Jason O'Brien, Superior Car Wash (Photo: Supplied)
Subscription car wash is a growing feature in Canada’s vehicle care universe. The concept has percolated from the southern U.S., where operators have been using this sales tool for years. Here in Canada, car wash businesses were resistant to the idea because of our challenging weather. The idea was that sloppy slush filled streets would have people washing their cars every day, making the cost of an unlimited wash package unrealistic. The reality has proven to be far from this thinking.
Subscription wash programs create loyalty, and they deliver convenience. Operators can better predict their monthly sales volumes and customers love the lower cost per wash. During the pandemic, those with unlimited car wash programs fared much better than those businesses without subscriptions. For example, Ohio-based DRB, a leading car wash equipment provider, found that operations with unlimited monthly programs saw half the weekly sales volume decrease than their competitors without a subscription program saw. DRB's data discovered operators with subscription programs running during the pandemic were achieving 239% more weekly volume compared to those car washes without programs.
Here in Canada, operators have taken note of the power of subscription to drive sales. Majors such as Shell and Petro-Canada both offer ‘wash passes'. And, a growing number of independents have also innovated towards this program. For example, at Valet Car Wash, the largest independent branded care wash in southern Ontario, they were among the first car washes in North America to start a monthly reoccurring subscription plan 18 years ago. Valet owner Mike Black remarks that their top packages tend to be the most popular. These packages include undercarriage wash and or tire dressing. Three unlimited packages run from $19.99 to $35.99, and vacuums are free to use. At Valet, they utilize RFID tags to identify program members, while others, such as Couche-Tard, are looking to license plate capture technology to ID customers.
In St Catharines, Ont., Jason O’Brien operates Superior Car Wash & Express Detailing. He purchased the underperforming site a little over two years ago. His idea was to rebrand and refresh the business. Part of this initiative was the improvement of the subscription wash program.
“When I took on the business, we had about 150 to 200 members in the monthly wash program. People would come into the program, and others would leave. We saw there was a challenge with customer retention. As we refreshed the equipment and the visuals, both inside and outside the wash, we started paying more attention to selling monthly packages. Today, we are over 1000 members, and the upgrades like NeoGlide brushes, signs and lights in the tunnel and new dryers from Sonny’s have helped us keep those customers and build on the base.”
O’Brien suggests that overall it was performance consistency that won the game with building the monthly subscription business. “We went from ‘how we did it in the 90s’ to a fully modern approach to car cleaning. When our customers learned they would get the same service each time, they were more willing to pay upfront. Refreshing the exterior with modern decor and better signage also told them we’re here for the long haul. Subscription customers have to trust that the operator will not be shutting down when they have already paid in advance.”
At Superior Car Wash, monthly packages are divided evenly in terms of popularity. According to O’Brien, they offer three tiers in a Sonny’s tunnel wash that can handle 80 cars per hour. The top tier is $27.99 for the works that include Turtle Wax Fire & Ice and undercarriage spray. The mid-range wash costs customers $22.99, and the third group is an express wash for $17.99. Members receive 25% off interior detail services. Customers use a bar code and greeter system rather than an autoteller. “I want our customers to have personal contact. This means we have a staff member meet them at the front and get them started on the wash. I want my staff to greet customers by name and make eye contact.”
The industry has found that customers using an unlimited program tend to visit a location three times a month, while a single-use car wash customer may drop in four to five times a year. As membership counts build, revenue per car decreases. Operators have to find the sweet spot where they are not cannibalizing returns to increase volume. Operators also need to maximize the opportunities available when they have more customers coming to their sites.
At Valet locations, customers are invited to upgrade to a higher package or pay the difference on other services like interior cleaning, waxing, or oil changes. More customers also mean more potential sales at on-site convenience retail.
O’Brien remarks that before COVID-19, they installed a range of vending systems to maximize sales. However, these sales failed to materialize given the challenges of the pandemic. “We still have all the vending equipment inside with in-car air fresheners and other items that car wash customers look for,” he says, concluding that with a subscription model they are better prepared to be the neighbourhood car wash everybody loves.
This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of OCTANE magazine.