Key Considerations for Car Wash Owners

Beyond Land: What to know before buying or building a car wash and the importance of selecting the right equipment, controller and point-of-sale systems

Whether you’re buying, reloading or building a car wash there are certain aspects that are critical to getting your site optimized for your customers’ experience, hitting your revenue goals, and maximizing your staff’s efficiency.

 

First, you’re going to make mistakes, but if you make an informed decision on the big pieces, the rest can be corrected.

Assuming you have (or have identified) a site or store that meets the lengthy requirements detailed in this book and by numerous other car wash experts, I am going to skip to some of the more contemporary and interconnected concerns car wash owners must consider.

After real estate is squared away, you need to make the right choices for your equipment, controller, marketing and POS systems. 

When it comes to equipment, you need to get the right configuration and establish reliable service.  This means aligning yourself with a company or distributor known for their reputation and service is critical. Otherwise you need to hire a staff that can perform all maintenance and repairs themselves and that’s hard to find in most markets. 

Aligning with the right vendor makes all the difference.  I’ve seen countless posts from car wash owners on Facebook groups like TalkCarWash asking for advice on the best equipment and the common theme among the best answers is; Many manufacturers put out great products that are comparable but, the service aspect is the separator and varies by market. Everyone will have their own opinion on what equipment to buy, but you should put the same amount of research into finding the right distributor to service your equipment.

Regardless of what equipment you choose, it will always need maintenance. Your relationship with the manufacturer (or distributor) is going to be an important factor as long as you own the wash. 

Even with preventative and scheduled maintenance, something will break.  And buying “the best” doesn’t mean you dramatically reduce your chances of equipment damage – it can be caused by employee error, customer error, or nature.  No matter how great your equipment is, accidents happen, so minimizing your down time is key.  Any down time means lost revenue and lower customer satisfaction.

 

Similar to interviewing job candidates, past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior. Your distributor or manufacturer’s reputation will likely determine how they handle your issues and their response time. Asking them directly could get you some skewed answers, so it’s best to check in with other car wash owners who work with that company.  Ask to (or find on your own) speak with some of their customers and ask about the issues they’ve had and how they’ve been handled.  This is the “doing your homework” portion.  Because no matter how much you like the person who sells you the equipment, their sales skills are not an indicator of their company’s servicing capabilities.

As my father told me, “marry in haste, repent at leisure”.  You’re in it for the long haul so choosing the right equipment partner is critical to many aspects of the business and your mental health.

 

Controllers are the brains of the wash or a box of light switches, depending on who you ask.  I’m going to assume you understand the basics of controllers as this article will not go into them.  In any case, it’s important you consider this purchase as separate from the equipment.  Many quotes bundle the controller in with the equipment. It’s convenient to have everything in one place, but you need to make sure their recommendation is the right one for you. 

Understanding the support you can expect with your controller is important just as it is with your car wash equipment but there are other factors that are just as important.

All controllers have capacity constraints – knowing your controller’s constraints and understanding what would be required to expand it is important.  Some expansions are easy and some are expensive – depending on the controller and the additional wiring needs.  This is where having an additional relationship with a trusted electrician is a must.  And no matter the relationship, electrical work is not cheap, so it’s a good idea to get an understanding of the costs and hours involved in expansions or modifications.

Another important factor is how well the controller integrates with different POS systems.  Any compatibility issues are a red flag because these two components will need to be working in sync.  Integration restrictions may limit you, or a future owner of your store, to working with only one type of POS. 

I mention future owner because let’s suppose five years after opening your wash, you’ve created a 5,000 member unlimited plan with low churn and you have a strong local reputation, but then your spouse decides you need to cash out and move to Florida to be near the kids.  When you go to sell the wash to Mr. Big-Chain-Car-Wash and they see their preferred POS can’t integrate with your controller, then doing the controller replacement hurts your negotiation and ultimately your closing price. Beyond that, you want to keep your options open for point-of-sale replacements, and a controller that prevents that is not in your best interest.

Put simply, a point-of-sale system can make or break your car wash investment. Full disclosure: I work for a car wash specific POS company.  But let me be as objective as I can:

Your POS system is another component that requires doing your homework, but you need to go beyond the basics that you might do for other purchases.  If a POS provider can’t point you to videos or written case studies then take them off the list.  They either don’t know how to market or don’t have satisfied customers.  If they can’t market well, how are they going to provide you with the right tools to market your wash?  (POS systems should be more than a way to process transactions, they need to integrate with your marketing.)

Customer testimonials are table stakes to be a POS provider, you also need to make sure your system is car wash specific.  Integrating with a controller is a tell-tale sign because retail shops, restaurants and grocery stores don’t have a controller, so many retail POS options are not a good fit for car washes. Sometimes the tail wags the dog here and the POS will determine which controller you go with because the POS impacts the business more. 

There are other car wash specific functions that should be on your checklist, like recurring billing for an unlimited program. I have heard of car wash owners using hair salon software, spreadsheets or, even worse, actual notebooks. These are all bad ideas because of a few simple reasons:

  • You lose all of your accountability if the POS and controller are not integrated. There’s no record of washes sold versus your car count. Theft at that point, is not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when.’ If you have no way to audit your staff while you’re away, they can steal from you. For example, an employee can pocket cash from a wash package and send the customer through without any money going into the register. If your POS isn’t tied in with your controller, you won’t know the difference. 
  • You will lack automation – Once the customer has chosen their package, there’s no need for an employee to indicate which wash package to use. A car wash specific POS will ‘manage the stack’ and keep things in order. Depending on your configuration, this can also save you money on labor.

Lastly, is your POS a product of the past or is built to scale with your future? Features and customer support will determine if your system holds back your growth or empowers you to grow. 

 

Marketing is more than half of a car wash’s success so make sure your POS system includes the basics like text and email. It should also come with a mobile app, ecommerce capabilities and automations (like texting a club member when their card is declined so they can update it without visiting your wash or calling you).  Without these features, you’re going to need to buy additional software, do more work, or pay someone to do it for you.

License plate recognition is key and read rates vary from system to system Not all sites are a fit for LPR so understand the alternatives such as RFID. In my estimation, 95% of new car washes are implementing license plate recognition to run their unlimited programs. If your prospective POS provider is not able to read license plates at over 97% percent consistently, then their solution is not ready for you to use at your business. 

LPR used as a method of validating club memberships is just the beginning, and should be used for non-unlimited members as well. Marketing to customers based on their purchase history, product preferences, and visit frequency is the future.  If your provider doesn’t offer it or can’t provide a roadmap for it in writing, walk away.

You will have a long-term relationship with your POS provider, how well do they keep up with the times? (Shameless plug)  When the COVID-19 outbreak started, Washify changed its software to enable our kiosks to run “Windows Up” transactions for every customer (even non-unlimited members). We quickly combined our mobile app and license plate recognition into a seamless system to eliminate physical contact from the customer experience. And when businesses had to close in response to the quarantine lockdown, we empowered all car washes to pause the recurring billing for their unlimited programs (if they wanted to). It required flexibility and quick adjustments on our end but we made it happen so our car wash customers could accommodate their own customers.

Whether it’s something as abrupt as a pandemic, or as gradual as software updates, understand how your POS provider adapts to keep up with changes in technology. Your POS should be an ongoing relationship that provides you with new features and updates, not a one time purchase. Insist on examples and references. 

How will your POS provider support you?  Is it just phone support?  If so, it better be amazing.  Do they offer support through text or email? Can you submit support tickets through some version of an owner app on your phone?  If not, when do they plan on offering it?  If COVID-19 didn’t spur them to make advances in how they support you, no amount of shouting you do will make it happen.

 

Again, there are many considerations when reloading or building a car wash, but these three areas of car wash equipment, controller and point of sale systems are major inflection points that interconnect in ways you need to consider.