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In-bay Automatic

It's no turkey: Three strikes and you're out

October 11, 2010
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On Thanksgiving, I went to a local carwash for a quick clean up. My choice was a free-standing, dual in-bay automatic carwash.

I chose this carwash because it was conveniently located, seemed reasonably priced and featured a high quality touch-less carwash unit. I also chose this wash because all of the full-service carwashes in the area were closed for the holiday.

However, when I arrived at the carwash I was greeted by a single waiting line of seven cars because one of the units was not working.

During my 35-minute wait, I counted 12 cars that turned out of the waiting line and left the property with their money still in their pockets.

Not only did people leave the site, those that did stay didn’t appear to be very happy about the prospects of waiting a long time.

A costly blunder
Let’s examine the economic costs of this equipment outage. The accounting cost is 12 cars per half hour multiplied by the average revenue per car multiplied by the number of half-hours that this scene was repeated.

Over a 4-hour period, this could be as much as $768 in gross sales. The opportunity cost is the number of loyal customers and first-time patrons that left the property and will not give this wash another chance.

This could be as much as $768 over the course of a year if we assume a 50 percent defection rate at four washes per year per customer. Therefore, the economic cost of this outage would be $1,568 (plus repair costs).

Fifteen-hundred dollars may not seem like a lot compared to the take for a high volume full-service carwash, but losing the equivalent of a day’s worth of business during one of the busiest times of the year is a fairly significant loss for this type of carwash.

Is it really fair to criticize the operator because some of the equipment was out of service? Of course it isn’t. Any piece of equipment can break.

Nevertheless, there were a number of things that this operator could have done to minimize any negative feelings that were created that day other than roping off the wash-bay.

Goodwill to all
One thing that this operator should have done was have an attendant onsite to explain why the unit was not working and give disgruntled customers that didn’t want to wait a voucher for a free carwash.

Another thing the operator could have done was to have the house more in order.

The site had great curb appeal and the wash was only several years old, but the general appearance looked like the housekeeping had been done only because it had to be done.

The wash-bay floors were black and walls were dull looking. The carwash equipment was noticeably dirty.

The landscaping was maintained but it was tired looking and the paddock area leading into the wash-bays had not been pressure cleaned for some time.

You get the picture. This wash was in need of more TLC.

An eye for detail
Why are these details important for a free-standing in-bay?

First of all, an in-bay automatic carwash is more like a wand-bay than any other carwash counterpart. Just like a wand-bay, an in-bay automatic carwash must be ready at all times to deliver what the customer wants when they want to buy it.

After all, this is the promise of a free-standing in-bay; unattended operation 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

If an operator can’t or is unwilling to keep this promise, the business might be better off by closing down for Thanksgiving like the full-service carwash operator did.

As for giving this wash another chance, this was not the first time that I experienced problems at this site without an attendant present to help smooth things out.

In the final analysis, first-time investors need to recognize that it is very difficult to build volume and generate repeat business without paying attention to the details, including the hands-on and customer service aspects of the carwash business.

This is true even for investors who intend to operate a “people-less” business like a free-standing in-bay automatic carwash.

Robert Roman is a former carwash, express lube and detail shop operator and is president of RJR Enterprises (, a leading consultant to the carwash industry. Robert is a member of the International Carwash Association and PC&D’s Honorary Advisory Board. He can be contacted at

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