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Where do we go from here?

October 11, 2010
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One of the jobs of a trade magazine is to analyze national trends and give its subscribers a real, 10,000-foot view of the market they serve.

This has become a real task for us over the past several months, as we believe the carwash industry is sitting on the cusp of some major fundamental changes that will be tough to predict.

Among the factors we see contributing to these changes:

Carwash baby-boomers are retiring: The oldest and greatest generation of carwash pioneers is retiring — on both the operator and supplier level — and their kids are taking over.

On the operator level, this new generation tends to be ambitious and business savvy, so it stands to reason we will see aggressive expansions attempted, particularly with some regional chains.

On the manufacturer end, the new generation grew up in the instant-gratification computer age. Expect equipment that will be technologically innovative and incorporate multiple functions.

The threat of consolidation has dissipated: Wash Depot is recovering from bankruptcy reorganization and Mace has decided to sell its carwash division.

Carwashing will remain a fragmented, family owned business, and the ‘super regionals’ (such as Autobell, Delta Sonic, and Mike’s Express) are carwashing’s players to watch.

The full-serve format is in flux: Labor issues have become a fundamental problem in the full-service market.

A proposed guest worker program will just temporarily mask the problem in some regions of the US. The competition for unskilled or semi-skilled labor will remain intense and expensive for wash operators.

In-bays usher in a changing guard: In-bays are no longer the little brother of conveyorized carwashing. In many markets, in-bays have taken over.

Between gas stations, lubes and self-serves, the public is being exposed to in-bay washes at some excellent retail locations. And no matter where you stand on touch-free washing, the public loves it.

The perceived value of touch-free washing has allowed a solid price point, and the fact that in-bays can operate with minimal labor is attractive.

Suppliers will play to these core advantages by adding further value to the wash process and by making equipment faster and easier to maintain.

These are just a few of the main issues exerting influence on the carwash industry. To draw a consistent theme, one might conclude that although the carwash industry will remain independent for the foreseeable future, carwashes of tomorrow may look very different.

The carwash of tomorrow will use feature-rich, low-maintenance equipment; will focus on volume and minimizing labor; will wash cars more quickly; and may occupy a smaller footprint.

Carwashing will become big business — there are too many young entrepreneurs chomping at the bit to prevent it.

In the process, we can expect some fundamental improvements to how the industry does business, from cost and labor control, to safety, to equipment maintenance and design.

But other than that, it’s anyone’s guess…