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From tunnel to bay

October 11, 2010
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Do you think you are a leader in self-service? Do you pride yourself as an operator in being someone who is cutting edge? What might be the leading trend to come in self-service washing? My position as an international chemical provider to the self-service washing industry provides a rare opportunity to travel nationally and internationally and look at self-service carwashes all over the globe and to witness firsthand the offerings being introduced into this industry.

Additionally, these professional responsibilities require me to participate at nearly every carwash tradeshow where new products and services are being provided. No one, including me, can look at all of these innovations and predict which might become standards in the self-service wash of the future, but let’s take a look at some of the technologies and trends that in some way will surely shape the future.

Competition for self-service carwashes used to include home washing and automatics. Unfortunately for self-service carwashes, another formidable competitor has emerged — the express tunnel. Express tunnels typically wash your car fast and cheap. They range from $3-5 for the base wash and can wash your car in a few minutes without much human interaction at all, and vacuums are typically free.

Although self-service carwashing can start for as little as $1, the realities of time demand at least $3-4 to complete the washing process and then a dollar or more to vacuum. This puts the self-service operator at about the same cost as the express operator. Self-service locations that have express tunnels built near them definitely note a negative effect to their sales.

Don’t assume that the express carwash will drive the self-service into extinction. The express tunnel is much in the trial stages itself of whether it will thrive or not. Express tunnels are more capital and employee intensive operations. Will they survive the test of time? Will prices need to creep to provide the return on investment needed?

Early indications show that many express carwashes that started at around $3 have crept to $5 for the base wash. Additionally, the average revenue per wash at an express is higher than the base wash — probably on average $7 or more.

The goal of the express wash is to push the purchase price much higher than the base wash price. If this average price represents the average expenditure for a patron the price differential to the self-service is in reality widened again to a considerable advantage to the self-service wash.

Other competitive forces
There are other competitive forces shaping the potential for self-service washing: home washing restrictions, lifestyle, and housing developments. Home washing restrictions are doing nothing but increasing nationally and internationally.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco for example, the cities regulate the discharges from carwash fundraisers. In Melbourne, severe droughts have led to making home washing highly regulated, allowing only bucket washing without the use of a hose. In ten years will these restrictions have become more serious — you bet they will.

More likely than these to shape the future of self-service washing is lifestyle and housing trends. The fact is that today, people are much less likely to have a Saturday morning to pull out a hose and to wash the family car.

For better or for worse, our society seems destined to spend this time running kids to karate, soccer, dance class, to workout places, bookstores for a magazine and a latte, etc. These changes in how we spend our free time will surely shape how we wash our car. Will self-service washes be the benefactor?

Housing development also will shape the future of carwashing overall which will certainly include self-service washing. Many high-density housing developments like apartments, condominiums and high density developments leave little room for a driveway with a hose and bucket easily accessible. The runoff from these, the spray onto other vehicles, and the close proximity to your neighbor all discourage home washing.

New offerings
New offerings in the self-service market will also shape the future of self-service washing. What once was special (remember the advent of tri-color protectants or the foam brush?) have now become commonplace.

What are the emerging new products that will be commonplace in ten years? Let’s look at some of the new products that are contenders for this enviable position.

Tire shiners: Tire shine is a process that has really taken the consumer by storm. Car owners used to reserve shining tires to when they bought a car as part of the new car detailing, or when they sold the car — to spruce it up to look better to the prospective customer.

In 2007, tire shine is much more an everyday treat. Up until recently this upgrade was only available at full-service washes. Then several years ago tire shiners were developed for express washes. In self-service washes, one could shine their tires but needed to buy the product from a vendor and apply it cumbersomely themselves.

Well now, as might have been expected self-service tire shine units are available for self-service carwashes. Most of these units use a spray and cost between $1-$2 per application and lead to a better shine with no mess of handling bottles of tire shiner. When you are done vacuuming it is just the finish step to complete your car being clean.

Air drying: Air dryers have again been popular at tunnel washes and at automatics for years. Self-service washing has looked at various dryer systems over the years without any real progress until recently.

If you participate at a tradeshow today you will find 3-6 manufacturers of nice self-service hand dryers. Most are being dispensed in the bay and based on tradeshow activity and interest these units seem to be a part of self-service washing future.

Total car protectants: Total car protectants, like the previous topics, were birthed in the tunnel carwash industry and the automatic market, but are selling well in the self-service market. These protectants replace inexpensive short lasting clearcoat protectants typically dispensed in the self-service carwash market. Total car protectants are so superior in durability to the typical clearcoat protectant that they are desirable to carwash owners to protect and shine their cars.

A technology barrier currently exists to selling these products for many self-service operators. These products are high performing but are much more expensive to dispense. Adding this product to your self-service selection dial would be a losing proposition at the normal cost per minutes for other products. This requires a selector that is more intelligent than in years past. The selector needs to be able to change the cost per minute to a higher cost per minute when the total car protectant is selected.

Some of the current timers in a new carwash are capable of this calculation, but 98 percent of carwashes would need upgrading — a costly proposition. Alternatively this product could be bought a dispensed separately at considerable investment. Hurdles still exist for most operators in applying this product but one can be sure that where there is a will, there will be a way.

What the future holds
The items noted above while futuristic for most self-service carwashes can be found at most carwash shows and at select self-service carwashes nationally. What might the future hold for other self-service washes? Well if you have been reading along with this article you surely might have noted a trend in each of the new developments — they all emerged from the tunnel market in some way.

Obviously trends might come from a totally new source, it is possible that more self-service trends will follow lead from tunnels. What might these be?

Looking at the tunnel market one can see a major uptick in monthly membership washing. You pay one price per month and can wash as much as you like. Could this be adapted to self-service washing? Absolutely. Technology today would easily allow prepaid cards or express keys to allow monthly access to unlimited washing at self-service carwashes.

Another trend to watch out for is the low pricing move that express washes took to drive volume. Do self-service washes resort to starting at irresistibly low levels and then up sell the customer once on site to higher upgrades (such as the new products mentioned above) with the result being an average transaction price that is better than current margins? Do self-service washes add free vacuums like the express market did to entice customers onto the site?

Final thoughts
Self-service carwashing is sure to be a part of the washing market for years to come. Self-service washing offers many unique advantages to tunnel washing. Car aficionados are not likely anytime to trust their precious cars to anyone but themselves.

For many people, a car represents their number one or number two expenditure/investment. For many of these people washing their car is therapeutic and cannot be replaced by a two-minute substitute in cleaning. Self-service washes put you in control and provide the safest way to baby that car that reflects your personality and projects who you are to everyone around you.

So the challenge for self-service operators is how well they adapt and adopt to changes in human behavior and society and how well they adopt and invest in technology and improvements that are driving tomorrows self-service carwashing.

Brent McCurdy is co-owner of Blendco Systems, LLC. Blendco Systems provides carwash detergents, protectants, and other related chemicals to all segments of the carwash market. Blendco is headquarted in Bristol, PA and sells throughout North America and internationally.

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