Beyond the Gate: Entering a New World of Self-Serve Success

As a car wash operator, you already know that vacuums and vending machines are a great value add. But what if those add-ons were included in the cost of a wash? This is a core principle behind a gated self-serve car wash.

Gated Self-Serve Car Wash

Gated washes charge the customer one flat rate to enter, and as the name implies, keep theGated Self-Serve Car Wash Lot entire operation secured behind a gate. Once inside, the customer can take their time without racing against a meter. This model differs from “free vacuum with wash” deals, as the gated wash customers have no time limits at all. Whether the customer wants to pop in and out quickly, or practically detail their car, the price is the same.

This gated self-serve car wash business model is fairly new, and only seen in a handful of locations around the United States. Operators speak favorably about their gated car washes, though, and point to it as a big factor in reviving and growing their self-serve businesses.

Profit Centers

An initial concern for self-serve operators is that revenue will be lost by switching to a flat-fee gated business model. Luckily, not everything inside the gates has to be included in the entry price! Most gated washes include vacuums and shampooers or tire cleaner. Vending items are typically still charged per item. Gated washes are very credit card friendly, and that alone can bring in big business. Plus, it’s easy to combine with a monthly unlimited wash program.

Operators can increase wash prices when moving from a self-serve to a gated model. Marcus Kittrell, owner of Marc-1 car washes in the Birmingham, Alabama area, previously operated a gated wash.

“Before making it gated, a wash cost $2.00 for four minutes,” Kittrell said. “We closed down for two months of renovations to a gated wash, and charged $6.00 at the time it opened.” Kittrell increased his price again to $8.00 per wash before selling his establishment to focus on his other businesses. Despite the change, Kittrell said he would open another gated car wash “in a heartbeat” if he found the right spot.

Taking Shape

What is the right spot for a gated wash? An existing self-serve bay can be a great starting point. Not all car washes will handle this conversion well, though. It’s important to choose wisely.

“The key thing is, you have to have a big enough site,” said Robert Greene, owner of Car Wash Express in Southeast Georgia. “You have to be able to separate the prepay traffic from your postpay customers, and you need a fair amount of room because you don’t want people clogging up your bays.”
Gated Self-Serve Car Wash EntranceGreene’s first gated self-serve car wash was a converted eight-bay, coin operated self-serve wash on a spacious corner lot. He finds this location works a little bit better than his second, four-bay gated wash. “It can be more challenging than a traditional wash. It has to be laid out so that you have enough room, and it has to be the right kind of site. The lot can’t be cramped. We spent about $60,000 in doing the first site. We added RFID to get our wash club members in, and we could immediately accept credit cards,” he said. Greene noted that during the first year he had a gate and accepted credit cards, self-serve revenue was up 90 percent. Two years after installing the gate and payment system, revenue had doubled.

Greene found that converting the self-serve wash was a straightforward process.

“We had to separate traffic coming on the property, and buy some gates. We used nice block columns with wrought iron fences between them. At the same time, we did a facelift using most of the existing concrete. We didn’t have to put in a ton of new equipment because the back room functioned just fine,” Greene said. He also added new decals and removed coin acceptors on existing self-serve meters.

Dave Mote, owner of the Pop N Wash brand in Lafayette, Indiana, agrees that the number of bays is a key factor in selecting a gated car wash location.

“My thinking is, you need to have at least five bays to convert your wash. If I were to see an abandoned five or seven-bay self-serve I would definitely (buy it).”
Mote currently owns three gated washes in the Lafayette area and feels they have been a great investment.

“We put gates at the front of the property and you paid one price for self-service, and if you paid a higher price you got a token for the automatic wash. (Recently), we changed one of our gated washes so you can pay for the gated self-service or you can drive around to the automatics and pay tiered pricing. They are next to each other so when you drive out of the automatic you can use the other stuff in the gated area. We have free tire cleaner, mat cleaner, and vacuums,” Mote said.

Gated self-serve car wash owners seem to agree that the business model can help revive a lagging self-serve location.

“There’s a lot of people out there who still want a self-serve wash if you give them the gate. All the self-serve washes kind of went out of business. We were headed that way but this brought us back. We gated one of our washes and it brought almost all of our self-serve business back, almost overnight, without any advertising,” Mote said. “One of my non-gated self-serve washes is down the road from my gated wash and (the gated wash) has definitely sucked customers away from the non-gated self-serve, for sure.”

Extra Benefits

The perks of a gated self-serve car wash go beyond additional wash price revenue and happy customers. Gated wash owners are likely to see an improvement in patron loyalty, behavior, and overall safety.

“Vandalism went way down,” Kittrell said. “We took payments all in one spot, including credit cards. Utilities went up a few percent, but nothing at all concerning, and overall repairs went down.”

Greene agrees with Kittrell’s assessment. “From a security standpoint, money is only two machines as opposed to ten,” he said. “You can have two cameras and cover that 100 percent as opposed to having a 16 or 32 camera system. People can’t just spend $1.25 and blow mud and nails out of the back of their truck beds.”

“The trash volume has gone down,” Mote added. “We aren’t getting the dumpers. There’s really no downside. The volume went way up, and it’s a way to keep out loiterers. At the gated wash, people will walk up to you and they will say, ‘man, I love this place!’ It’s a feeling that they get more value, not racing the clock.”

The gated car wash model offers a lot of flexibility for future add-ons and improvements. Currently, both Mote and Greene are looking at ways they can continue to expand what is included in an entry price. By adding items with a fairly low operator cost, they can raise the gate price to improve profit margins while keeping customers happy. Select vending items, air shamees, or a towel exchange program can easily be incorporated into a gated wash. With adjustments to pricing, and an eye on customer demand, there’s no limit to what a gated wash can include!