A Little Magic Brings Out the Kid in the Customer
Here's a wash designed especially for little "squirts"
By Lisa Arnseth
Dave Emerson (right) and John Lawless, owners of the Magic Carwash.
Dave Emerson knows kids. A father of two, he noticed that he wasn't the only family member who enjoyed the carwash. All that soap and water combined with big moving brushes and flashing lights makes for a great show.
"Kids love the carwash," he says. "So we decided to take that one step further and make it even more fun for them."
The brainchild of Emerson and his partner John Lawless, the Magic Car Wash in Wilmington, DE is one of the first carwashes designed not only to produce ultra-clean cars but to entertain the youngsters as well. Featuring three interactive "stations," the full-service facility has only been in operation for a handful of months but is enjoying a healthy stream of business, mostly from word of mouth--particularly from the "mouths of babes."
"We're seeing the parents coming back because the kids are dragging them back," says Lawless. With good reason--the three play stations offer hands-on fun that rivals most playgrounds.
As cars make their way down the 125-foot conveyor, they pass the first of three attractions: the front half of a red Corvette protruding into the tunnel. Separated by a glass wall, the back half of the Corvette is the first stop along the hallway inside the building. Children are encouraged to sit in one of the two seats and depress buttons on the car's console, which are programmed to send water and foam out onto the hood of the Corvette.
Next along the hallway is an area about the size of a phone booth, which juts out into the tunnel for maximum visibility. Not only does it provide a great vantage point to watch the family van come down the tunnel, but it offers the chance to actually spray the car as it passes--two water guns are mounted in the glass wall.
Finally, a 14-foot long crawl tube with a slide similar to tubes found in fast food restaurant playrooms provides a colorful distraction. It is designed to give the feeling of "going out into the tunnel," Emerson says. The tube features small viewing windows and snakes from the tunnel into an S-shape that ends with a slide leading into the retail/cashier area. Overall, not the typical carwash experience, which was precisely the point, says Emerson. "We're one of the only ones that try to get people involved hands-on."
Emerson estimates that the total cost to incorporate the extra elements was about $15,000, which he believes was reasonable. "Considering what we spent on all the other equipment, it's a fraction of the cost," he says. "And not a lot of kids say, 'Wow, that's a really neat set of tire brushes.' It's worth it."
Although they have installed a DRB Systems customer tracking and control system, so far the Magic Car Wash owners are relying more on reputation and image than on expensive mailers or promotions. They do plan to incorporate discount cards and targeted mailings in the future, however. Right now the interactive stations are a "definite draw" that bring in customers.
"I figure you can spend the money on advertising, which when it's is gone, it's in the trash can. Or you can spend the money this way, and it stays and you get residuals from it for quite awhile," Emerson says.
A design with kinks
The Corvette station is a favorite of children and adults alike.
With the help of Lee Sparks of Design Collaborative, an architectural firm in Wilmington, the building began to take shape. The 6,700 square foot building features skylights in the tunnel, a cupola (allowing ample light to flood the vacuum area and middle of tunnel), a bright red sloped metal roof with a steeple, and split-face block on the exterior.
Lawless says, "It was an intricate building to build but it's also pretty standard. We just put some kinks in it." The "kinks" include making an otherwise ordinary floor eye-catching by installing black and white vinyl flooring in a checkerboard pattern, and choosing 9,000 square feet of bright red roof over a more sedate black or gray roof.
One of the main reasons that Emerson and Lawless installed such a brightly-colored roof was to attract attention. Local zoning requirements dictated that signage must be kept below 48 square feet, which Lawless considers to be "tiny." He says, "If we had pitched the roof flat and made it black or something we'd blend in with the trees with just the tiny sign out front." The result is a striking visual effect that can be seen over a half mile down the road.
The trickiest elements to incorporate into the facility were the creative interactive stations. "It really was a coordinated effort with my partner, my kids and the architect, and also looking at what other businesses do to attract kids," notes Emerson. He recalls taking trips to local amusement parks for inspiration, and some activities made quite an impression. Among them, a water fountain play area with water squirt guns, and in one instance a play carwash set-up grabbed their attention. "We wanted to do as many of those types of elements but also keep the kids moving," says Emerson.
Input from their own children helped, too. Emerson's children, Danielle, 13 and David, 11, always enjoyed spraying cars in one of Emerson's other carwash locations, a self-serve, and suggested to their father that at the new carwash kids should be able to spray the cars with water guns. Lawless is the father of five-year-old twins, Caroline and Christina, who love playing at the carwash. "The thrill of coming to Dad's carwash has not worn off yet," he says.
The Corvette attraction was a completely original idea. Emerson and Lawless had a difficult time when they attempted to track down someone to build it. Finally, Lawless cleared out his own garage and set to work. He purchased the front end of a Corvette from an auto body company and executed the plumbing himself. "I'm not the best plumber in the world," admits Lawless. "It's just a little messy under the hood." Topped off with two NASCAR racing slicks (one used by Jeff Gordon, the other by Mark Martin) he purchased at a race, the Corvette also features flashing lights, sound effects of bells ringing, and a "Magic Foam" sign from Neon TubeTalk. Although it runs well enough, Lawless intends to reconfigure the valving in the sprayers to enable the water to spray farther out onto the hood, and also to install a light bar from a police car on the unit, if he can procure one.
Installing the water gun station was less complicated. Lawless says the key to getting it right was correctly installing conduit beneath the floor at the time the construction company was pouring the concrete. In Lawless' eyes, "there is no such thing as cutting it up and breaking up the floor. You have to think." Hooked up to regular water pressure provided by a common garden hose, the water guns shoot water out into the tunnel at an even enough rate, but again Lawless would like to see improvement in the coming months by increasing the distance the water reaches.
The crawl tube itself provided a different set of challenges. While the other two interactive stations were relatively homemade, a plastic crawl tube needs to be custom-built since the materials necessary cannot be purchased in stores. The proposed size of the tube--14 feet--caused many companies to shy away from the job, however, since most crawl tubes manufactured for playgrounds and restaurants measure an average of 60 to 80 feet in length. "We had companies that blew us off. They wouldn't call back once we told them it was 14 feet," says Lawless. Verbal contact with 12 different companies yielded no bids, so after researching on the Internet, Emerson finally located a company in Atlanta, GA that would build a crawl tube to their specifications. More trouble arose as the architect finished work in and around the tunnel and wanted to place the yet-to-be-completed crawl tube and it hadn't arrived yet. Luckily, the Atlanta company was very cooperative and managed to ship out the tube in time and it was able to be installed without major problems. In retrospect, Lawless says, "Getting the Corvette done was easier than getting the crawl tube done. It looks good, though."
Safety a priority
The 14 foot crawl tube snakes through the tunnel alonside Hanna-Sherman International, Inc. equipment.
Safety is a top priority at a carwash that encourages children to act like children, and Emerson and Lawless have designed the stations accordingly. The switches inside the Corvette, for example, are either 12 volt or 24 volt switches. Rubber mats line the floor for traction, especially near the water gun station. The slide was kept intentionally short, and netting is in place to for protection as children climb down from the crawl tube. Although the setting comes off as highly unusual and risky, the owners say that they have had no problems with insurance. Says Lawless, "Safety wise, we did it right."
Lawless admits that even though they suffered through their share of naysayers in the beginning, the majority of their customers have been enjoying the Magic Car Wash and some have even thanked them for opening. "They needed it. There aren't too many other carwashes in town," he says.
For a carwash that is packed into a relatively small lot, the Magic Car Wash certainly has a lot to offer. With washes ranging from $9.95 to $15.95, so far the average revenue per car has been around $15, according to Emerson. Detailing is also available, although the owners regret that they were unable to devote more lot space to this service. A 15- by 20-foot retail area sells air fresheners, soft drinks and ice cream among other small items.
The focus remains on "doing a great job on the vehicles," says Lawless. The carwash employs about 20 people and Lawless is currently on-site regularly as the manager. The co-owners look forward to washing 75,000-100,000 cars per year once they get past their learning curve, and would consider opening another wash in the future using the Magic Carwash as their model--if they could find another location close to home.
For now, they are handling the daily activities at the wash with a smile and receiving warm reactions in return. "When people are smiling, it's easier to do your work," says Emerson. Interestingly, children are not the only people in the carwash getting into the hands-on mood. Both owners say that it is not uncommon to spot adults using the interactive stations.
Lawless says that almost equal amounts of adults and kids use the slide and play with the Corvette. Just recently he spotted this scene. "I walked down the hallway one day and there were two women in their fifties sitting in the Corvette and playing with it as I'm walking by!"
Emerson chalks it up to the basic desire to be entertained. "People want a good carwash, but of you can throw in some kind of entertainment with that it makes you different, and that's what we're trying to do."
Emerson and Lawless met through their wives, who went to college together in the mid 1970s. Emerson ended up managing his father-in-law's carwash and eventually went on to help open six other carwashes in Delaware and Maryland. Today Emerson is also the owner of the Parkway Soft Touch Carwash in Newcastle, DE and co-owns another carwash in Dover, DE with his brother, Doug Emerson.
After nine years designing and building stealth helicopters for the military with Boeing, Lawless had joined his wife Michelle in real estate. Emerson mentioned to his friend that he was interested in opening a carwash in the Wilmington area. He asked Lawless to help find the potential property, and in return they would be 50-50 partners in the new venture.
A four-year struggle
Emerson and Lawless found themselves sorting through four long years of red tape, legal battles and other obstacles before they opened in April. Not only was undeveloped land hard to come by and highly expensive, but several community groups voiced extreme dissatisfaction over the prospect of a new carwash in town. When they finally located a suitable site in 1995, they had to deal with bankruptcy court to purchase the parcel.
The community and civic groups were firm in their "anti-development" stance, says Lawless. Even though the partners presented their plans in detail to these groups and gathered 200 letters of support from local residents, the groups still could not be swayed. A lengthy battle was then played out at planning board and county council meetings with Emerson and Lawless eventually coming out victorious. "To try and get anything done--I don't care if you want to put up an ice cream stand--is horrendous. There's always someone who doesn't want it," says Lawless.
The lot fell short of a county zoning requirement by 10 feet, which meant the owners would have to apply for a variance. Emerson says one citizen appealed the variance, which held up the process for six months until the Superior Court of Delaware affirmed the variance and construction could finally begin in September 1998.
Despite the troubles they faced on so many fronts, Emerson says choosing another location was never a serious option. "We're from this area, so it's not like we could just go to another state and open up a carwash. This was where we wanted to open one up."
Once all the legal troubles were behind them, Lawless says, "We thought, 'We'll give this to a builder, and he'll build it for us and we can sit back and it will be done.' It didn't happen." They discovered builders in their area didn't have a lot of experience constructing carwashes. Not only did the builder have to learn the mechanics of installing trenches and conveyors, but the company also had to accommodate the owners' unique layout plans.