Repair companies taking their services right to the customer's doorstep

June 17, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

You can't blame Charles Sanzone for his attentive gaze into the back of the step van on his quaint Columbia cul-de-sac. It's not every day that an entire bicycle shop rolls into the neighborhood.

Mr. Sanzone's eyes are glued to greasy-handed Chris White and Bryan Chaney as they tinker with his road bike. Inside the step van, there's a work bench, an array of tools, bicycle tires, and tubes, and a sampling of new colorful bicycle accessories are stocked. Mr. Chaney, the owner of this mobile bike repair service, The BikeMOBILE, also has on display a brand new bicycle he's selling.

Mr. Sanzone, an avid biker, says Mr. Chaney's service is so convenient that he's never once taken his bike to a shop for a repair or maintenance.

"If you take it to a shop, there's the hassle of getting it there and picking it up, and you may not see it for a couple of days," says Mr. Sanzone, who has had The BikeMOBILE service out to his home three times this year to work on his road bike.

"With this service I can have the bike repaired and still get a ride in after work," he says.

Mr. Chaney's not the only one who's noticed that suburban Howard County's large sampling of two-wage households, who have extra money but not enough leisure time, is eager for services brought to the doorstep of their homes and offices.

Mobile services for cars and now bicycles prove that convenience is a selling point, a concept that food delivery businesses have long recognized.

Car maintenance and repair services vying for a piece of the bring-it-to-you business include mobile oil change services, auto glass replacement and repair companies and interior-exterior automobile cleaning companies called "detailers."

No one is sure just what the potential spending on such services is in the county, but virtually all of the companies offering mobile services say Howard County is a potentially lucrative market for what they have to offer.

"There's a lot of people in the county with extra cash to spend on taking good care of their car, but they don't want the car tied up for a whole day on the service," says Mike Faber, founder and owner of Crystal Car Care, a mobile car detailing service based in Columbia.

While there are several detailing services in the area that will send a driver to pick up your car and take it to their shops, Mr. Faber is the first to bring his service directly to the customer.

He packs an industrial vacuum cleaner and carpet cleaner in a van, which is also loaded with cleaning supplies, wax and buffing equipment.

He and his associate, Mike Shettig, work six days a week, cramming in three to five service calls a day. "Our breaks are in the van between racing to appointments," Mr. Faber says.

Each appointment takes two to three hours, he says. Costs for services range from $70 for an exterior car wash and polish to $165 and up for a wash, polish and detail cleaning of the exterior and interior of a van.

One day recently the two young men spent several hours in the broiling heat working in the parking lot of a Columbia office complex cleaning the interiors and exteriors of three Mercedes Benzes owned by the managers of an international real estate investment firm.

While Mr. Faber says a share of his business comes from the owners of luxury cars, the majority of customers are the owners of more mundane cars -- station wagons, family vans and sedans.

"A lot of our customers are people with families. They look at this service as a way to protect the value of their car. We do a lot of station wagons and family vans. The kids beat them up inside pretty good."

Like Mr. Chaney, Mr. Faber has found that he generates most of his new customers from people seeing him work in their neighborhood or office parking lot. He estimates that 75 percent of his customers are repeats.

Office parking lots are particularly good areas for stirring up new customers.

"We're kind of on show for an entire office building," Mr. Faber says. "People like the idea of getting their car washed and waxed while they're working and being able to come out of work and hop right in the car. People's time for leisure is so compressed today. They don't want the hassle of leaving their car off at a shop and then figuring out how they are going to get to work."

For Mr. Chaney's mobile bike repair service, the bring-it-to-you niche has been financially rewarding.

"We always draw a crowd, and inevitably a couple of the kids are dragging their moms down to the van with their bikes to see about a repair," Mr. Chaney says.

Chaney currently operates one bikemobile, which is logging 30-60 service calls weekly. He says 90 percent of them are in the Columbia area. Last year, he sold more than 200 bicycles out of the van along with strong sales in accessories.

He's also had customers ask him to repair other items, such as home exercise equipment and child wagons, once they've seen the impressive array of tools carried in the van. The Howard County market has been so good he's recently rented warehouse office space in Woodlawn so he can expand operations, and he is readying a second van to hit the streets. He hopes to have five vans rolling to service calls in Howard County and northern Baltimore County in several years.

Says Mr. Chaney, "I see myself doing for the bike industry what Domino's did for the pizza business."

Mr. Chaney says another advantage of mobile services is that it bolsters quality control.

"It costs time and money to go back to the customer. You focus on getting it right the first time," he says.

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