Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Defining the express exterior carwash

October 11, 2010

How should the carwash industry define the express exterior carwash? In my opinion, the express exterior business model is composed of four fundamental principals.

  1. Low base price. (Price should be no more than $6.)
  2. Free vacuums. (Either central vac or token dispensing for coin vac.)
  3. Six-minute wash cycle. (Time should be counted from purchase to exit.)
  4. Maximum automation. (This includes the use of automated pay stations.)

A wash starting at $8 is an exterior carwash, regardless of the other criteria that wash might meet. You can’t have a stool with two legs. You can lean it against the wall and call it a stool, but that doesn’t make it a stool. Until we have an industry-wide definition, the debate will endlessly continue.

Low base price
Can an express wash starting at $3, with minimum labor and free vacuums, fail? Absolutely, but it’s unlikely if the operator follows a few simple standards.

The rest of the menu must be put together properly, i.e. the facility must provide a quality wash, there must be good traffic flow on the lot, the daily traffic count should be in the 30k-50k range and the wash must have good visibility with reasonable access.

How should we best get to a profitable solution? First and foremost, one must find the proper location, which means true due diligence. One may drive by a location and say “This is the one,” just to find out it would be impossible to build there. Find a site with a considerable traffic count, great visibility, strong demographics and a community planning board that will accept a carwash and go for it.

Today’s carwash customer is looking for speed of service and convenience. How fast can they get in and out while receiving a clean car in the process? After picking a location, make sure you turn out clean cars. Every wash that doesn’t clean cars properly will eventually fail, and it has nothing to do with a $3 or $5 base price.

Recently, while visiting a wash doing about 100 cars per hour, I asked many customers what they thought of this wash concept. The majority of the patrons were women that day and without exception they were very happy with the over-all experience. One woman said, “Since this wash opened, my vehicle has never been so clean.”

I asked if she had any complaint about vacuuming herself, and I received a resounding “No.” She went on to say, “I love it; I get in, I get out and I get the finish I want without worrying about who is climbing in and out of my car.”

For me this was an enlightening experience. I was visiting a carwash location in just its fifth month of operation, and yet the facility had washed 21,000 cars that month with a base price of $5 and an average ticket of $6.36.

The customers seemed to appreciate the speed of service and excellent flow through the process. They began their experience by driving up to an automated pay terminal, paying for their wash, and finally greeting a single attendant who guided them onto the conveyor to complete the carwash process.

Another smart decision at this location was setting up the signage properly. From the street sign, to the menu sign, to the directional signs, I watched each customer navigate the lot and load onto the conveyor without issue. The site even automates the roller control to maximize throughput. When exiting the wash, customers flow to the right for free vacuums or exit directly off the lot.

Free vacuums
When it comes to the argument over free vacuums, one thing is certain: it is less intrusive to the customer. It gives them total control over the process, and allows them to feel secure with their valuables, children, pets, etc., being completely undisturbed by strangers.

One location in the Midwest chose to make the vacuums coin operated and charge a dollar for four minutes of time. The wash volume was good until a competitor built a flex-service location down the street and started taking business away. At that point they made the switch to free vacuums. The turn around was over-night. They eventually removed the single coin operated vacuums and installed 30 free vacuums stations with a canopy.

Another discussion on the topic is whether or not to block vacuum access unless the customer has been through the wash. That is more about personal choice and lot configuration, but either way the free vacuum concept has proven to be a success. It drives volume, and volume cures a lot of ills. We’ve seen customers have success placing vacuums before the wash and selling vending items, gift cards, etc. to the patrons using the vacuum stations.

Wash cycle
To truly be an express exterior, I feel one must have the customers select their service, pay and be in and out of the wash tunnel in less than six minutes. Time spent for vacuuming does not come into play. This is the customers’ time to use as they wish and only they can determine the amount of time spent vacuuming their own vehicle. Vehicles size and configuration will dictate this, not the wash operator.

Maximum automation
Why an automated attendant? I say “Why not?” In businesses around the world, these machines are becoming commonplace. From airport check-in to home improvement store check-out, people of all types are choosing to use these terminals, often in preference to a human cashier. Whether we like it or not, our society is increasingly saving their human interaction for family and friends.

I spoke recently with a local manager at a warehouse club. She told me that her customers strongly prefer to check out themselves in an automated lane than to use a human cashier lane. She said she’s watched customers stand in line for an automated lane while all of her manned cashier lanes were empty.

Current advancements in technology have resulted in automatic terminals that provide fast, friendly, high quality, and consistent interaction with the customer. From the friendly greeting to the interactive sales process, carwash customers are reporting a great level of satisfaction when being greeted and processed by these terminals.

When asked if they enjoyed purchasing their carwash through the automated pay station, the overwhelming response is “Yes.” Just as with the vacuums, the customers feel like they are in control, there is never any high pressure sales process, and they take the exact amount of time they need to digest the menu.

Unfortunately, I don’t have data on any other terminals, but with the ICS attendant, our informal studies have clocked the average transaction time to be 38 seconds. Credit card customers that know what they want and are familiar with the machines can literally pull up, make their selection, swipe their credit card and pull away in under 10 seconds. Our experience has been that that level of throughput cannot be consistently achieved with labor.

Some of the latest terminals sold today help drive extra service sales as well. Wash selection can be aligned to prompt the user for additional extra services. Customization is also available so the service screens have the same look as the wash menu signage. Informational video clips can be played to inform customers to specific wash services or current specials.

All in all, I feel that these are the consistent criteria for definition of the express exterior carwash business model and we look forward to helping adapt this model to make the carwash industry more profitable and prosperous.


Brian Bath (bathb@washnet.com) is the V.P. of Sales and Marketing at Innovative Control Systems, Inc. He has been in the carwash industry for 21 years and has been with ICS for 16 of those years.