The past year has definitely been a challenging one for the car wash industry what with the recession and the continued competition from hand washing operations, but things are looking up. Kevin Pay, managing director at Wilcomatic, says: "January was very poor in terms of wash volumes due to the unprecedented cold weather which disrupted much of February too. Since then volumes have improved and many weeks have seen positive growth year-on-year, a trend we hope will continue with the ongoing volcanic ash deposits and dry weather."

He says that from a sales perspective there has been a continuation of the polarity in purchasing trends that he first saw developing last year.

He explains: "At one end of the scale we have seen tremendous success from our factory refurbishment programme using Christ donor machines. Prices start from as low as £16,000 delivered and installed, for a machine that looks and performs like new and is guaranteed with a Wilcomatic warranty."

Pay says both Euro Garages and Park Road Group have invested in refurbished machines this year.

He continues: "Some customers are opting to purchase a more basic and budget-end machine such as the Christ Avus C60 which provides an excellent wash and dry machine from around £30,000 but without some of the bells and whistles associated with a higher-spec machine. On the other hand, we have seen an increasing number of customers deciding to beat the local competition in particular the hand wash operators through providing high-spec and high-quality wash operations."

Colin Russell, sales director at Car Wash UK, tells a similar story: "The decline in wash volumes has made some of the existing car wash operators a little nervous about replacing their equipment, with some extending the life cycle and continuing to run the equipment until it finally dies. But some of the smarter operators have upgraded equipment to a much higher specification to enable the end user to have a ’Top End’ wash programme choice, with polish and buffing of cars as an extension to the normal wash offers.

"Promotions and value cards continue to be used with ’buy one get one half price’ or £30-worth of wash value for £20 being offered by some of the independent wash operators, but as a rule car wash promotions really lack any punch and seemed to dissipate with all of the other offers within the shop."

He reckons the best way to maximise your car wash profitability is to have a reliable and consistent wash offer that’s always available. "This was one of the main reasons we became partners with Aquarama as they understand the importance of performance and reliability," he says. "This is reflected in the production of one of the most reliable machines on the market today the Aquarama Stargate series."

Car Wash UK has also embraced the hand wash market. At this year’s IFFE it launched the Handywash conveyor system. This uses two ’flat top’ belts to transport the car softly and safely through a semi-automated hand car wash process. Russell reckons the Handywash can be easily installed within an existing car wash bay mounted onto existing surfaces, minimising the need for expensive civil works.

With this system the operator can wash up to 30 cars per hour and attract a new customer base. The HandyWash has been developed to operate with both fresh and recycled water.

Moving on and Tim Munt, business development manager at European Wash Systems (the UK arm of Ceccato and Daerg vehicle washing equipment) says Ceccato’s best-selling car wash throughout Europe is the Hydrus. Options available include all-round high-pressure and foam touch brushes. Hydrus can wash up to 12 vehicles an hour.

Munt reckons it is popular because forecourts can have an entry-level unit with the technical advantages of a high-spec one. "Another feature of the Hydrus is Air Plus. This gantry-mounted drying system performs a truly amazing dry while not moving close to the vehicle at all. The two x 5kw fans move left to right as well as oscillating so they move large volumes of air to give a great result."

Munt believes touchless car washing machines are the way forward.

"Drivers are spending more and more money on their cars and are increasingly choosy about how they are cleaned. There is no better way to care for a customer’s car than by not actually touching it, and the technology is at last here to allow a truly comparable wash result to that of a brush unit.

"The wash is performed using high-pressure water and chemicals alone. For this, the forecourt operator is able to charge a premium price. Early indications show that a starting price that matches that of a top wash on a high-specification gantry is achievable. But building a wash menu capable of many options allows even higher prices to be charged, therefore generating a greater margin for the forecourt owner.

"Indeed, parts of Europe are charging over 20 euros for a DaergOne touchless wash. DaergOne is a true innovation and is not simply a modified standard gantry with no brushes. It has full-height photocell scanners that accurately read the profile of the car in a single pass. Using this information, DaergOne makes a series of passes applying two carefully controlled and mixed chemicals which work together to perform the dirt removal part of the wash."

Meanwhile, Karcher Vehicle Wash manufactures three-brush rollovers. Its best seller is the CB1 three-brush rollover. The company also manufactures jet wash units which can be seen on an increasing number of Asda sites as well as on independent forecourts. Its best-selling jet wash is the SB Wash E5/10.

Managing director, Peter Spencer, says: "With fuel margins being constantly squeezed it is essential for operators to invest in their sites to maximise the profit opportunities. With typical lifetime costs for Karcher car wash machines ranging from 75p-95p per wash, with an average retail price of £4 per wash, this represents massive earning potential.

"Similarly the Karcher SB Wash offers a fantastic rate of return. Either or indeed both of these items can transform the productivity of a site."

Istobal UK’s major customers include Morrisons, Total, MRH Retail, Murco, Petrogas and the Co-op.

The company says it offers prospective buyers a range of benefits including guaranteed trade-in on your existing wash irrespective of its age.

Business development director, Dave Lindon, says staff carry out a free no-obligation site survey and marketing study to discuss a retailer’s individual requirements. He adds: "One of the biggest benefits of buying Istobal is that anyone can service our equipment. We therefore have to give the best service in the industry because our customers always have the freedom to go elsewhere if they are not satisfied."

Lindon believes car washes and jet washes are still good profit centres for sites. "Several sites have moved on to multi-bay wash centres and are reaping the rewards. Marketing of the wash is essential to get the maximum return on investment and we have various schemes available using either Turtle Wax or Autoglym branding."

Ryko’s best-selling car wash is the five-brush, aluminium-framed Premier Plus. This claims to be the fastest single-gantry car wash in the world with the ability to wash and dry a car in 2.3 minutes. There are more than 400 installed in the UK Tesco has been using this model for 11 years. Ryko managing director, Craig Nugent, comments: "All Ryko washes on the Tesco estate are web enabled. This means that through a broadband connection, the retailer has real time access to wash sales and diagnostic information.

"Each wash can be viewed live with potential faults being identified as and when they happen. If no sales are made for a designated time period, the retailer is alerted, allowing him to investigate. "

The jet set

According to Frank McLaughlan, director of Jet Set Wash Systems, you get some people who will only use a rollover car wash and others who will only use a jet wash. "A high percentage of people prefer to wash their own car because, apart from their house, it’s the next most expensive item they’ll own," he says.

The company’s Eco Jet wash is its most popular. McLaughlin says this is because of its new Eco water heater (where less electricity is used than in a standard jet wash); its hyper-concentrated chemical delivering 5ml of chemical per minute; its boom arm system that has a 10m reach; and its foaming injector for superior wash quality.

He admits that a jet wash will not create as much turnover as a drive-through car wash but says the cost to purchase and run a jet wash is far cheaper. For example, prices for the standard Eco jet wash start at £5,500 with four options (soap, foam brush, wax and rinse).

"Revenue share is popular if the customer doesn’t want the capital expenditure and ongoing maintenance and chemical costs," he adds.

Air-Serv manufactures a range of jet washes, all with decals and artwork to reflect the site’s fuel brand.

The company’s sales and marketing director, Peter Heaton, says: "In order to increase the revenue possibilities, the jet washes have the option of a wheel cleaner, coloured triple foam, and an ’eco heater’ for a greener footprint. All options are dependent upon an initial site survey to assess suitability.

"All have boom arms to keep the lance and brush hoses tidy, and frost protection to enable them to operate during cold weather. The jet washes are normally time based to produce maximum revenue, but can be pre-programmed if required. They are also fitted with multi-coin acceptors for ease of use by the customer."

He advises that when installing a jet wash it makes good sense to fit new vacuum and air/water units at the same time. "It is well known that customers will use these along with the jet wash. Old, tired looking machines provide a reduced revenue. A big pick-me-up for a site is the installation of new machines."

Air-Serv can also offer share revenue deals on the equipment, or rental if retailers prefer.

"There is no capital cost for the retailer, and it is possible to start earning money from day one, with installation and maintenance included within the package. There are many reasons to install our equipment on a share revenue basis including: no capital outlay for the latest technology; free installation; free maintenance; no administration costs; plus regular revenue payments."

Water works

During a recession it is often easy to forget the environment, but Wilcomatic most definitely hasn’t.

In addition to seeking ISO 14001 environmental accreditation, Wilcomatic sponsored the first environmental award at the 2009 Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards. Working Water, a Wilcomatic subsidiary, is now supplying a range of environmentally-friendly water recycling systems designed specifically to save operators money.

One example is the development of a low-cost addition to existing reclaim systems which will allow recycled water to be used through high-pressure pumps, saving over 100 litres of water (approx. 24p) per wash on a typical high-pressure pre-wash pass.

EWS’ Munt says they always encourage customers to consider a recycling system at the point of installation. "They can, of course, be added retrospectively without too much additional work and can add instant value to the site’s wash offer and instant savings to the bottom line.

"An effectively and well-maintained water reclaim can recover, clean and re-use up to 95% of the water used in the washing process. This will immediately reduce all the costs associated with water including the effluent and waste water charges. We will happily visit sites and carry out a free of charge site survey to give a realistic percentage saving prediction together with a feasibility study identifying the potential cost savings and civil work implications."

What the retailers say:

Andrew Jackson, general manager retail, MRH Retail Limited:

"It is important to keep our top sites achieving their maximum potential. When we install a new Istobal machine we can invariably refurbish the existing wash and re-install it on a quieter site thus maximising our return on investment.

"This ’cascade’ strategy seems to work very well and site staff have commented that even a refurbished Istobal M12 Phoenix is better than the previous machine it had replaced.

"It is imperative to keep your customers and grow the business too. Loyalty schemes are a great way to do this. People love to belong to something so we use various offers including Car Wash Clubs, ’Buy five get sixth free’, free gifts with Top Wash etc to keep our customers loyal to our sites."

Zuber Issa, managing director, EuroGarages:

"There is no doubt that the past 12 months have seen car wash volumes dip, in part due to the recession and in part because of increased competition from the many hand wash operations that seem to have sprouted up in recent years.

"Washing remains very weather dependent so the recent spell of dry weather and the fall of volcanic dust has had a very positive effect on wash volumes.

"We run a number of promotions and aim to be very price competitive where possible.

"Possibly the biggest initiative we are undertaking though is the branding of our wash sites with Turtle Wax, which we are rolling out across our estate through our relationship with Wilcomatic. We believe the improved wash quality of the chemical along with the recognised branding will have a very positive effect on securing loyalty to our sites and driving new sales.

"When it comes to environmental issues, these can be site-specific and dependent upon planning restrictions. There are very good water recycling solutions available, which is something we will be looking closely at in the year ahead."

Clive Gardner, chairman, Gardner Garages:

"Car washes are still an important profit centre and as such they need to be protected by the retailer. Competition is always tight so we have to market our own washes better than the competition.

"Hand washes are the still the big threat, but these operators invariably do not promote their business with a professional image. If we maintain our quality approach to marketing and consistently have offers the customer wants then the customer will return.

"My best offer on a wash has always been ’Buy one get one free’ I have run this for the past 12 years.

"It still proves very successful and ensures my profit centre and wash performs against all odds. Quite often the ’Free Wash’ ticket expires before it is used so it doesn’t actually cost me anything."

Paul Kershaw, director, MPK Garages:

"A car wash is part of the overall retail offer and a customer service provision. A lot of people still expect to be able to wash their car on a forecourt as well as have a wider choice in the shop. A car wash improves the site as a destination point.

"Sales have declined over the past few years but this is a factor of increased competition from hand car washes as well as the economic downturn. And at some point you would expect the economy to pick up.

"Car wash promotions can boost sales and any activity creates customer interest. Aside from hand car washes and the economy, the biggest impact on sales is the weather and we cannot budget for that!".

Washtec heading

At WashTec, staff have been busy helping forecourt retailers understand their customers’ needs.

Marketing manager Dawn Frazer says this is what consumers expect when they wash their cars:

l Clean, well-lit bays the car is often a family’s second most expensive purchase (after their house) and they want to wash it in a clean and safe environment.

l Exceptional washing ability what is the point of having a car wash if the quality of the wash it gives is below standard? Running a test wash for quality should be part of your daily care plan.

l Reliability if your car wash is always broken down, the consumer will lose faith in your site and go to your competitors. A daily care plan will keep your machine working harder for longer.

"There has to be a perception of care," says Frazer. "We all want to be made to feel special whether we are going out for a meal or cleaning our car. It is the experience we receive that can either make us a loyal customer or make us walk away."

As such she reckons it’s as simple as one, two, three:

1. Train your staff in all aspects of your wash facilities.

2. Create a daily care plan and make sure your facilities are always ready for use.

3. Make sure that your customers know what they are getting and how much it will cost without having to ask!

Case study - Jet Shelfield

Khalid Mohammad has been running the Jet Shelfield site in Walsall since 2003. It had a car wash and when that machine packed up, Khalid tried hand car washing. "We tried it for three months but it was very disappointing," he says. Last summer he invested around £60,000 in a new Christ Primus Racer car wash system. "We decided to buy the latest machine to set ourselves apart from the competition," he explains. Business is not as busy as he’d hoped but he says he’s ready for when the market grows. "I could have bought a machine for half that price but it would have been poorer quality and less reliable. I am really happy with this."

It offers four washes ranging in price from £2.99 to £7.99. "You will always get people who want a top wash but likewise you’ll always get those who won’t spend more than a fiver," he says.

Khalid often runs promotions on the car wash including money-off-fuel deals but he says the most popular ones are always the ’buy one get one frees’.

car wash association update

David Charman, chairman of the Car Wash Association, had a meeting with DEFRA at the end of May. He says: "It really was too early in the new government to get info but basically their argument was that hand car washing was an Environment Agency (EA) concern. DEFRA said ’We are the law makers and we consider the law to be acceptable. The EA is the enforcer."

The CWA is concerned about the differences between Scotland and rest of the UK. In Scotland Charman says there are no hand car wash operations in supermarket car parks whereas in the rest of the UK they seem to be everywhere. "We need to find out why that is," he says.

Meanwhile, Charman has been heartened by interest from the Serious Organised Crimes Agency in hand car washes, and hopes they might have the necessary clout to get rid of illegal operations.

Charman says: "My message to petrol retailers is ’we’re getting there’. We’re making headway with more and more government officials. I think the writing is on the wall for hand car washes."

However he is still after information from any petrol retailer who thinks there’s an illegal hand car wash operating in their area.

"We need more information. We need to know who these people are and why you think they are operating illegally."