Membership has its benefits

Industry insiders share tips for building an effective car wash loyalty program to boost your bottom line.
Car going through an automated car wash machine.

As an independent car wash operator, what can be more important to your business than customers? Loyal ones. With national banners spreading across the country and north over the southern border, a loyal customer-base can help you not only maintain, but also grow your car wash business. With new technology emerging often, car wash membership programs are a great way to reward your customers for their loyalty, maintain a steady flow of income to your business and turn one-time customers into regular clients. 

Ontario-based Popular Car Wash and Detailing first introduced its membership program back in 2018. It began with two locations on opposite ends of Etobicoke: 131 The West Mall and 305 Rexdale Blvd. 

“It was difficult to roll out at first because it was new to the Canadian market, and back then, customers were still hesitant to do auto payments,” says Lovepreet Thind, whose father and uncle began the business. 

Gurbakhsish, Mansimer and Lovepreet Thind family, Popular carwash
Thind Family

Popular’s membership program began with automated monthly payments connected to customers’ credit cards, and plastic cards that customers could scan to enter the car wash tunnels. Eventually, the Thind family expanded their business to five more locations across Southern Ontario, implementing loyalty programs at each new site.

Upselling customers

Popular’s membership packages offer customers unlimited spins through the tunnel. Memberships come in three packages: Quick Wash ($19.50), Rim Lovers ($29.99) and Lava Shine ($39.99). A typical one-time wash costs $9.73, but Thind says the Lava Shine (which costs $15 for a one-time wash) is the most popular among his membership packages. It offers a typical tunnel wash and includes Lava Shine foam, bug spray, Carnauba Hot Wax, Armor All Extreme Shine Wax, Rain-X Graphene Spray and Simoniz Tire Shine.

“What we realized in the most recent years, with the chemistry being changed or upgraded, is that getting more name brands into our wash programs helps upsell customers,” says Thind. “When you have something like Simoniz Tire Shine or Armor All products in your wash that customers recognize, it’s easy for your attendants to upsell and promote your premium packages.”

Tom Tallon headshot
Tom Tallon

Dreams Eco Xpress in Calgary, Alta., implements similar incentives at its car wash. Its memberships are comparable to Popular’s, with three packages: The Heavenly Wash ($50), Cloud 9 ($45) and Enhanced Basic ($40). They offer similar premium products for their higher-cost memberships and, like Popular, extra bells and whistles, including free vacuums, blow guns and mat cleaners. 

“Offering those extra things are going to help retain customers for a lot longer, especially when they feel like they’re being taken care of,” says Tom Tallon, director of operations at Dreams.

[Read more: "Tom Tallon wins International Carwash Association Award"]

Flexibility is key—any level of membership at Dreams allows customers to visit one of its two (soon-to-be three) locations in the Calgary area. Popular also gives customers the option to visit any of its sites. 

Potential downsides

Karen Smith, operator at Valet Car Wash in Cambridge, Ont., and president of the Canadian Carwash Association (CCA), says that car wash membership programs have become so popular because, “they offer great value to the customer while providing steady income for the operator.”

However, Smith also sees potential downsides: Your dollar-per-car and margins are less with membership programs and you have to deal with the potential for abuse.

Tallon recently began integrating limited membership programs at Dreams. The limited option limits customers to four washes per month—once a week, essentially—and allows customers to save about $10 on each of the membership packages.

“It works for us in the sense that customers are limited to how much they’re able to wash, but customers are also able to get their money’s worth as well. With the strain on the economy lately, customers have been appreciative to save a penny where they can,” says Tallon.

Travis Braithwaite headshot
Travis Braithwaite

Tech investments

Membership programs are enabled by technology, technology that seems to be changing almost yearly.

“In the past, customers were sold a physical card, similar to a bus pass, each month that allowed them to wash,” says Travis Braithewaite of ClearWater CarWash in St. Albert, Alta. “However, this process was cumbersome and not widely adopted.”

Braithewaite is a new addition to the CCA. He joined the association’s Board of Directors this year to advocate for himself and other operators in the industry. He says that in recent years, the industry has moved toward technology like Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags for cars and license plate recognition systems (LPR) for memberships.

[Read more: "Ask the Expert: How can you leverage loyalty programs in your car wash?"]

Dreams Eco Xpress works with Hamilton Manufacturing Corp. for its pay station, leveraging its technology to collect monthly automated payments and using RFID tags in customers’ windshields to let them in the automated wash.

Theresa Weidner headshot
Theresa Weidner

“Over the past few years, we have seen an interesting trend in in-bay automatics wanting to do limited wash clubs,” says Theresa Weidner, marketing manager for Hamilton Manufacturing Corp. “Historically IBAs were hesitant to offer wash clubs due to the potential of driving away potential customers with long lines of club members.”  

Weidner says that some of Hamilton’s most successful customers offer “limited” programs, like the one that Dreams offers. Hamilton’s technology also includes its ExpressPass RFID, which helps car wash operators offer monthly wash clubs by putting the tamper-proof tag in their windshields. 

In 2020, the team at Popular began working with Atlas RFID Store—a technology company based in Alabama—to switch from offering cards to placing tags in customers’ windshields for easy machine recognition. 

“It was right in the middle of COVID, so customers appreciated the fact that the RFID stickers were contactless,” says Thind.

Beyond RFID tags, many companies also offer technology to support multiple kinds of configurations for membership programs. For instance, Hamilton has technology for operators who prefer to manage memberships through mobile apps, RFID and license plate recognition (a trending choice in the U.S.). 

One of the biggest motivating factors for Popular’s switch to RFID was volume. As the number of customers signed up for Popular’s membership program increased from the hundreds to the thousands, Thind says the typical card-program could no longer support the volume.

Now, Thind estimates Popular’s membership program includes about 25,000 members across all six locations. After 2020, Thind says they shifted marketing, focusing 80% of marketing efforts on membership programs, using Google ads, social media, direct mail, radio and billboards to promote the programs.

With the popularity of the program, Thind is now planning to switch to LPR at the car wash, which he hopes to have up-and-running by the end of the year. 

“I would like to begin with LPR before the winter season kicks in,” says Thind.

Popular car wash tunnel

Thind appreciates the simplicity of an LPR system. The initial set-up may be pricey with the switch to advanced scanners, but Thind is interested in some advanced scanners that are able to register the colour of the vehicle in case people switch license plates and try to misuse them. Thind is still scouting manufacturers to help implement Popular’s switch to LPR.

The best marketing

Car wash membership programs are a great way for operators to build a steady customer base and to reward their loyalty. In Canada, membership programs have the added benefit of maintaining a bit of income through harsh winter months that could see empty bays and dried-out tunnels. Whether through RFID or LPR, the technology in this space is ever-evolving, as are the marketing tools like social media, Google ads and QR codes on-site to help drive conversion rates. 

Despite all this, Weidner says, “The best tool to promote your wash clubs will always be a physical person at your site. Nothing will ever beat having an attendant personally ask your customers to enroll.”

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds