“We know from our equipment sales reports that there have been low levels of investment, particularly at petroleum c-store car wash sites,” said Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Carwash Association (ICA).
But that could change in 2012. Manufacturing reports already show an uptick in orders from c-stores and gas stations with car washes. What’s more, last year at ICA’s trade show most of the attendance growth came from the c-store industry—a group that hadn’t turned out for the show in strong numbers for about four years—another sign c-stores are ready to turn their attention to their car washes.
“There are a couple reasons why we are emerging now. One is, of course, the economy is stabilizing,” Wulf said.
“Secondly, many car washes have been divested along with gas stations over the last 10 years and the new owners are, in many cases, petroleum marketers and c-store retailers, who spent a lot of money revamping their new gas stations and then had to take care of other required expenses like PCI compliance in the middle of a down economy. So they have had a lot of things to deal with before they could even focus on improving the car wash on the side of their property.”
Aiding in Success
Wulf pointed out that 20 years ago if you were a gas station owner with a major fuel brand, the car wash marketing kit was provided, but that support has now ebbed. As operators are increasingly ready to upgrade, suppliers and equipment suppliers are now beginning to provide that kind of support.
“One of the hottest car wash trends over the past three years is an interest in short car wash conveyor systems, which are being designed specifically for the petroleum and c-store environment which have tighter turning radiuses and smaller buildings,” Wulf said. “Now there is the ability to take a rollover in-bay machine that many gas stations and c-stores have now and put in a short conveyor that could increase the number of cars that can be washed per day.”
Several manufacturers are now offering conveyors in the 60-foot to the 40-foot range in order to fit a car wash in a smaller tunnel.
Leo Vercollone, president and CEO of VERC Enterprises, which operates 24 c-stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as well as four Briteway car washes, said his car wash sales are flat so far in 2012. “We haven’t had any snow and snow is very big for the car wash industry because it gets the cars dirty.”
The major trend Vercollone sees ahead in 2012 is increased promotions run by car wash operators.
“You have to promote your car wash these days, he said. “Car washes are one of these purchases in a difficult economy that a customer doesn’t have to make. They have to have their gasoline and maybe their cigarettes, but they don’t have to buy a car wash. We have to give them an incentive to make the purchase.”
Other trends, Vercollone noted, include the increased efficiency of car wash equipment as well as a greater focus on using less water and safer chemicals.
Embracing Car Wash Trends
There are an estimated 80,500 total car wash locations in the U.S., according to the International Carwash Association, including 30,000 at convenience stores. The breakdown of car wash operations in the U.S. includes:
By location type:
• Owner-operators/ investors: 45,000
• C-store/gas station: 30,000
• Hypermarket/other: 5,500
By wash type:
• In-bay/roll-over: 29,000
• Conveyor: 24,000
• Other: 2,000
Estimated Revenues: $19.64 billion
• Self-service bays: $1.285 billion (89,250 bays averaging $1,200 per month in gross revenues).
• In-bay/roll-over: $3.80 billion (37,700 machines averaging 1,200 cars per month at $7 average).
• Conveyor: $14.52 billion (26,400 conveyors averaging 50,000 cars at $11 average).
• Other: $36 million (2,000 other locations, such as large vehicle washing stations, averaging 100 washes a month at $15 average).
Source: International Carwash Association