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Full-service, please

October 11, 2010
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Some folks in the industry believe that the carwash business’s flagship, the traditional full-service, needs to be re-made so that it can compete effectively in today’s marketplace.

Does full-service need a face-lift?

It appears so. In order to produce a quality full-service carwash in 15 to 20 minutes, you have to have your act together. This calls for hands-on management and exceptional business skills.

The full-service layout pattern requires a high capital investment, the highly repetitive nature of most of the job positions creates motivational problems and the inflexibility of the service platform makes it costly to operate during work stoppages and slow periods.

Given today’s labor woes, including the quality of the unskilled labor pool, many carwashers have found it more difficult and costly to operate.

Consequently, some operators have responded by using cheap labor and increasing price, converting their carwashes to off-line full-service or exterior-only, adding an express exterior lane or adding an additional profit center.

Unfortunately, none of these things get at the root cause.

If the full-service model is not broken, it most certainly has become outmoded in terms of a good working environment, an efficient operating platform and, most importantly, the needs and wants of today’s consumer.

Overcoming the labor issue

Carwash operators often complain of not being able to find and retain labor but when we examine the typical full-service carwash, it becomes clear that this is not an attractive work environment.

For example, I recently saw a new carwash that had an automated polishing machine residing in a heated building while the staff was forced to work outside in the 40 degree temperature.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the 60’s. Today’s youth is vastly different than the baby-boomer generation. Our kids have a different set of values and our increasingly serviced-based economy offers better working conditions and compensation.

My teenage daughter would not vacuum cars all day long for $6 per hour and tips.

The cost of labor

The average labor cost to operate a typical full-service carwash is 35 percent of every sales dollar plus another 6 percent or more for workman’s comp and payroll tax.

Unfortunately, throwing cheap labor at positions is not a long run solution.

Henry Ford said that firms involved in manufacturing and production should make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.

Could a people-less wash be the future?

Industry studies suggest that the demand for full-service carwash and detail remains high. However, the studies also suggest that many consumers are not satisfied with the quality and delivery of service, price or customer service that they get at a full-service carwash.

Obviously, there are many operators who get it right, but the current trend towards the low-priced, express exterior carwash with free vacuums and auto-cashiers suggest that many of today’s investors want a "people-less" business.

By outsourcing labor and customer service to the consumer, the express exterior operator is telling the customer "we will wash the outside of your car, but if you need more than that, you need to do it yourself or go someplace else."

If this is the wave of the future, it certainly represents an about-face that should concern full-service operators.

How do you surpass the competition?

Since the outlook for carwash services is robust, full-service operators and new investors should consider an operating platform that will help them thrive.

This will require a high-volume, exterior-only, ride-through conveyor that is capable of producing a very clean and dry vehicle with virtually no labor.

Full-service operators also need to consider the consolidation of labor and the creation of more interesting jobs that pay better.

This will require a centrally located work space that is ergonomically designed and environmentally controlled and a management model that is dedicated to teamwork and customer service excellence.

Full-service operators also need to consider the notion of total service. This will call for a marketing strategy that allows consumers to tailor their purchases according to their individual budgets and needs.

Robert Roman is a former carwash, detail shop and lube operator and is president of RJR Enterprises (, a Clearwater, FL-based company that provides professional advisory services to the carwash industry. Roman is also a member of PC&D’s Advisory Board.

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