Fast Lubes and carwashes are popping up in every city. Promotional banners flash the latest advertising campaign hoping to catch a passerby's attention. Lines of cars curl around these sites waiting for a carwash and oil change with friendly service. With all of the competition facing operators today, designing a successful lube shop requires planning and organization.
The first place to start when choosing a fast lube location is, of course, real estate. Bob Witherell, general manager and vice president of Buffalo Lube Associates in Buffalo, N.Y., says choosing a fast lube site is no different than selecting a home. The three rules of thumb are: location, location, location, he says.
A lube shop should be visible from the street because people driving by need to be able to see a marquis with prices and services available. Access in and out of the site is another consideration. Some customers will choose a different quick lube if a location is too difficult to enter and exit. With the prevalence of lube shops today, this is an important consideration.
Future operators should find out what type of development is expected in the area. Will the site have enough traffic to attract business? Will there be sufficient traffic control? Is there a median preventing traffic from turning into the shop? Is the street one way or will traffic flow in both directions?
After choosing a site that offers sufficient traffic and visibility, the design of the shop comes into play. One of the first decisions an operator needs to make is whether to use lifts or a basement to access cars during the oil change. Witherell says a full basement is a more efficient choice.
"Lifts take time out of the service. The technician has to drive [the car] onto the lift, it has to be positioned correctly and then it takes time to put the car up and down. That takes away from the [definition] of quick lube," he says.
To determine how large the basement should be, the building designer must decide how many bays the shop will have. Cricket Killingsworth, national sales director of Heartland Manufacturing Company, Inc., Wheaton, Ill., says owners need to do their homework before deciding on the size of their shop.
"That information needs to be determined by your pre-opening research," she says. "You have to take the time to find out what the market affords in terms of potential car count and what your expected return of profit is on the pricing that you are able to ask in your market. You definitely cannot set a number [of bays] until you know what your environment allows you," she says.
Bob Bridgeman, president of LUBExpress in Paterson, N.J., says the ideal shop may need four bays to handle the increased services now offered during many lubes.
"Since we've added more services to our menu offerings, our service times have increased a little bit in the bays and we tend to end up with some longer lines outside. So, we are looking at possibly putting four-bay stores in so you have enough capacity to handle the spikes, or the busy times," he says.
Besides being more efficient, basements also give a lube shop extra space, which is often needed in the tight work areas.
"I recommend a full basement with catwalks where the car is because that allows you to have all of your storage in the basement--your bulk oil, oil filters and all of your supplies. It also allows you to have a break room, and it keeps a clean looking area up top where the customers are," Witherell says.
Basements also require decks underneath for the mechanic to work on and an oil-retention tank that can move underneath the car. Staircases, on both sides of the basement, allow mechanics to move around more quickly as well.
However, there are safety risks associated with basements. Working on the car from a basement requires open pits on the ground-level floor. Customers and employees must be protected from falling through these openings into the basement. Witherell says covering these areas is crucial.
"Make sure that your open areas have easy-slide pit covers so that nobody accidentally falls into the pit and nobody accidentally drives into the pit. They (sliding covers) open, are four feet long and slide on top of each other all the way down the pit so you only open the area you are working on. When you are done and the safety checks are done on the vehicle, you close the pit," he says. "Years ago, they designed these stores that didn't have them, and people have fallen into pits and been seriously hurt. I recommend pit covers in every store you build."
After the basement and pit openings are secured with the sliding covers, the next safety decision is floor type. In a setting where liquids are frequently spilled, choosing a floor type is an important safety issue. Witherell says a lube shop floor should offer rough resistance. "The most common floor is a concrete floor with a grit mesh in the concrete, so it gives a rough, abrasive feel and texture to it. Keeping it mopped and scrubbed every night with the proper soaps and spot mopping it during the day where you do have a little oil here and there is also important," he says.
Bridgeman agrees that flooring is important, but he also stresses keeping a clean, organized shop.
"Flooring and housekeeping are big issues. We really work very hard to keep our shops clean considering the business we are in," he says. "We want to emphasize keeping it clean during the day with no cleanup spills, tools or rags around. These are just sources of potential hazards for people."
Lube shops with basements are more time-efficient than those with lifts, but safety precautions must be taken.
After the floor is poured and safety issues have been considered, operators need to determine the traffic flow of the location. Should the cars drive in and exit through the same place or should the shop have a circular design, where cars drive in one area and out through a different one?
"Drive-thrus are absolutely essential for the long-term success of the business," Bridgeman says. "To drive in and back out obviously makes it a more difficult traffic flow on the site, and I think it makes it much less efficient when you get very busy. You are trying to look at your nominal business days and your really busy business days and make sure you can do a good job in both cases."
Once the structural decisions have been made, operators need to organize the many aspects of the lube. Storage is key. With more than 300 types of air filters, a myriad of oil filters, specialized oils and transmission fluids, organizing and storing supplies is crucial. Having a basement provides the lube with extra space for such items plus a time-efficient method of retrieving them for fast service. If the mechanic has the desired oil and oil filter within a few feet, the service will take less time. However, if these supplies are kept on the ground floor, the mechanic must run up and down the stairs, wasting important time.
Shelving is also vital. Operators should consider installing shelves specifically for air filters and oil filters and take the time to label each section. They should coordinate their organization with a computerized system.
"We have all computerized systems in our stores," Witherell says. "We swipe a magnetic card through the system, and the information (on a customer's car) comes right up onto our computer. Then you'd have to put in the mileage on the car, and it prints up what filter, oil and all the past history that customer has had through us. So, there are no unnecessary services done on the vehicle...You know exactly what that vehicle needs."
Another item that can be stored in the basement is bulk oil. Bridgeman says bulk oil in the basement is kept in aboveground tanks with a secondary containment wall around it. His stores do not have buried tanks.
There is also another option. Tommy Dee, manager of Goodguys Auto Service in Phoenix, Ariz., says storing oil in overhead tanks forces gravity to work in the lube shop's favor.
"We can pump all of the oil out of the tanks this way," he says. "I guess the best way of explaining (our system) is that you aren't just leaving oil to sit in the bins. In other shops, you can't pump it all out. They have 20 gallons still left in their tanks, and they have to fill it because the pumps won't pump it out. This way, we can get every bit of it out."
Ultimately, it is up to the operator/owner to make these decisions. There are many choices involved in designing a lube shop, perhaps more now than before.
"The quick lube industry is changing," Bridgeman says. "Most of us who designed buildings 10 years ago made them very efficient as an oil change building to get a 15- or 20-step oil change done very efficiently in that time basis. Since then, our menu of services has expanded and, in fact, if we are designing a building today, we would probably design it somewhat differently because it needs not only to be efficient for an oil change but it needs to be very efficient for many other services."