Car washes offer promising new profit centers for convenience stores. VERC Enterprises operates two standalone tunnel car washes, plus six in-bay automatic car washes at its c-store sites.
“We started out in the tunnel business back in 1974, and shortly after, we got into the convenience store business,” said Paul Vercollone, senior vice president for VERC Enterprises, which operates 31 c-stores throughout eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
In those days, gas stations weren’t doing a high-quality car wash business, Vercollone noted. In New England, c-store lots were small and couldn’t always fit a tunnel car wash.
Then in the 1990s, touchless automatic car wash performance improved, and c-stores began seeing the value of offering a car wash service to gas customers.
“We said, ‘Well, let’s try one.’ So we did at our Plymouth, Mass. site. …” Vercollone said. “We chose a touchless in-bay automatic over cloth because it differentiated from the surrounding tunnel operators. The tunnel operators in this market are all pretty much cloth operations.”
The business proved successful, but a big part of its success has been VERC’s commitment to ensuring quick maintenance fixes.
At VERC’s standalone tunnel operations, managers are mechanics prepared to address maintenance issues. “If there’s a problem, they’ll have that up and running,” he said.
But at the c-stores, managers are busy with the operations of the c-store, and the car wash is self-contained on the property. If an issue can’t be resolved with a system reboot, the store needs to rely on service from the equipment manufacturer. Given that challenge, VERC Enterprises ensured the manufacturer understood it expected speedy service for any maintenance issues.
“The big thing was to keep the car wash up and running and, if it went down, to get it up and running right away,” Vercollone said.
VERC Enterprises does a number of promotions to attract customers, including ‘Wacky Wednesday’ where car washes are half price. “Usually on Wednesday, we’ll have a long line of cars. The in-bay automatics can only wash one car every four to five minutes,” Vercollone said.
If customers don’t want to wait in line on Wednesday, they can purchase the car wash for the Wacky Wednesday half-price rate, but return to claim it whenever they choose. “That works well for the customer,” he said.
On Sundays, VERC’s slowest day for gas sales, it offers 20 cents off per gallon when customers purchase a car wash. For a basic wash, which includes a wash and dry, VERC Enterprises charges about $11. A top wash runs $22. “Then there are a couple of washes in between before you get to the top wash, and by the time you get to the top wash, you get all the bells and whistles,” he said.
Vercollone said about 40% of customers purchase the top wash, “and then it breaks down fairly evenly all the way to the bottom.”
He expects more customers select the top tier package because they see the difference in quality.
VERC recycles the water through a filtration system. While the filtration system is “fairly expensive to install,” it allows VERC to do the high-pressure washing with reclaimed water.
“The rinse water does have to be fresh,” he said. “In some towns, we need to put that water through a filtration before we can rinse with it because the minerals in the water will still spot the car. Especially in any of the automatics, the touchless, that rinse water is very important to get all the suspended solids out of the water so you get a good fresh rinse.”
Recycling water also reduces the water and sewer bills for VERC Enterprises, and some towns require car washes to recycle water.
When the tunnel washes use recycled water, the car wash uses only 12-15 gallons of fresh water per wash, while customers washing a car at home would use around 100-125 gallons. Washing at home also means soaps and oils from the road go into the storm drain and the environment.
“But we collect it on site and dispose of it properly,” Vercollone said.
Operating a successful and quality car wash takes effort, knowledge of car wash equipment, and monitoring of chemical levels and mechanical issues. “C-store retailers have got to make a big commitment if they want to get into the business,” he said.
Third-party maintenance services can be expensive, which is one reason, Vercollone said, retailers can’t be afraid to charge properly for the car wash.
Earlier this year, Dash In, a Wills Group company, debuted an all-new neighborhood store concept in Clinton, Md., that included the first Splash In ECO Tunnel Conveyor Car Wash and debuted an Unlimited Car Wash Club. The 85-foot eco tunnel conveyor car wash features a belt conveyor capable of washing low-profile vehicles and dual rear wheel pickup trucks.
The Clinton site marks Dash In’s foray into tunnel car washes.
“To understand the difference between the tunnel and the in-bays, you’ve really first got to understand the difference in the customer journeys,” said Mike Mulhern, director of Splash In ECO Car Wash.
“At an in-bay automatic, which is a traditional car wash you see at c-stores, you pull your car into the wash bay, you place it in park, and the machine moves around the vehicles and washes it,” Mulhern said. “At Clinton, in our tunnel car wash, you pull into a belt conveyor and the conveyor pulls you through the stationary equipment to wash your car.”
Moving to a tunnel car wash will allow Dash In to service more cars and more customers. The eco-friendly car wash uses 100% biodegradable chemicals and a reclaim system.
“We reclaim up to 50% of our fresh water, and it goes through a purification system, and then we reuse it. We use LED lighting throughout the entire building,” he said. “We have closed foam insulation, which keeps it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. In addition, we also have a central vacuum system in Clinton.”
The central vacuum system is basically two big turbines that each power six vacuum stalls. It has a variable frequency drive (VFD), which saves energy. “As people take the hoses off the machine, it throttles up, so when nobody is using the machine, it will throttle itself down to reduce energy consumption,” Mulhern said.
Two digital LED reader boards welcome customers at the entry of the wash and show the wash purchased.
The energy savings is not only a plus from a business perspective, but also appeals to customers who value environmentally friendly practices.
There are 42 Splash In locations across the Mid-Atlantic, plus two in-bay car washes under construction and more planned for 2020. Aside from the new Clinton location, all are in-bay automatics.
The in-bay car washes don’t require employees, other than to ensure the proper change is available. Depending on the day and time, the tunnel wash requires three to five employees: a manager, greeter and someone to help load cars onto the belt.
Car Wash Club
The tunnel wash features the chain’s first Ultimate Car Wash Club, although the chain is doing internal research on possibly rolling it out to additional locations in the future. “Car wash memberships are becoming very popular,” Mulhern said. The chain also runs an internal employee membership program that it uses to pilot potential new services.
“The best way to keep a clean car is to wash frequently,” he said. “And the car wash membership allows you to do that. You can wash once per day, every day of the month. It has an automatic renewal each month, so it’s seamless for customers.”
Customers can purchase a membership to the Ultimate Car Wash Club online ahead of visiting the car wash. The membership uses an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag similar to paying tolls with an Easy Pass to identify members.
The tunnel car wash is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and features three different wash packages: best, boost and basic.
“Based on the 41 in-bay automatics we have, we believe we’re giving our customers a great experience,” Mulhern said. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s take this up a level. Let’s get into tunnel car wash so we can get people through faster, wash more cars and make more customers happy.’”