Monday, August 02, 2004

Target Marketing Q&A #1 - Free-Standing Self-Serve Car Wash

Ned Barnett
(c) 2004

We get questions …

As a long-time PR and Marcom practitioner, I get a lot of questions from colleagues and friends, looking for ideas for marketing and promoting specific business ventures. As an occasional feature here, I’m going to present the questions – and with permission – present the answers I developed for those questions. These answers are quick-and-dirty, informal and focused on presenting concepts, rather than detailed how-tos on the concepts.

The intent is to bootstrap a new online service – market/product-specific promotion and marketing tips – which we’ll be debuting shortly on as part of our new feature, “Deal of the Century.” Take a look, then let me know what you think.



Question: How to market and promote a free-standing, self-service car wash

We just bought a new home and want to build a free-standing self-service car wash out there near us as it’s very undeveloped now and land prices are only going to be going up. There are homes from the $90’s to the $1mm+ price range within 10 miles of the area we’re looking at. I don’t know yet how we’d bill it. There’s just no other self-serve car wash around. As a business, it’s pretty low maintenance. We see it primarily as a source of passive income.

We’re planning on having 8 bays to wash and then more in the back to vacuum. However, I just don’t know what people in the area would want. If it’s soccer moms, I’m thinking they’d want to wash their cars as quickly as possible to get going again. There will be people with collectible cars in the area, I’m sure, and they will want to baby their cars. The site is near the lake, and I’m sure people will want a place to clean up their boats before taking them back home, too.

Make sense?

We plan on having cameras there to oversee things, too. If the facility gets vandalized, we’ll be able to see who did it, hopefully – and beyond that, we’ll have insurance. You can mitigate risk, but we know you can’t eliminate it entirely.

We’ve got a vendor lined up who stocks everything needed at a self-serve car wash. They can insert their machines into the car washes, restock them as needed, and help ensure customer satisfaction and cash flow. They’ve been doing this a long time and can tell us pretty much everything we need to know – except what our area will call for. They say it’s best to have it on a road at 40mph, but the street we’re putting it on is a major thoroughfare and it’s 60mph. I still think we’ll be ok since there’s absolutely nothing out there except a plant nursery, a restaurant and boat storage in the nearby vicinity.

What do we need to do to market and promote this operation, and to succeed?


1. Based on the information you’ve provided, I recommend that you position the car wash as upscale, at least to the extent that you have a couple of “detailing” bays that go beyond vacuuming. They could also have special high-pressure devices for cleaning tires and wheels (maybe coarse scrub brushes, too), as well as vacuums with special attachments for dusting dashboards, etc. Check out a few “detailing” shops to see what kinds of detailing equipment they have. I think you’ll have less trouble and do more business with an upscale image. This will require a bit more maintenance, I suppose, but I think you’d also be able to charge a bit more – and you’ll get more business.

2. Be sure that at least some of your bays are big enough to handle the largest of the new SUVs (the Ford Expedition is 19 feet long). Ensure that at least a couple of bays are high enough to accommodate pleasure boats on trailers (since you’re near a lake, boat access should be a major consideration). Also have at least one bay high enough to accommodate bus-high RVs.

3. Your advisors are right about a 40 mph road being an optimum location. At 60 mph, you’re going to need some prominent coming-and-going permanent billboards, located a good way off from your site, as well as a BIG sign that can be seen from a fair distance. Remember – 60 mph is a mile a minute (88 feet per second) and it takes the average car one second per 10 mph to stop. At that rate, you’ve got to give drivers sufficient time to register on your sign (3-5 seconds), plus time to react (1-2 seconds) and 7 seconds to stop. This is especially important since, as we both know, in a 60 mph zone drivers will be speeding along at 70 mph. Best to figure 10-15 seconds of advanced warning – that’s 900 to 1300 feet in round numbers. Unless your signs are as recognizable as McDonalds (and yours won’t be), they’ve got to be visible from at least 1,000 feet from your site. Better yet, erect a visible series of billboards or signs at 1,500 feet, 1,000 feet and 500 feet (and one even farther away if you can get the rights and afford the signs). Better to own the signs outright than to rent, I think, but your accountant should be consulted on that. Don’t forget to figure in the upkeep on the signs (undoing the damage caused by gang-banger graffiti artists, etc.). ALSO, if your road has got a median, you’ve just cut your spontaneous traffic down by half. The ideal would be 40 mph with a “suicide” center turn lane, but even without the ideal, you can use your signage to help “make it work.”

4. As you’re selecting your site, explore striking a deal to build your car wash next to a name-brand auto parts store (AutoZone, Checker, etc.) you’d help each other with business. For instance, do-it-yourself car mechanics/detailers would want to use your facility, while people washing their car might decide to buy new wiper blades, etc. It could be an important win-win marketing opportunity.

5. Be careful of those expensive security video cameras – they are very often stolen (small, portable and with some street value) – so be sure to put them in cages or something like that.

6. As far as vending, think upscale. Try some high-end products like the new premium Turtle Wax polishes – that might really work as cash-generating products, and you might even be able to get some co-op marketing deals going with the manufacturers/distributors. I would also suggest that all of your vending machines take ATMs, Debit Cards and Credit Cards (don’t you just hate having to lug $5 in quarters to the car wash?).

7. When you’re thinking of vending machines, don’t forget refreshments. And if you go “upscale,” be sure your refreshments include some upscale items – lattes or cappuccinos, Snapple, low-fat or low-carb snacks, etc.

8. Building a sense of community is vitally important – even for an unstaffed self-service car wash – and there are a number of ways of doing this.

9. Come up with crowd-drawing publicity stunts – such as “wash-offs” – where area residents could compete to see who can wash a car (well) fastest. That’s a “for instance,” but seek out ideas like that – ones that will draw crowds to participate, and to watch. Maybe these could also be held in conjunction with charities, which will add to your crowd-draw and overall positive brand image.

10. Work with your area community colleges and host some hands-on “how to detail your own car” classes – and generate good PR for them, as well as for your facility.

11. Work with local churches, school bands, Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups, etc. Arrange for them to stage fund-raising car washes (where the client feeds the kitty for the water and soap and things you usually charge for, then the client donates to the groups who do the actual cleaning work). Again, those kinds of fund-raisers are also great for generating local publicity, so be sure to tip off the local community newspapers.

12. Work out a deal with neighborhood kids to offer their services to customers – to do the washing/drying for them. Even if this isn’t a charity operation, I’d bet a lot of ambitious 14-to-16 year olds (who may be too young for work permits in your market) would like to work on a piece-work basis at the car wash. In all cases, be sure get parental permission, in advance. Issue the parentally qualified kids with photo IDs that tell your customers that these kids are for real. Then, using prominent signage, make sure that customers know these kids work on commission, and that the customer is under no obligation to use them. When I was that age, I caddied at a local country club on just such an arrangement – I was an “official” caddy with a photo ID, but I only got paid what the golfers chose to pay me. Following that example, set a standard rate so the kids and customers don’t get ripped off – and post that “suggested” rate prominently. This Tom Sawyer/Andy Hardy approach to giving your customers the option of washing themselves or hiring an ambitious kid can also be good PR – but first and foremost, make sure it’s legal and not a violation of child labor in your market before you proceed.

13. Set up a secure, open-but-shaded area where kids can watch Disney-like videos while mom and dad are washing the car. This area should be open (where parents can easily see in), but also covered. Of course, the TV monitor should be secured behind a locking screen. A playground might also be nice, but think of the liability. Better to just have a video baby sitter in a safe, open place (with warning signs around written – nicely – by your lawyers to reduce liability exposure).

14. Set aside a “picnic” area (doesn’t have to be large) where you can host chili cook-offs and other weekend events that will bring people out. Tie them in to charities or churches, but also do them on your own.

15. If you’ve got the land, look into playing host to turkey shoots in conjunction with charitable and civic groups such as the Lions Club. These events were very big in Nashville, and I used to win all kinds of turkeys – and side bets – by acting like a dumb business exec who didn’t quite know which end of the shotgun was which. More important, they drew huge crowds (hundreds per day) to the sites. Turkey shoots can only works if you’ve got the land, and a backstop wall, and no problems from local police officials. If you are able to stage these, be sure to hire off-duty, uniformed police officers to provide security and add to the public’s comfort level. This idea is a bit off-the-wall, but if you go forward, you’ll find that it’s a great traffic builder.

16. Contests and give-aways. Tie in with a local detailing shop to provide free detailing services to the winners of your various contests. Ideally, all prizes should tie in with your theme – from detailing to cans of high-end car wax, remind them (in your contests and promotions) about your business by tying in the prizes to the core business – the car wash.

17. Don’t forget that website! Even a self-serve business needs a website.

18. Set up a kiosk at the car wash where people can enter their e-mail addresses so you can send them no-cost announcements about special events and promotions. People WILL give you their email addresses (and be sure to include that in offer to register them online in every direct mail and door-hanger promotion – have them to go your website to register), and then you can market them for free.

19. Set up a photo board (also on your car wash’s website) of the best “before-and-after” photos of dirty-to-clean cars and trucks, as well as of car wash “events” you host. Use this to build a “community” feeling at the place. Set up a drop box for hard-copy photos, and a place on your website where customers can download digital photos.

20. Put up a locking bulletin board available to community groups (accessible only through you – no direct posts) to further build the sense of community. Be sure to echo those postings on your website.

21. When it comes to neighborhood promotion, remember this – your primary market is not a 10-mile radius. The typical retail primary service area for a free standing (non-mall) operation is a 3 mile radius. Three to five miles is second tier, and the ten-mile radius you cited is a third-tier market. Some of this depends on your roads, but it would be an optimistic mistake to presume a ten-mile radius for a self-serve car wash.

22. Within that 3-mile radius primary service area, you’ll want to do direct mail. Direct mail houses now have e-mail lists, too – so when you’re doing your carrier route-sort mailings, you can also buy e-mail lists for your 3-mile, 5-mile and 10-mile radius. BEST to let the direct mail service do the e-mailing, so you don’t get dinged for SPAMing people.

23. You’ll probably want a phone book ad, too, even though people won’t call. And you’ll want to do door-hanger ads (you can get youth groups to do that for you, and donate a fee to the group itself – and get a tax write-off to boot). Magnets are also good marketing tools (for the direct mail). However, you’ll do yourself a lot of good by tying in with local church, school band and youth groups (as noted above), as they’ll bring in supportive parents and friends and such.

24. REMEMBER – people won’t remember something like a self-serve car wash, so you’ll need to keep prompting them. And prompting them. And prompting them. All of the events and strategies suggested here are intended to give some form and substance to that prompting.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications