To many consumers, the image of an auto service center is likely just another repair shop that has pools of oil on the floor, pin ups of scantily clad women on the walls and a waiting area that is little more than someone’s old couch and some burnt coffee. Today, that image isn’t really an accurate, or even a fair, representation of the modern auto service business or quick lube shop — yet all too often it is what many customers might expect.
More importantly it is said you can only make one first impression, so the right shop design can change the perception of the expected auto repair facility and make it so inviting customers won’t want to put off necessary work. In addition, it can ensure customers will be happy to pay a visit, which can translate into more business.
“Hospitality and customer experience can contribute to the bottom line for any service business,” said Sondra Phillips, principal and owner of SKP Design. “If the spaces people experience are comfortable, clean and functional, they are more likely to consider coming back!”
Basics and Beyond
For new businesses, or even those going through a remodel, there are always cost considerations. While new equipment, employee compensation and other basic necessities are required for running a shop, having an aesthetically pleasing building isn’t just about looking good.
“Part of the facility design is going to be driven by municipal requirements,” said Carl Goede of Rivers Edge Oil & Tire in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. “If they require all brick, metal roofing or extraordinary landscaping, you will have to try to reduce costs in other ways. It is really important to have a strong team to help you with design.”
This can include the hiring of a civil engineer who will understand these municipal codes and will be able to work with property design to maximize traffic flow while minimizing civil expense in the process.
“Your architect has to understand your business and be willing to listen to your team as you lay out the property,” Goede said.
Even the services you offer can further dictate exactly how the shop is built, the materials that will be used and, of course, how the building is laid out.
“We are building a carwash and oil and tire facility,” Goede explained. “Building materials need to be different from the carwash side to the automotive service side. Yet, the buildings need to look exceptional and as though they are one business, not two.”
The buildings also need to be inviting — and this is true whether the shop was built from the ground-up or is a renovation of an existing structure.
“The exterior is an important part of the mix in establishing the reputation for the business,” said Michael Humphrey, who has developed several Auto-Lab locations in Texas. “It is possible to find an existing site, but the better places are those you have to build.”
For Auto-Lab, this means ensuring all the properties resemble what one expects in its franchises.
“For us, this can mean an angular building with metallic walls that is an ‘auto laboratory,’” Humphrey said.
Inside the building most customers will spend their time in the waiting area, and it is crucial they are comfortable. No one likes to wait, and this is true of a service industry or even a doctor’s or dentist’s office. The waiting room is where no one wants to spend more time than necessary, so having a nice space can make a lot of difference to the customer.
“I have a comfortable waiting room with a big screen TV, a Keurig coffee machine, water and current reading materials,” said Ken Barker, owner and operator of Cottman Transmission and Total Auto Care in Waldorf, Maryland.
That description could easily sound like a lawyer’s or doctor’s office, but the comparison to a professional business office is notable in another way at Barker’s location.
“We have a photo of a technician holding this ASE certificate next to a doctor holding his credentials,” Barker explained. “We like to show that a small piece of paper can make a big difference when it comes to service.”
These and other minor details can instill a sense of professionalism, where customers know their car is in good hands — but more importantly in experienced hands.
The right decor can enhance the customer’s wait time, but it can help lower costs by not needing to be updated as often.
“Interior design solutions should reflect the company brand,” Phillips said. “If interior choices reflect the shop brand, they become more timeless, less trendy and may not have to be replaced as frequently. Using durable finishes, such as vinyl wall covering and vinyl fabric seats will increase the longevity of the furniture and the wall finishes, reducing the need to re-paint and replace seating.”
Smart but Simple Improvements
For those shops that aren’t looking to do a full-blown renovation and have a limited budget, there are options for a quick remodel that can enhance the customer’s experience. These can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, but certainly well beyond.
“It boils down to the basic stuff,” said Doug Ray, manager of the Precision Tune Auto Care location in Richmond, Virginia. “You need to have nice, comfortable chairs. You can’t have those hardback metal or plastic chairs, as customers won’t want to sit in those for long. You need nice plush chairs with a lot of padding.”
One of the quickest — and most cost effective — updates can be replacing interior finishes, which, in turn, can improve the atmosphere while people wait. For $1,000 to $5,000, it can make a world of difference.
“Adding vinyl wall covering is a very cost effective way to add interest and add durability to a space,” Philips said. “It is washable and won’t scuff like paint. It can be added to create a feature or focal point and can be custom-made to include branding.”
On an even smaller budget, just providing up-to-date magazines can be important — and not the kind where that aforementioned pin-up may be found, either.
“Clientele is different, so you should have US Weekly, Better Homes and Gardens and other magazines women may read,” Ray said. “We also provide TV and pay for the HD channels.”
A choice of beverages can go a long way, Barker noted. Some shops provide amenities like single-serve coffee and tea or even snacks, like cookies.
Having a modern and updated, but more importantly clean, bathroom is crucial to making customers happy.
“We check the bathrooms throughout the day, as well as the air fresheners,” Ray said. “We wipe down every day and evening. In the bathroom and waiting area, we put wax warmers so the interior of the shop doesn’t smell like an automotive service business. It is more inviting to have it smell nice, not like tires and oil.”
For those businesses that do have the extra funds for improvements, there are other things that can truly make the shop more inviting. While not every small business can afford what could be seen as an extravagant upgrade — one that could equal a starting tech’s salary — it should still be seen as an investment in customer satisfaction.
“On a larger cost scale, around $5,000, replacing damaged or broken furniture will improve the environment,” Phillips suggested. “Adding technology friendly furniture is a plus: such as a desk to work at with a charging station for phones and computer, a club chair with a tablet arm for laptop use or a sofa with small tables that can be pulled up to it to work on. Also, chairs can be reupholstered with cleanable vinyl fabric on the seat with accent fabric on the backs.”
For those with a bit more money, it can truly transform the space.
“A $25,000 investment may involve moving walls or re-configuring the space,” Phillips added. “This may be needed to expand seating areas or improve traffic flow within the facility.”
This type of investment could go beyond the actual waiting area, but could still be appreciated by the customers and staff alike.
“We put up a four-foot wall so we have a walk area where customers can view the car in a safe way,” Humphrey said. “Techs can describe the work being done. But we also spent a bit more money applying a durable polymer coating on the floor, which makes it look like an operating room floor. It makes the techs more comfortable, and it cleans up very well, so you don’t get pools of oil that stain the floor.”
Where Humphrey said shops can take this to the next level is with such extras as a floor cleaning machine that can ensure those nice looking floors stay pristine.
“It helps transform the shop, and it can give everyone who works there a sense of pride,” he added. “The impression it makes is worth it. The pride it instills isn’t something that will have ongoing costs either, but it is very positive.”