Circle K, operated by Canada’s Alimentation Couche-Tard, has become one the most widely recognized convenience store brands, known worldwide for quality products and great customer service. Circle K uses Liquid Barcodes’ subscription platform to power their Carwash subscription app program.
With more than 15.000 stores around the world, Circle K operates more than 5,700 stores in the U.S. and sits at number two on the 2022 NACS/NielsenIQ list of the Top 100 Convenience Retailers as ranked by store count.
Circle K’s vast global network of 2,750 car washes has digitally transformed operations with its revolutionary car wash subscription program. First launched in Denmark and the U.S. in 2020, the program soon expanded into Canadian stores and the rest of their global markets will soon follow.
Customers can subscribe in the Circle K App to a monthly car wash program for unlimited washes and have several plan options from which to choose, including individual, family, or business plans. Redemption is easy. Customers simply open the app at the store, verify their car’s license plate, scan a QR code at the car wash payment terminal, and drive in. On the backend, there is an extremely short wait while the app verifies the user before the entry instructions allow the user to pull forward into the wash bay.
Beacon Technology Integration with Car Wash Subscription Technology
Beacon technology can be used to activate the car wash programs. Circle K and Liquid Barcodes partnered with Gimbal, a U.S. beacon technology company, to integrate Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) Beacons with the car wash payment terminals to provide an instantaneous user verification process. While the non-beacon user authentication process was already quick, the beacon communication cuts that time into milliseconds.
Circle K and Liquid Barcodes teams worked carefully with the Gimbal team to “get the beacon just to react within a few feet or meters around the outdoor payment terminal because you can get it to reach all the way out to the road, which is not really what we want with this beacon, so I think it’s a fine balance here, not to spam people,” according to Lars Hecht, Global Lead for the car wash category for Circle K. As the team looks to continue beacon installation across the U.S. and Canada, Circle K says it plans to roll this technology out nationwide. Preliminary feedback from users is very positive.
History of the Circle K Car Wash Subscription Program
Lars Hecht, Global Lead for the car wash category for Circle K since 2016, has led the business through the complex and compelling journey to carefully evaluate and eventually adopt a whole new business model for car wash subscriptions.
The context of car wash in 2016 is a familiar scenario for many business owners. Circle K was relatively successful at maintaining profitable prices with its car wash customers, but by protecting margins, sales volumes had stagnated, so Hecht started to explore a new concept that could drive both.
The car wash team determined a few strategy drivers in the initial stages. Customers want to wash their cars as quickly and as easily as possible. Anything that reduces the steps needed along the way increases their overall positive perception of the brand. Further, subscribers are known to spend on impulse when they are near a convenience store for gas or car wash, so it was reasonable to expect some cross-sell and up-sell from car wash subscribers.
With so many compelling benefits, Hecht saw great potential in the power of subscriptions and while he admitted that at first, it felt like “stepping on ice”, he worked alongside his team to learn, evaluate, model and analyse, the potential for subscriptions, until Circle K launched its first car wash subscription programme in January 2018.
Now that it is fully operational, a subscription program allows Circle K to set targets for 100% share of their customers’ “car wash wallet” as no subscriber will ever go to competing for car wash service once they’ve subscribed to one. By being the first to launch the product in most of the convenience markets that Circle K operates in, it could measurably increase the lifetime value of each car wash customer, resulting in extreme loyalty.
Why Circle K Chose to Work With Liquid Barcodes
When Circle K was clear on its business objectives and needs, it went in search of a global partner that could build its car wash subscription concept and ensure the consistency and flexibility it needed globally.
Everything about the technology solution they needed was different. From the unique product functionality within the app to the process of recognizing customers, as well as a requirement to use the geolocation of the mobile phone in combination with the outdoor payment equipment.
Even more importantly, Circle K needed a platform that could capture, simplify and report detailed analytics from its global car wash business in order to succeed.
Hecht found very few suppliers with the capabilities he needed. Liquid Barcodes was the only company shortlisted and also proved to be a company that shared the entrepreneurial mindset that Circle K values so highly.
After its global research and evaluation, the “spirit and attitude of the Liquid Barcodes team, its global capabilities and willingness to support the complex and evolving needs, combined with a fair and competitive price structure” resulted in the mutually beneficial appointment of Liquid Barcodes as the global partner chosen to support this world-leading innovation, says Hecht.
The project team eventually included global industry leaders Gimbal, Braintree (a PayPal service) which supports the subscription payments, as well as the car wash machine teams in DRB Systems/Unitec in North America, and Hecht explained that he worked carefully with the Gimbal team to “get the beacon just to react within a few feet or meters around the outdoor payment terminal because you can get it to reach all the way out to the road, which is not really what we want with this beacon, so I think it’s a fine balance here, not to spam people.”
Different Concepts for Different Global Markets
With differing IT infrastructure in each country worldwide, and vastly different customer expectations, Circle K has now tried and tested various technology models and marketing approaches to adapt to local needs.
In the US, the car wash subscription program has been built as a stand-alone app that can be integrated into the new generation app from Circle K at any time, however, in Quebec, Canada and Europe, the subscription platform is being integrated into existing Circle K loyalty apps, such as the Circle K Extra app in Denmark.
Customer options also vary by market – for example, in Canada, customers can choose from three different packages of unlimited washing. The app gives customers the ability to upgrade or downgrade their subscription at any time, and behind the scenes, the Circle K team uses the Liquid Barcodes platform to seamlessly manage the automatic monthly billing, as well as the pricing and promotions.
With the consumer subscription product selling well and enjoying high retention rates, Hecht and his global team have also released multi-user concepts such as family plans and business plans. Once again, Circle K is the first car wash retailer in the world to launch these innovative products.
Learnings and the Future of Car Wash Subscription Programs
Educating staff and customers is an ongoing priority, and Hecht has seen great results using “activation teams” on the forecourts, who enjoy meeting customers, explaining the concept, and inviting the customer into the car wash with a free wash (from the app of course) and helping ensure they are fully set up with their preferred subscription programme for the future.
Most importantly, Hecht and his team are pleased to have found a way to drive both volume and margin. The subscription solution has provided the framework he needed to make customers’ lives easier and he particularly enjoys how subscribers buy more premium products, resulting in a significant lift in the car wash portfolio.
From a partnership perspective, Hecht has been impressed by the support and attention from the operations team in Liquid Barcodes and from our side, we are delighted to be supporting and enabling this extraordinary brand and team with their vision for success.
Building on their mission to “make customers’ lives a little easier every day”, this article hopefully showcases how easy car wash growth can be when it’s powered by subscription.