It’s been a difficult few years for car wash operators. Not only has the rise of hand car washes put a hefty dent into many retailers’ car wash trade, but the tough economic climate and soaring fuel prices have forced motorists to minimise their spending. But the silver lining on tough conditions in the car wash market is that commercial and operational pressures appear to have halted further expansion of hand/unregulated car wash operators, according to Michael Harris, managing director of Washtec UK, and spokesman for the Car Wash Association.
"Although there have been few structural changes in the car wash market during 2011, there is increasing evidence that hand washers are now experiencing significant commercial pressures that are restricting their expansion," he says.
"Providing the manpower to wash cars by hand has been their Achilles heel. We hear from traditional operators, who have experimented with hand wash operations, that difficulties in sourcing reliable labour is a major barrier which is exacerbated by all the economic woes."
However, some retailers including some of the Top 50 Indies are moving away from operating car washes altogether, but car wash companies believe this could alienate motorists who expect to find car washing facilities at their local forecourt.
Mike Ambrose, managing director at Car Wash UK, says: "The car wash still offers an important service for many motorists. The automatic machines are much quicker than hand washes, there is often no queue and they are usually cheaper. So the customer who wants to use a car wash machine might choose to use the petrol station that has one over a site that hasn’t.
"Closing down an existing car wash machine on your site may mean applying for planning permission if you want to reinstate it as the fashion changes."
It’s not surprising that some retailers are questioning the viability of car wash services because, while pressure from hand washers may be abating, motorists are still spending less on car valeting services. Clive Steel, sales and marketing director at AIR-serv, says: "With the economy affecting people’s spending habits, we see less customers cleaning their cars weekly.
"They now have a monthly car wash, which is adding concern for future investment, and every element of the wash industry is affected by this change.
"Even we’re in difficult economic times, AIR-serv is still prepared to offer revenue share and rental agreements across our whole range of products. This may assist those retailers looking for a quality replacement item without touching their own capital or not wanting to be reliant on bank borrowing.
"We will continue supporting our customers for the new year ahead, making changes where needed and looking for improvements to service in an efficiency drive that’s already currently under way.
"The wash season is upon us, and the best thing that could happen now is lots of days with a mild frost and plenty of salt on the roads to give the wash industry a much-needed boost."
Making the most of any investment made in car wash equipment is vital if retailers are to get a share of squeezed wash volumes. Retailers who invest and market that investment will reap the rewards, says WashTec’s Michael Harris.
"A small number of entrepreneurs have invested to develop new first-class automatic washing facilities during the year, and they are well set to benefit from the hole in the market, particularly if they support their investment with good local marketing initiatives.
"Customers will invariably respond to goods and services they perceive to be ’new’, and successful operators know that the path to commercial washing success lies in refreshing their offer and making sure their customers know about it."
Car Wash UK’s Mike Ambrose believes that retailers could improve their car wash offer by adding a personal touch to their service.
"If there was a car wash operator on duty on the forecourt who could help the customers work the machine, or put their car through for them, this would help reassure the customer they would be safe," he says. "The operator could also hand-finish the car, leather-off the last little spots of water, clean inside the windows and vacuum out the car. If people were prepared to pay an extra £10 for such a service it wouldn’t need many washes to cover the cost."
Ambrose admits it would take a bit of effort to get the service up and running, but reckons it would allow you to test the market without letting someone else onto your forecourt. "Staff training on the equipment could be provided by your service supplier and training on the finishing and extra cleaning from your chemical supplier.
"The special extras like tyre shine and air freshener sprays could be kept in the car wash plant room along with pre-prep guns and a mobile vacuum. The car wash operator could spend his or her time cleaning the wash bay or tidying the forecourt." Ambrose adds that it would only be necessary to employ someone from 10am to 4pm.
"The important thing is to be consistent, and if you are going to provide this service just on particular days then make sure you do so. But don’t use these staff as spare cashiers or you won’t have anyone available when they are needed."
Preparing for winter
Mother Nature has also played her part in hindering car wash sales during the winter months. As a result, many car wash suppliers have made preparing operators for a repeat of the extreme weather the UK experienced over the past few winters a priority. During 2011, AIR-serv, for example, embarked on a ’winterisation’ programme having spent thousands of pounds looking at how its equipment performed in extreme weather after the impact of last year’s winter.
"The outcome of our programme has meant that changes to our equipment have been made and we will continue looking at ways to keep the equipment operational for longer in extreme circumstances," says Steel.
"AIR-serv customers will be receiving (if they have not already done so) a ’Winter good housekeeping guide’. This will hopefully act as a reminder about what to do as the weather approaches freezing point, and what will keep the equipment operational longer so that maximum income can be achieved."
The guide points out things to check, that may also help save on maintenance costs and reduce the number of call-outs. "It’s going to be tough but with some simple planning you can make a difference," adds Steel. "We would urge every site to have a ’winter plan’ and not just wait for bad weather to arrive. Order your bags of rock salt, screen wash, ice scrapers, and don’t forget the snow shovel. Look to keep your valeting bays open longer and keep them clear of leaves and snow (should it arrive)."
Wilcomatic has also made moves to ensure retailers are set for the upcoming winter months. Kevin Pay, managing director at the company, says: "One thing that really depresses me is the number of signs you see at this time of year, which say ’car wash out of order’, simply because the temperature has dipped below zero. When a car wash is not working, it is not earning profit and the likelihood is that customers will go to the hand car wash down the road that is still working.
"It is doubly frustrating as it’s a state of affairs that can be avoided by a few simple precautions. The winter with cars becoming covered in salt and mud is a prime washing opportunity for those who can stay open. The forecast for this winter is that it is likely to be similar to last year and, as we know, in the British climate we can go from mild to a deep freeze literally over night. That means that it’s never too early to prepare, especially when the alternative is lost profits and frost-damaged equipment."
Wilcomatic recommends that retailers make the following precautions for winter: install plant room heaters or ensure exisiting ones are working; use pump-lagging jackets; install trace heating on water pipes (an electric heating element that runs in contact along the length of a pipe); install a heater in the reclaim tank if you have recycling; and install bay doors.
"More sophisticated precautions are also available. For example, we provide Christ equipment that heats chemical reservoirs to keep them flowing as the temperature drops," adds Pay.
"There is also the extra safeguard that when the temperature approaches freezing, the machine automatically shuts down once the customer has gone through, and lines are purged of all water and chemicals using compressed air."
While rollover car washes and jet washes are still the most popular on UK forecourts, touchless automatic car washes, such as the Ceccato DaergOne and Christ Aquatus, both supplied by Wilcomatic, are apparently attracting extra business to the automatic market that would have previously gone to hand car washes. The first DaergOne machine has been installed at the Monmouth site of Top 50 Indie Simon Smith Group, where it competes against a rollover machine and jet washes.
Since its installation, the site’s car wash turnover has risen significantly, while takings from the rollover machine and jet washes have held up.
Brian Tew, director of the Simon Smith Group, says: "We still get customers who believe, wrongly, that the brushes in rollover machines could scratch their cars, but having the DaergOne answers their concerns while giving their vehicles a thorough wash. It’s a smashing machine at the right price and gives a super wash.
"I really believe that if you want to be a serious car wash centre, you have to have a touchless wash. My only criticism is that, while it uses reverse osmosis to prevent the rinse water drying in streaks, adding a drying capability would really enhance it."
This problem is tackled by the Christ Aquatus which is said to provide the highest drying performance through Christ’s unique contour-following, 160 tilting dryer system. Adds Kevin Pay: "We worked in partnership with the Simon Smith Group to reduce wash time and chemical cost while maintaining the quality of the wash. So far the feedback has been good, with most people who use it saying they wouldn’t have used a brush machine."
WashTec is also pushing ahead with developments in touchless car washing. Following the successful touchless wash installed at Inner Space Stations’ Hull Road BP forecourt in York, the company has developed two new touchless systems based upon the successful SoftCare rollover design: a touchless-only machine with barely a brush in sight and a hybrid machine that offers either conventional brush-wash programmes, brush-free programmes or a combination of the two. The machines will be launched in 2012.
Meanwhile, Car Wash UK, which distributes the Italian-made Aquarama range, produces a full range of rollover car wash machines, forecourt vacuums, jet washes and self service bays. Its top-of-the range rollover machine is said to have some unique features which enable it to deliver the high-spec polishing wax programme in less than four minutes.
Mike Ambrose says: "This is a triple-arch machine. The first arch scans the shape of the car as it whizzes past spraying on the foam or pre-soak if it is a touchless programme. The second arch, which swings down from the brushing part of the machine, delivers high pressure over the car while the third arch runs the brushes over the car. Because of the scanning system the machine ’knows’ the shape of the car and so can move over it quickly and smoothly.
"And because of the multiple arches and scanning process, the machine can deliver a wash with foam, high pressure, rinse and polish wax in less than four minutes instead of the 12 minutes it takes in an ordinary machine."
Jet wash success
Peter Spencer, managing director of Kärcher, reckons jet washes are the perfect alternative to a rollover for retailers. "The good old jet wash still makes an appearance on UK forecourts and, in some cases, is taking the place of the traditional rollover wash," he says. "In fact, they can earn more revenue and profit than a car wash because they are significantly cheaper to purchase.
"If they are ’buy-time’ they can earn more pounds per minute than a rollover," he adds. "When they go wrong, they are cheaper to repair. There is no risk of vehicle damage and washing can continue at lower temperatures than with a rollover."
Kärcher is promoting its SB Wash-E, which features a patented ’combi’ cleaning tool, combining the wash lance and brush in one tool, rather than separately. It also features a solid, external safe, remote diagnostics, a frost-protection system that operates to sub-zero temperatures, and the option of a stainless steel cabinet.
The company claims that it is the only jet wash that can wash vehicles at minus 17C. Asda has already installed 50 of the machines on a shared-revenue scheme.
Meanwhile, Istobal has launched its own range of jet wash and vacuum equipment, and air units will be added next year. Dave Lindon, business development director at the company, says: "There is a growing dissatisfaction with retailers at the ever-decreasing choice of products and suppliers and we see this as a golden opportunity to bring a fresh new range to market."
The N’JoyWash jet wash features high-pressure lance and super-soft foam brush with a triple-foam option. It can be configured as buy-time or multi programme, and can be fitted with both electronic token/cash or Codax operation. Retailers can choose from straight purchase, rental or revenue share, and warranties up to five years are available together with Turtle Wax branding and marketing signage.
WINTER OFFER for readers
In response to the trend towards colder winters, Wilcomatic is introducing a number of new products and services to help forecourt retailers prepare for winter, and is offering readers of Forecourt Trader a 10% discount on car wash plant room heaters.
Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, says: "Installing a heater in the plant room is the quickest and easiest thing retailers can do to save themselves problems this winter, so we thought we would offer a little more encouragement in the shape of this special discount. We are also offering a free winter-check site survey to assess other ways for car wash operators to prevent frost damage."
To get this discount on the installed list price readers just need to call 020 8649 5761 and give the reference ’Forecourt Trader plant room offer’.
The other winter-oriented products are led by Christ rollover machines with a new warming system to protect the unit’s chemicals from freezing if the ambient temperature drops below zero.
Christ has added extra protection for the chemical reservoir in response to extremely cold weather conditions across Europe, and at no additional cost to the customer.
This is in addition to Christ’s normal frost protection system, which, when the temperature approaches freezing, automatically shuts down the machine after any current customer has gone through and purges all water and chemicals from the lines using compressed air.
To help with existing installations, Wilcomatic can supply and fit automatic bay doors linked to a thermal switch.
When the temperature falls below the level where frost damage could occur, the doors will automatically close to protect the unit, once any current wash has completed.
Just as importantly, when the temperature rises and the danger of damage has passed, the doors will automatically open again.
Says Kevin Pay: "While it is important to close the doors when the temperature falls, it is equally important to ensure they open as soon as is safe, as car washes with the doors closed look like they are not in use.
"This temperature-triggered system takes the responsibility for opening and closing the doors at the right time out of the hands of busy forecourt staff."
This year the company has also bought in a sizeable stock of water pumps, which were in very short supply last year, and can supply grit, salt, thermal jackets for water pumps and plant room heaters.
TOP TIPS FOR WINTER
Get bays cleaned now as algae growth will become very slippery.
Use bay doors at night to preserve as much heat as possible.
Clear snow away from the bay exit/entrance. Do not use the area as a dumping ground for forecourt snow.
Keep the bay exit/entrance well gritted or salted. Stock up on road grit or salt well in advance of cold weather.
On frosty days, get staff to keep checking the machine temperature, so you can start washing straight away when it warms up enough.
If ice is forming in the reclaim tank, break it up so it does not get thicker.
Innovative ways of encouraging drivers to use automatic wash equipment are essential, says Graham Round, managing director of Programmable Systems Design, which supplies Codax systems. As such the company has launched a Christmas offer through its loyalty smartcard system pay £25 and enjoy £60-worth of winter wash time with a Santa Wash Card. "The Santa Wash Card makes an excellent gift and encourages a £30-50 upfront car wash spend," explains Round. "Wash operators can devise exciting promotions/banners, for example ’Wash as much as you like this winter with our Santa Wash Card’ or ’Stay clean this winter with our Santa Wash Card’. With Codax we stretch beyond our basic remit to provide a simple user access system that provides the owner/operator with revenue reporting. We are providing tools to help promote the wash facility," adds Round. "As winter arrives every opportunity to persuade drivers of the benefits of automatic car washes must be embarked on, and some level of discounting should be applied."