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According to numbers published individually by the International Carwash Association (ICA) and Professional Carwashing & Detailing, our industry has nearly doubled in size from an estimated 47,000 outlets in 1989 to about 90,000 outlets in 2004.
The bulk of this growth has occurred in the self-service and in-bay segments. Between 1989 and 1997, the number of self-service and in-bay outlets grew by 16.6 percent and 37.5 percent, respectively. Between 1997 and 2004, the number of self-service and in-bay outlets grew by 85.7 percent and 45.5 percent, respectively.
Other building trends have included growing numbers of express exterior conveyors, large full-service facilities with multiple profit centers and gasoline super-stations with express exterior conveyors. With the continuing decline in home washing, where do new investors turn who are unable or unwilling to inject $1.5 million to compete at this level?
Perhaps some of these investors should consider the other side of the spectrum, the small-scale carwash.
By small-scale, I am referring to a free-standing, automated carwash facility on a lot of less than half an acre with useable space of at least 13,500 square feet. Depending on the configuration of the property and local zoning requirements, lots of this size could accommodate in-bay automatics, a short conveyor or mini-tunnel, or a mini-tunnel with an in-bay automatic.
Over the last several years, small-scale has usually taken form as a single in-bay automatic on an irregularly shaped lot or dual in-bays on a 16,000-square-foot lot with two vacuum islands and a few vending machines. The success of these models leads us to consider the potential of a small-scale conveyor carwash.
Investors who have an interest in small-scale conveyors will need to adopt a different mindset in terms of expectations because of the limited amount of space to work with. For example, if you combine an express exterior mini-tunnel with one in-bay automatic on a lot of 13,500 square feet, there will be no room left for a vacuum area. Similarly, if you dropped the in-bay, there would only be room enough for two express detail bays and a small customer care area.
A small-scale conveyor does not require a daily traffic count of 40,000 cars, nor does it need to wash 75,000 cars at $20 per car in order to produce an acceptable return on investment. In fact, this level of volume cannot be achieved, nor is it desirable due to the lack of space and production capacity.
What is necessary is that small-scale conveyors should be located in trade areas that exhibit sufficient pull-factors for an adequate customer base and a surplus in retail sales. A surplus in retail sales implies either that people from outside the trade area shop there or that people living within the trade area consume more than the average person living within the region.
With a lower volume facility, investors will need to focus on minimizing fixed costs. This means building inexpensively but not unattractively. A small-scale conveyor can be built on property that is too small for most other types of retail businesses. Since small lots or “fill-in” properties have fewer practical uses, they tend to command a lower price or rent in dollars per square foot as compared to a prime one-acre corner lot.
Small-scale conveyors would require less capital investment and labor to operate as compared to a full-sized conveyor but the operator would need to pay closer attention to marketing and operations.
Consider an express wash with two express detail bays and a 60’ conveyor that is calibrated to produce 45 cars per hour. To achieve balance and flow throughout the queue, it would be necessary to complete express detail services in about five minutes per car. This would provide a detail capacity of 24 cars per hour or 53 percent of total carwash volume. Consequently, this would require a streamlined menu of services that would not compete with the conveyor’s extra on-line services.
If we substitute vacuum spaces for the two express detail bays, the operator would need to forgo the notion of a $3 wash and free use of vacuums because there would not be enough capacity to satisfy demand.
The concept of a small-scale conveyor carwash (i.e. a traditional full-service with 60’ conveyor) has been tried before with limited success. However, given the difficulties associated with finding suitable property and the higher costs of building a new conveyor carwash facility, the small-scale conveyor appears to be a concept that merits further consideration and re-examination.