A Look at Car Care Around the WorldBy Sara Cooper
Part 1: Europe
Carwashing has always seemed an American tradition. The first Model-T Ford owners undoubtedly made sure their cars were sparkling before pulling up to church on Sunday. And who could forget Rose Royce's platinum album, Car Wash, titled after their hit song, quick to become an American classic? What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that there is a whole world of carwashing out there. This year at the International Carwash Association's World Expo in Las Vegas, exhibitors and attendees gathered from more than 30 countries, many taking part in the Expo's International Reception.
Over the next three months, Modern Car Care will be taking you on a trip around the world, visiting carwashes and talking with operators from England to Australia. The goal is to provide some insight into the culture, traditions and values surrounding the carwashing industry in other areas of the world. Who are the operators and how do they run their facilities? What challenges do they face? What do their customers expect from a carwash? Where is the industry headed?
It is impossible to capture an entire industry in a given country in a single article. This three-part series will serve as a sampling of the opinions and perceptions held by individuals who work within these markets on a regular basis. Feel free to pick up any tips or tidbits that might be applicable to your own carwash operations.
At this time, please make sure all carry-on items are safely stowed beneath your seat and seatbacks are in their full and upright positions. First stop: Europe.
With the introduction of the Euro dollar and ever increasing competition between carwash operators within cities and towns, the European carwash market is on the move.
These self-serve bays in France are equipped with high-pressure jetwashes.
Phil Brazil is international sales manager for Ryko Manufacturing, Grimes, Iowa, and spends a great deal of time working with operators overseas. He says rollovers, usually at gas stations, make up the majority of carwashes in Europe, although there has been an increase in self-serve carwashes over the past five years. There is a conveyor presence, especially in countries like Spain, Italy and Belgium, that are washing high volumes and/or looking for a level of quality that can't be achieved with a rollover. Labor issues and low turnover, however, have prevented many from entering this market segment.
There are a number of central differences between carwashing in Europe and in the United States. First, Brazil says that once you move outside of the United States and Canada, speed and convenience are not as crucial to the carwashing process. The primary focus is quality and many customers do not mind the wait when necessary for a truly clean car.
Another central difference lies in the ways facilities drive volume. The trend in the United States, especially on large carwash sites, has been add-on profit centers. While many European carwashes are adding larger convenience stores and gift shops to their locations, they are not as apt to add a quick lube or detail center.
"For years the U.S. was using carwashing to drive volume. Europe and the rest of the world were using cawashing to drive profits. Now the U.S. is using it to drive profit and volume if they get the opportunity," Brazil says.
Operators in Europe often have to charge high prices for a carwash to cover their business costs. Variable expenses like equipment, water, air and electricity can in some cases be three times as high as they are in the states, Brazil says. Labor can also be more costly, especially in countries like France and Germany where work weeks are shorter.
Cabinet washes, known in the industry as jet washes, are common in the United Kingdom and Northern Europe. These small, stainless-steel systems, positioned in bays, include a pump and a water heater or softener and are attached to a facility's water, air and electricity. Customers pay for time and clean the vehicles themselves, similar to American self-serve carwashes. The cabinet wash is popular because it is fairly inexpensive, Brazil says, costing the equivalent of around $10,000. It is also ideal for city areas with limited space.
Europe is often considered a leader when it comes to environmental protection. A number of countries including Switzerland, Germany and Holland no longer allow people to wash cars at home. In Scandanavia, operators are not even protected by a grandfather clause, and must install water-reclaim systems with high degrees of filtration at all sites.
Robert Wattié, a carwash operator in Belgium, says the largest European manufacturers are in Italy, Spain and Germany. He also says the majority of European tunnel washes use cloth rather than touchless systems.
In 2002, 11 European member states will replace their currency with Euro notes and coins. The change will mean a lot of restructuring in all industries, carwashing being no exception. Mark Harris, president of SecureCoin in Goleta, Calif., has been working with European carwash operators on preparing for the switch. He says operators throughout Europe are scrambling to install Euro coin-compatible vending machines, coin acceptors and other equipment at their sites.
Many operators are not exactly welcoming the change with open arms, Harris says, as revamping entire sites can be costly. He points out, however, that operators don't really have any other option. "If they don't do it, they will be left behind," he says.
John Arbourne is the owner of Motorhouse, a country garage with a carwash, gas station, convenience store and car dealership, located in Coleford, England, a town of about 8,000 near the border of Wales and England.
Are most carwashes in England at petrol stations?
I would say 90 percent are. I just purchased a new [rollover], and it is going to be installed next month. We are starting to get the drive-through carwashes. All they do is wash cars, nothing else on the side.
How many employees do you have?
We employ 20 people on the site.
When customers drive in for a carwash, what procedure do they go through?
They go through the convenience store and purchase a ticket for the carwash. They drive around the side of the building, enter a four-digit code, and then literally drive through the carwash.
We are not particularly busy at the carwash, because of our weather. In the winter when we have had heavy salting and snow, customers use the carwash to clean their vehicles. In the summer, we sometimes have water bans.
How do you think customer expectations differ in the United Kingdom compared to the United States?
We find that top-end cars don't want to go through a carwash in the UK. Mercedes owners wouldn't go through a carwash. They would rather wash it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. We tend to find that we go middle of the road. The older cars don't tend to use us, and the very latest cars don't tend to use us.
Do a lot of people lease? If so, how does this affect carwashing?
Of what we call medium-sector cars, 80 percent are owned by companies, given to employees as part of a job package. And a part of the agreement is that they must be kept clean. If you use a carwash every week, three years down the line you can see [the car has been cleaned often]. So, because it is not their asset at the end of the term, they will tend to use a carwash.
Do you think that having a clean car is something people value?
Yes. On weekends we are packed. There is a queue of about seven or eight cars constantly in the summer months, and the carwash will be running all day. But that is on the weekends. During the week, it is nowhere near as busy as that. Customers tend to leave it [to be] the dirtiest car you could put through the carwash. Because we are in an agricultural area with a lot of red clay, they tend to save it up for the weekend and give it a blast.
When did carwashing became popular in England and who are the carwash owners?
I know [commercial carwashes] came over from the states, and we started to have self-serve petrol stations which we never had back in the late 1960s. Supermarkets are a big force now. Ryko has just supplied a really big supermarket chain called Tesco with machines. They are starting to branch out into petrol and cut the price.
The U.S. has this gas war going on at the moment. It is the same here, only quite a bit worse. The price of our fuel now is four pounds a gallon ($6). And we have had strikes at the refineries, and there have been shortages of fuel. Now the supermarkets are cutting the price all the time. They only have to put a penny on milk to drop a penny off petrol. They don't have to make money on the petrol to get people in, since they are making immense profits on food. They are putting a lot of filling stations out of business.
What marketing techniques do you use?
Absolutely nothing. I think we are going to start to do something with our new machine. Our actual carwash doesn't cost a lot to run. We did [advertise] when we first opened because we were a new filling station.
What is the average price for a carwash?
They start at two pounds ($2.82) and they go up to 4.80 pounds ($6.77). I would say the average wash is about 3.50 pounds ($4.90).
Do you see any changes happening in the carwash industry in Britain?
We are starting to have these new brushes. Instead of having filament brushes (nylon ones), we have Foamex. We ordered them just because of people's perceptions of damage.
Thomas Roth is the marketing director/manager for Washtec, a carwash manufacturer in Augsburg, Germany.
What are some of the main differences between carwashing in Germany and in the United States?
The main difference is that many American carwashes are touchless and the European models work with brushes. You will rarely find a touchless system here. Ninenty-nine percent are friction carwashes.
How do you think customer expectations differ?
It is completely different. Our customer wants a quick, very good carwash, but we do not have the kind of service you have. You will never get the car cleaned inside in Germany.
What is the history of carwashing in Germany?
Our company started in 1885 with the production of washing machines and in the early 1960s, our inventors had the idea to build carwash machines. In 1962 our company built the first carwash machine in Germany.
Did the public catch on quickly?
Yes, because Europeans, especially Germans, love their cars. It is like their baby. In Germany, it sounds a little bit ridiculous and we laugh about our own people, but everybody washes his car on Saturday. Every Saturday is carwash day.
Do people often wash their cars in their driveways?
Rollovers are the most common carwashes in Europe.
A few years ago, carwashing on the streets was forbidden in Germany. So if you don't have your own driveway, you have to go to a [commercial] carwash.
Would you say there is much of a consolidator presence?
Our carwash market is dominated by mineral oil companies who offer their own carwash brands.
Is carwashing a profitable business
You have a quick return on investment. It depends on the location. If you have a location where nobody has a car, you will not earn a lot of money. On average, I think every second German has a car.
What are people willing to pay for a carwash?
That depends. You can offer different programs. If you want the basic program, it is nine marks ($4). And if you have a high-quality wash with a lot of program variations, people pay up to 25 marks ($10) for that. Nobody would pay more than that.
Do carwashes often offer oil change or detail service?
That depends on where you go for a carwash. In Germany, most carwashes are located at gas stations. And there you have these options, but you have to ask for it.
What areas of Germany would you say are the best markets for carwashing?
The big cities, where a lot of people live. The whole country has a lot of people living in a small space. So where there is a village that has more than a few people, there is a carwash.
Where do you see the future of carwashing going in Germany?
Advertising is going to be a little more aggressive, because the product that every carwash offers is the same. You are not that much different from your competitor, so you have to enhance your image and provide other services.
Do customers experience much interaction with employees?
No. If you want a carwash at the gas station, for example, you go in and tell the attendant you want wash number three. You then get a wash card and drive your car to the rollover. You have to get out of the car, put the car in the wash, and push a button. In a conveyor, you stay in the car.
How many employees would your average carwash have on hand?
One. Most carwashes, especially self serves, do not have any employees. Conveyors or tunnels have one who stands in front of the car, gives it a high-pressure prewash and collects the money. Rollovers at gas stations do not have any employees.
Look for Part II of this series in the September issue.