By Mark Tentis

When it comes to identifying and deploying exciting and innovative new ways to attract drivers to their sites, vehicle wash operators have seen the “light.” Namely, they are utilizing the latest in exterior, interior and arch display lighting, along with sound-reproduction technologies, to create a visually and aurally attractive wash experience. In fact, analysis of vehicle wash through-rate patterns indicates that offering an engaging and memorable wash experience can increase customer loyalty by as much as 20%, with loyal customers 86% more likely to spend more for a brand they are loyal to.

While the advances in lighting and sound technology have been an undeniable boon to wash operators as they look to expand their customer base while keeping existing customers engaged, an optimized sight-and-sound experience is just one arrow in a marketing quiver that can go well beyond the five senses.


Keep The Five Alive

Operators would be wise to fully target all five senses to increase traffic at their vehicle wash sites.

Sight: The first goal is to get that driver to decide to enter the wash site. The site must be well lit with engaging signage with color and movement that catches the eye, a clean appearance and nice landscaping. Make sure that the driveway is well maintained, with no trash on the ground. If the wash is a manned tunnel, outfit employees in sharp, clean uniforms, and train them to be attentive and engaging with a controlled sense of urgency without hurrying. The interior of the wash must be inviting and uncluttered, easy to enter with a feeling of openness that can be enhanced through effective overhead and sidewall lighting. In other words, do not store nonessential or unrelated equipment in a murky, dingy wash bay.

Sound: The trick to ensuring that ambient noise is not off-putting to vehicle occupants is to design the wash bay so that the level and shape of the noise will be nonoffensive. Some operators pipe in popular music, while others use tranquil sounds at a decibel level that still allows people inside the vehicle to engage in conversations or conduct phone calls. While it’s true that some inherent wash sounds just can’t be overcome, the other senses can be targeted during the wash process so that attention is diverted from the sound of the wash equipment and dryers.

Smell: A bad smell that enters the vehicle cabin during the wash process creates a negative overall experience for the driver, which can affect future wash buying decisions. It is imperative that wash bays are kept presentable via a regular cleaning schedule, while dirty wash water is routinely reclaimed or disposed of so that it does not sit in the pit and become “funky.” Positive smells can also be created by pretreating wash water or by using scented wash chemicals and waxes. Research has shown that different scents will evoke different feelings in vehicle passengers; for example, lemon will evoke cleanliness, while lavender produces a sense of calm.

Touch: Vehicles are large investments that must be treated carefully, so drivers must be convinced before they even enter the wash bay that there is little to no risk of damage occurring as their vehicles are touched during the wash process. This requires the wash equipment to be properly and regularly maintained so that it will reliably deliver a gentle and damage-free wash. Operators can be proactive in allaying any fears of damage occurring by posting educational pieces on the damage control capabilities of the wash system on the wash’s website, via social media posts and through flyers available at the wash entrance or inside the store.

Taste: Umm, what? No, we’re not saying that vehicle occupants will want to physically “taste” the wash process, but that process can tap into a “taste” for a snack, which will help drive business to an attached c-store. Use incentives to get people to stop in for an impulse buy or to refuel. Many operators have found success by offering a free coffee, soft drink or candy bar with a wash, or 10, 15 or 20 cents off per gallon of gasoline.


Beyond The Big Five

In addition to the five tangible senses that everyone is familiar with, there are other more nebulous “senses” that can be manipulated to improve vehicle wash traffic: a sense of positivity, value, accomplishment and community come to mind.

The most significant of these is the overall positive feeling a good wash experience will leave with the customer, buttressed by the perception that they received good value for their money. These are lasting impressions that will prompt the driver to return in the future, resulting in a growing and loyal customer base. Satisfied customers can also be the wash’s best spokespeople, with positive word of mouth playing a critical role in communicating the benefits of the wash to a wider range of drivers.

The post-wash experience can be just as important as the actual wash-bay experience. Consumers, inevitably, may post some bad reviews. In these instances, wash operators should not shy away or ignore them. Use them as educational tools that help give a well-rounded view of the wash and how it is operating. If a preponderance of reviews indicates that something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to reassess and make changes, or even eliminate it; being stubbornly married to a bad idea can be as bad or worse than having no ideas at all.

And, if time allows, try to respond to every comment or review, with those that had a positive experience having their feelings reinforced, while those with a complaint will be placated and may even be more prone to give the wash a second chance. This will create a sense among drivers that the operators care about them and their feelings and will work to build on the positive and alleviate the negative.

Finally, creating a sense of community can be a strong bonding agent. Let the town or region in which you operate know that your customers are more than just sources of income. Sponsor youth sports teams, host a charity vehicle wash day, contribute to fundraisers, participate in job fairs, etc. People are programmed to support businesses that have the same commitment to local causes that they do. You can also embrace the local business community by joining the Chamber of Commerce or other business-centric organizations. Successful businesses do not operate in a self-contained bubble. Talk to other businesspeople in the area about their successes and failures.


Mark Tentis is the vice president of global sales for OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions and can be reached at OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions consists of PDQ Manufacturing Inc. and Belanger Inc. PDQ is a provider of in-bay automatic wash systems and payment terminals, while Belanger is a leader in soft-touch tunnel and in-bay automatic wash systems. For more information on OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions, please visit