Sales/Marketing

March 20, 2012

The Art of Car Wash Signage

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There has never been a more important time to communicate effectively with your customers. Competition is fierce in most markets, and consumers have less disposable income available. And what they do have, they are less willing to spend.

This is no time to take your most powerful and important marketing tool for granted. Your on-site signage is not just about listing information; it is a commercial that customers start watching the moment they enter your property. When done correctly, carwash signage has a tremendous impact on your bottom line.

Think about it. Without decent signage, carwash customers can become frustrated and confused. They spend less money and visit less often. Good signage is a tool to help you make money. The better you use that tool, the more money you will make.

There are three specific objectives related to carwash signage. The first is to inform customers how your process works. Signage should clearly communicate where and how customers enter, vacuum, pay, exit, etc. The second objective is to list your services and demonstrate their value. The third is to reflect the personality of your carwash.

Consumer Behavior

Marketing is all about listening, learning and reacting to the consumers in your community. Understanding the way consumers behave is essential in creating effective signs.

One important distinction is whether the sign is going to be located before the point of order (whether customers pay there or not) or after. This is because something interesting occurs when consumers are about to make a retail sales transaction. Basically, customers focus most of their concentration on the impending transaction. As a result, they fail to take in information not directly related to saying the right thing, pressing the right button, finding their wallet and trying to remember if there’s any money in it. Any attempt to “sell” (via signage or anything else) should require less than four brain cells to process or it probably will be ignored.

Envirosell founder Paco Underhill is one of the foremost authorities on retail consumer behavior. His company has observed hundreds of thousands of consumers during the past 30 years as they walk through stores. Envirosell logs their movements and analyzes thousands of different variables relating to sales. The company’s findings often result in significant sales increases for its clients, including Citibank, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Target and other large retailers.

Several interesting behaviors are identified in Underhill’s book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. One of the phenomena he identifies is the “decompression zone,” which exists in every type of store and location.

Once customers park their cars in a retail parking lot, they tend to walk faster than their average pace from the car to the store. In fact, Underhill says the brisk pace continues about 20 steps into the store.

As a result, anything placed at the very front of a store, whether it’s signage or merchandise, is usually ignored. Once this was discovered, many small-footprint stores began strategically placing items at the entrance to “wake up” the customer.

For example, most Gap Inc. stores have what they call a power bank as soon as customers enter. This is a wide horizontal display of basic sweaters or T-shirts that disrupts the path into the store. By having to move around this display, consumers are forced to come out of their “decompression zone” and are much more likely to notice signage and/or merchandise.

This waking up process also can be accomplished with varying colors, textures and even sounds placed at the store entrance. Big retailers know they have to get consumers out of this zone before they can communicate with them.

A study of McDonald’s revealed that 75 percent of the time customers spend looking at the menu sign is actually after they purchase their meal. Customers are simply unable to take in much of the menu while they concentrate on placing their order and paying. They are much more willing to read the signage once their order is placed and they wait for their food.

The decompression zone is just as true for carwashes as it is for giant retailers. However, it may be even more difficult for carwashes since customers don’t park. They drive right up to the point where they order, trying very hard not to be distracted.

I stand at the entrance of every carwash I visit and watch customers. Each customer displays this same tunnel vision. They are looking intently for the greeter or pay station, and nine out of 10 are not looking at anything else.

Sign Design

With this in mind, let’s examine how to design effective carwash signage. To do that we need to look at the signage the same way customers do — starting at the entrance and ending at the exit. This is how customers absorb your messaging. By thinking of your signage as a linear message from entrance to exit, you can craft a more effective “commercial.”

To begin, we need to look at the signage between the street and the point of order. Remember, customers are in the decompression zone so we need to snap them out of it. A great way to do this is with some simple pre-sell 
signs. The messages have to be extremely simple, and the signs have to be high-contrast and very readable. They should stand out from the normal sightlines, so factor in whatever is in the background.

When crafting these signs, think billboard design: simple but catchy. A big, bright “welcome” sign is a good start and a friendly message. In general, pre-sell signs should be no more than three to four words without any images, or a single image without words. They need to stand out and be noticeable.

If you have a long driveway leading to the tunnel entrance, a multipart message works great. For example, three separate signs could say, “Shiny Tires” … “Make You” … “Feel Good.” If you have a good brand, you also can reinforce your value proposition in a creative way. Remember, the goal is to wake them up from the decompression zone and whet their appetite.

No sign is more important than your menu, and yet poor carwash menu designs are everywhere. On average, consumers will not read menu signs for more than three to five seconds. After that time has elapsed, they will almost always revert to their default or “basic” choice, whatever that might be. This happens at restaurants, too. Most people who start looking at a long menu wind up saying, “I’ll just have a cheeseburger,” or whatever their “basic” choice is.

If you want to witness this for yourself, grab a stopwatch and find a spot somewhere near your menu sign where you can see approaching customers. Watch people’s eyes as they drive up, and start the stopwatch when they first look at the menu sign. Two things will surprise you: (1) how low that number will be and (2) how many people don’t look at the menu sign at all.

This is why menu signs need to be extremely simple. Some carwash operators think that a bright, full-color sign with graphics of bubbles and cartoon cars and a long list of service inclusions is the way to go. It may be prettier, but it’s less effective.

If a new customer can’t figure out what his or her options are in less than five seconds, it’s a poor design. That means that the long list of inclusions (wash, dry, wax, undercarriage, tires, etc.) should be limited to only the few that people care about (i.e., triple foam, tire shine, Rain-X) or designed so that they blend into the background (legible but don’t stand out).

Your package taglines, however, should be emphasized. These are what the vast majority of customers will use to make their decisions. For example, if you have three wash packages, underneath the package names you might say, “Our best wash” … “A great value” … “A quick clean.”

If you had to choose between a big, bright, pretty, full-color sign with detailed listings of inclusions or a plain white sign with those three taglines, I guarantee the simple one will make you more money. If you are skeptical, test it. Get a basic, plain white banner made using the basic design described above and cover your menu sign with it. Then watch what happens to your sales per car. This is a particularly effective test if you have multiple lanes.

Once customers have placed their orders, they are much more relaxed and willing to listen to a sales pitch. Therefore, anyplace after the point of order is a good spot to communicate items that require more reading, such as gift cards, prepaid cards, rain guarantees, unlimited monthly plans, club promotions, Web promotions, etc.

While this may sound counterintuitive, customers who buy these types of items are almost always repeat customers. If you educate them well enough by placing your signs in a post-sale location where they will actually read them, you increase the likelihood customers will buy them on a subsequent visit.

As the customer exits, don’t forget to conclude your commercial. A simple “Thank You!” sign will work and/or a simple plug for your Web site or an upcoming event.

Once you’ve determined what the messages will be for your signs, you need to consider the style. When it comes to design, keep these things in mind:

• Make it legible. People older than 65 are the fastest growing demographic. Consider using large fonts and high-contrast colors. Avoid using yellow.

• Make it stand out from the background. Make note of what will be behind a particular sign. Is it landscaping, another building, the busy street? Design accordingly.

• Create a style template and stick to it. If you have a brand with a personality, then make sure that personality comes through in the template.

• Keep it simple, keep it simple, keep it simple. This is really important.

So give your signs some love and don’t think of them as just another boring necessity. They are a commercial that should flow logically, beginning when customers enter the property and concluding when they leave it. Remember, signage is a tool to make money. The better you use that tool, the more money you will make.






 
 

 
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