Big Brother Is Watching (Thank Goodness)

Fred Grauer Comments
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This past February, I had the honor and pleasure of participating in the Inside Self-Storage Expo in Las Vegas as a seminar speaker. I met some interesting and exciting people, and got to experience the storage industry up-close and personal. After a couple of long and busy days at the show, I was so excited about the possibilities for the car-wash industry and storage that I became a sponge for information. One thing I learned was how parallel the two industries are.

Two of the critical areas of success in the car-wash business are time and labor management, and revenue maximization. Both industries are in the business of selling a service for a length of time. The question is: How do we manage our assets and collect the fees due for the time used?

The Role of Technology

In the car-wash business, the ability to obtain accurate and timely information relating to revenues, expenses, labor, customer use and abuse (especially in unattended sites), marketing and inventory of expendables has been next to impossible. Even though its revenues can be in the billions, the business has been too small for any developer of technological tools to notice—until now. With the incredible rise and fall of the dotcoms has come some pretty neat fallout for other industries. Fortunately for the car-wash business, it is one of the beneficiaries.

Thanks to technology, there are ways to quickly and inexpensively retrieve, view, diagnose and manage our businesses from a telephone or high-speed Internet connection. I was recently on a cruise, speaking to a representative of a company that markets hardware and software for this purpose. I asked for a live demonstration of his system and, in seconds, we were online looking at a carwash business. I saw customers enter the site, select the services they wanted, pay and conduct the physical transaction. I was also able to see the history of the site—individual transactions that occurred yesterday, last month, etc.—since the system was installed.

Now, I was impressed with the technology, but I was not blown away. Being naturally curious and not too sophisticated in the ways of the dot-com phenomenon, I wanted to see more. In the car-wash business, getting your message out to new customers and letting people know about your business is not easy. The traditional methods of advertising are expensive and difficult to track. Because of the cost-benefit ratio of various media, most car washes rely on word-of-mouth or coupons. The challenge becomes narrowing your focus and selecting the avenue that delivers the biggest bang for the buck.

The fastest way to reach customers seems to be the Internet. The web offers lighting-fast communications at low cost. The demonstration I saw ship-board went one step further. This particular system actually markets unattended sites without any on-site staff.

Here is how it works: The software and hardware are able to recognize various “classes” of customers. In the car-wash business, for example, one type of customer may be the operator of a local truck fleet. He purchases a fleet card to use on site, which can act as a debit card, pre-pay card or account card that allows monthly billing. So far, this is nothing new. All that is required is a card reader that recognizes the card-holder and captures the transaction electronically.

Community Service

What is revolutionary about the system I witnessed is it allows you to provide community or charity car-wash services. As the owner of a site with this technology, you could canvas local organizations, offering to rebate them a percentage of your revenue every time one of their members uses your site. The head of an organization tells his membership you will donate a certain percentage of every transaction back to the group and distributes a group code. Every time a member uses the code, the computer tracks the use and, at the end of an agreed period, a check is issued to the organization.

What just happened? You got the leader of a local organization to tell his membership yours is the only place to wash their cars. Members, knowing a portion of their purchases is coming back to the group, won’t be disloyal. Your outlay is minimal and the marketing benefit is tremendous. The cost to capture a new market will probably be less than all the old, traditional formats. Couple this with the fact you can access your business via the web at any time to retrieve all operating information, and you have a slam dunk.

Beside operations and marketing, there is an additional benefit: you, your customers and your employees know that your business and every transaction is being digitally recorded by camera 24/7. The peace of mind is well worth the price of admission. Thank goodness there are all those bright minds and new technology enabling us to be better and safer business owners.

Fred Grauer is the vice president of corporate accounts for MarkVII, a car-wash equipment manufacturer located in Arvada, Colo. He has made a life-long career of designing, selling, building and operating car washes. He can be reached at fgrauer@mark7inc.com.

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