve Jeffs, interim managing director at Wash Tec, says: "A lot of our key accounts are looking to out source this kind of responsibility. This is a definite trend, not just with the oil companies but also larger retailer groups. The idea is to develop a one-stop-shop where we can offer everything. We’ll supply the machine, offer finance schemes, maintenance contracts, chemical provision, topping up and bay cleaning."
Wash Tec has just launched its first range of own-branded chemicals. Jeffs says that for an average of 16p per wash, it can supply both chemicals and a top-up service. However, some older-style machines may not have the right pumps for the latest products.
Istobal’s Premium Bio Concentrate range, meanwhile, is said to offer around four times the amount of washes from the same sized bottle.
While premium products are more expensive to buy, they in turn command a higher retail price. When used with the latest soft brushes, they allow the retailer to offer polish and buff programmes, for which they can add an extra £1-£1.50 to the price.
RS Sales & Distribution has also announced the launch of a new Premium range of rollover and jet wash chemicals, designed to provide the highest quality wash at a competitive price, and include water treatment chemicals.
WASH & DRY FOR TWO-WHEELERS
THI UK, the company that brought the dog wash to the UK market, is introducing another innovative development, this time for motorbikes.
The new Motowash will not only wash motorbikes and scooters but fully dry them as well in just eight minutes.
Peter Heaton, managing director of THI UK, says: "When we began working on this project we knew that many potential users, attracted by the fast turnaround, could be put off if they had to ride away on a machine that was still part wet."
To overcome this problem, Motowash uses a uniquely designed ’air knife’ developed by Spraying Systems. This delivers a steady stream of warm air that maintains its force and integrity right to the target surface.
Motowash, which will be available from February 2007, is fully self-contained and offers a three-stage cleaning process of soap wash with recycled water, rinse and blow dry. Water pumps, treatment system, air blower, travelling spray arch, safety doors and controls are all built into the unit, which has a footprint of 3m x 2m, excluding entry and exit ramps.
Motowash can wash and dry six vehicles an hour at a recommended price of £5 per wash. THI UK has yet to announce the cost of the system.
HOW CLEAN IS YOUR CAR?
Total has recruited TV stars Kim and Aggie, from Channel 4 programme How Clean is your House?, to front its latest car wash campaign.
The ’queens of clean’ launched the oil company’s ’National Car Wash Week’, which ran from November 17 to 24 -and it is planned to become an annual event.
As well as offering car washes for £1, the promotion saw the TV duo and Total’s own car wash helpers performing the ’white glove test’ on cars at sites around the country to reveal how dirty they were.
THE £17 WASH
John Glen Garages in Alexandria, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, is the first independent to install the Cecatto Pegasus rollover (starting price £30,000) and is now charging £17 for its top wash programme.
Managing director Gordon Glen also owns a funeral business and was looking for a multi-functional machine that would not damage the glossy, black coachwork of his valuable Daimler and Jaguar hearses, and would also appeal to his forecourt customers.
Supplied by Car Wash UK, the Pegasus features soft-foam brushes, high-pressure, multi-coloured foam options and a premium hard wax programme called Sonax, which gives a hand-finished, water resistant sheen.
Gordon says: "The Pegasus certainly ticks all the boxes. It’s fast becoming the talk of the town."
Most customers now expect to see a jet wash option on the forecourt and they allow even very small sites to offer a wash facility.
Paul Bruen at Wilcomatic says: "Jet washes are important as part of the total car care package, and as a source of additional revenue."
THI UK has recently worked with Wilcomatic to launch a striking new range of equipment, called Infiniti.
Bruen says: "For many years jet washes came in a basic square box. More recently the trend has been for oval-shaped cabinets, but now it is difficult for a site to differentiate itself from the others as, again, they all look the same."
Options for the new range include multi-coloured foam and spot-free rinse, as well as complementary air/water and vacuum units in the same bold design.
Car Wash UK, is offering a range of high-spec D’Aerg units, new to the UK. Among these, the Easy1 comes in stainless steel and features spot-free rinse and a special wheel-wash programme.
Meanwhile, MB Carwash has introduced a new vac and air combination machine, imported from the US. The JE Adams unit features both a tyre inflator and vacuum with a two-inch wide hose that is said to be ’totally crush-proof’. It can be operated by cash and tokens, with both features able to operate simultaneously.