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How are mobile apps changing the car wash business?

Digital solutions enhance both customer experience and operator capability.
The building of the car wash and store is located on the smartphone. 3D illustration

Digital apps do a lot of heavy lifting. They create greater ease for customers who merely click on mobile devices to access payment tools, service selection and promotions. Operators look to apps to provide methods to control systems and reach out to customers. Both say apps save time and reduce costs. Small wonder that mobile apps for car washes are seeing strong gains in the marketplace. 

According to researchers McKinsey & Company,  almost 50% of U.S.-based c-stores and fuel providers utilize an app to offer service and deliver marketing messages to customers. San Francisco-based Grand View Research has found in their latest examination of the sector, that these digital tools will show a compound annual growth rate of 4.6% in use between now and 2028 when they will account for 72.5% of revenues in U.S. locations. Canada closely mirrors this trend. 

In Canada, car wash apps have been creating market excitement for over a decade with majors such as Petro-Canada and Shell offering digital tools for years. On the independent side, operators, including Valet Car Wash and Hamilton-based Red Hill Car Wash, have been early adopters of this technology.

Valet Car Wash opened in 1991 in Cambridge, Ont. "Around the late 90s, we had our first website. We were the first in Canada to have automated POS systems,” says Valet owner and president Mike Black. Valet turned to Mosaic for the development of its digital app that has made the multi-unit chain one of the most recognized names in Ontario’s car wash sector.  

Since adopting the cloud-based app, Valet's subscriptions have increased dramatically. Black mentions that following the launch of the app, the company recorded 600 subscriptions in one month at just one location. “At some of our sites, the revenue is 90% from subscriptions,” he says, adding that digital apps have helped them get away from coin use to the point where today they are almost cashless.

The app has also helped Valet reduce the workload at locations. Black reports that they benefited from a reduction in RFID (Radio Frequency ID) tag installation. "When we use RFID tags, we have an application for the customer to fill out. Then, we have to enter the information into the computer. We have to take that RFID tag, go to the customer's car, clean the windshield, put it in the right spot, and make sure it works. The Mosaic app has reduced the time our staff has to spend with the customer.”

Red Hill Car Wash is upping its convenience with Nayax, a global provider of payment solutions for the unattended market. Nayax systems work alongside digital apps, as well as bill readers, and coin mechanisms, to offer a complete turnkey approach to payment that allows customers to use all formats; so businesses don’t lose sales. 

“Our app gives us an edge and makes it easier for us to service customers. For example, the app allows us to offer rewards,” says Red Hill Car Wash operator, JJ Woodley. “These rewards might be an air freshener from the vending system or a complimentary vacuum,” he says, adding that customers select the vending machine on the app and then toggle to obtain a product that is charged to credit or debit cards. “It’s seamless and very easy. Digital payment means less cash on hand. We can also operate machines remotely and have them dispense goods to customers when asked.”

Red Hill Car Wash also uses the CoinPay app from Tech1st Wash Systems.  The system is 100% customizable to any car wash brand and is a stand-alone system.  The CoinPay app is not associated with any payment hardware system that is typically the case for payment apps in the industry. Tech1st provides a small hardware panel that mounts at the car wash and integrates with all car wash bay systems, most automatic tellers, self-serve vacuums, drop-shelf vending machines, and more.  “The beauty of the system is that once it integrates with equipment, the operator can actuate the equipment remotely using their mobile device,” says Woodley, mentioning that the Tech1st system can monitor just about anything you care to get notification about in your facility. 

Some of the new features Tech1st has added to the CoinPay system are the Moneris Payment Gateway and Fleet Account Management. 

The Moneris Gateway asks a user to enter their payment information into a wallet within the user app one time. The app then makes instant payments of any amount without any further steps.  “This makes our CoinPay app much faster and easier to use,” says Woodley.

The Fleet Account Management feature is designed for easy operator use.  Once a specific user is designated as a Fleet Account Manager, that user can add individual Fleet Users to the account and manage the payment.  

For operators that want to do away completely with coins and cash, Coinless Mobile offers an app where operators can use their existing payment stations and payment methods.

According to Coinless Mobile product development director Braden Hall, their system, easily downloaded from the Internet, allows operators to change pricing, launch and manage promotional campaigns and activate wash services remotely. The Coinless app offers next-day funding as well as real-time reporting features. Customers pay via the app, making coins a thing of the past. “This app really reduces labour needs at self-service sites where management can communicate with customers remotely and use the app to start equipment like an entryway or offer a refund,” he says, noting that they are working on an app for express tunnels.

At Hamilton Manufacturing, an Ohio-based provider of pay station and digital app solutions for a variety of business sectors including car wash, they are developing custom approaches that include integrated loyalty features to help build community. According to Joe McEwan, marketing manager at Hamilton Manufacturing, their apps offer innovations such as a referral program where loyalty points go to both the new customer and the customer making the referral. The app is also capable of delivering push notifications. 

“There is an expectation from the public that there is now an app for everything,” says McEwan. “Businesses such as car washes need to be ready to meet that expectation to drive revenues forward in today’s market.”

Riding this digital trend, 7-Eleven Canada has stepped up its technology for customers with new apps that have earned them a leadership role in Canadian gas and convenience. 

"Our customers told us that they want more time to focus on the important things in their lives. We took that insight and developed 7-Eleven's proprietary technology to create a full contactless shopping experience," says Norman Hower, VP and GM of 7-Eleven Canada.

Canada is the second market to introduce the app following a successful launch and expansion in the U.S. earlier this year. Since its launch, Mobile Checkout has been used by over 1 million 7-Eleven customers at all of their 3,000 participating U.S. stores. Simply scan, pay and go for purchases in-store, and at gas bars and car washes. 

Is this the way of the future? Hower and his team think so. "We're reinventing convenience with the 7-Eleven Mobile Checkout, and this is yet another example of how we're developing digital innovation to actively exceed our customers' needs,” he says.


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This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of OCTANE

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