C-Store Chain Transforms Car Wash Business with IBA to Mini Tunnel Conversions
They say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If the owners the Arco AM/PM convenience stores had subscribed to that cliché, they might still be doing ok with their traditional in-bay automatic washes. After all, it works for most C-Store chains, and it was working for them.
But owners Marc and Matt Strauch knew the car wash industry was growing and they wanted to get a piece of the action. They wanted their washes to be more than the nameless buildings behind their C-Stores.
As the competitive landscape began to change, they knew their existing business model wasn’t “broken,” but it wasn’t positioned for long-term success.
Northern California was once dominated by full-service car washes, according to Super Clean Car Wash Site Manager Tom Tilford. Over the past 15 years, many full-service and IBA washes had been converted to express exterior washes.
“Monthly plans really changed the game out here,” Tilford said. “I noticed when driving around town that everyone had a sticker from somewhere.”
Large express exterior chains specifically posed a growing threat. Customers liked getting passes from these chains because they could use their plan at multiple sites. This started to impact the traffic at the AM/PM IBAs near those competitors.
The IBAs that didn’t have a large competitor in close proximity had the opposite problem. During peak hours, vehicles would be lined up eight to nine deep. At their busiest location, 45- to 50-minute waits weren’t uncommon. The Strauches knew they could wash more cars if they could just move them through faster.
They also found it hard to make a name for themselves in the car wash industry.
“Express washes seem to resonate more with people,” Tilford said. “In-bays are hard to brand. Customers just see them as the wash at the place where they buy gas.”
And with the growing prevalence of electric and hybrid cars, relying on gas sales didn’t seem to be a good long-term plan. The growing car wash industry seemed like a better bet.
If the Strauches wanted to be a player in the car wash game, something had to change. In 2018, they decided to start converting their IBA’s to mini express exterior tunnels.
The IBAs had pay stations that were tailored for the unattended and C-Store car wash market. To effectively convert to mini tunnels with thriving monthly unlimited plans, Super Clean Car Wash needed a new system.
Without hesitation, they selected DRB Systems’ SiteWatch® point-of-sale system with Xpress Pay Terminals® (XPT®) and other complementary DRB products.
“It was quickly determined that DRB was the leader, and the Strauches wanted to have the best,” Tilford said.
They have now converted four IBAs to express mini tunnels (90- to 105-feet long) and opened their first-ever free-standing car wash, a 130-foot express exterior tunnel in Carmichael, CA, all under the Super Clean Car Wash brand.
Converting to mini tunnels has proven to be the right decision. Sites that were averaging $20-$25K in revenue a month as IBAs are now pulling in $35-40K despite no longer being open 24 hours.
“We’re actually doing better because we can wash so many more cars in the peak hours,” Tilford said.
Their busiest location was already pulling in an average of $40K monthly as an IBA, so they questioned whether it should be changed. But that conversion turned out to be the most successful. It made $60,000 in its first month as a mini tunnel and increased plan membership by 200.
DRB Systems played a big role in that success, Tilford said. Obtaining and retaining members is much easier with DRB. Customers simply sign up for a plan at the XPT and then have an RFID tag applied to their windshield. From then on, whenever they go to the wash, the FastPass® RFID reader identifies them and allows them through to the wash. The Automatic Recharge Module® automatically charges members credit cards monthly to renew their plan, preventing membership fall-offs.
Super Clean plans to add FastID license plate recognition to all locations in the future as an alternative, more convenient way to identify members and market to non-members.
Additionally, Super Clean uses DRB Systems’ TunnelWatch® tunnel control software and its Tunnel Control Station, as well as the NoPileups Full-Tunnel Management System to increase tunnel production and prevent collisions.
Having run other car washes that used multiple technology vendors, Tilford appreciates having a single point-of-contact.
“When I call tech support, they can look at everything because the POS and tunnel control system are integrated,” he said. “Now doing multiple sites is even more convenient.”
While the IBAs weren’t “broken,” the AM/PM team is happy they “fixed” them. Given the success of the initial conversions, Super Clean plans to convert as many IBAs as they can. They hope that by providing multiple locations where members can use their plans, they can compete with the larger chains.
As they grow, Super Clean Car Wash will continue to rely on DRB Systems.
“Our partnership with DRB is just getting started,” Tilford said. “As we continue grow, the replication of information between locations and allowing members to use passes at all locations will be huge.”