March 09, 2022 | Matt Gile
Car wash dealers tend to view their on-site car wash as a necessary evil. Washing customer cars provides a positive experience, but the wash can also be a source of added frustration and expense. I understand because I used to feel the same way about our dealership’s car wash.
That was until we turned our on-site in-bay automatic (IBA) into a retail-facing express exterior tunnel. I now know that the dealership car wash can be a profit center rather than a stress-inducing cost center.
Our Car Wash Journey
In early 2009, my brother, father and I sat down to discuss a reoccurring problem in our dealership’s service department: Washing customers’ vehicles in the IBA car wash after service was creating a bottleneck. We hired more valets, but that proved to merely be a Band-Aid on a festering wound.
We were left with a decision: Remove car washing entirely or move the car wash. We pride ourselves on always returning a clean vehicle to our customers, so we felt that removing the wash would negatively impact the customer experience. Therefore, we opted for the latter. In 2010, we opened our first retail-facing car wash – Rainforest Car Wash in Cleveland Heights, OH.
We made the wash open to the public, but each dealership customer received a coupon for a free wash. This gave them the power to wash whenever they had the time. It also gave them a sense of getting something "extra."
To our surprise, car washing became the dealership’s second-highest net profit department. Now more than a decade later, we are operating five Rainforest Car Wash locations (and counting) and have opened a consulting business where we help other dealers enter the car wash business.
The profit we gained from our retail-facing car wash far exceeded our expectations, but that was just one of many benefits. The car wash also:
- Decreased service time
- Decreased cost per wash
- Increased CSI (Customer Satisfaction Index)
- Attracted new customers who we then retargeted with service and car promos
- Gave customers a reason to visit more frequently
- Lowered utility costs
Everyone loves a win-win, and opening a retail-facing car wash certainly provided that to us and our customers.
Starting Off Right
The decisions you make from the start determine how quickly you can achieve success with your retail-facing car wash.
Perhaps the most important decision you’ll make is location. It’s one thing you can’t change after the fact, and it’s also the most critical factor to your success. The wash doesn’t have to be on your property. It should be placed where it can generate the most business and where you have enough space to do it right.
You also want to carefully choose the partners that will provide your point-of-sale technology, tunnel equipment, chemicals, etc. We initially shopped on price. Unfortunately, we ended up having to replace nearly everything, spending two to three times what we would have if we had done it right the first time. Make sure you are making choices based on your wash’s needs, your plans for growth and the level of support the partners will be able to provide.
Worth the Investment
Your dealership car wash doesn’t have to be a money pit. Even if building a public-facing car wash isn't an option for you at this time, consider investing more money in your current wash to increase its efficiency and the quality of the wash. We have found car washing is an essential part of the customer experience that you should not overlook.