Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Full-serve to flex-serve

October 11, 2010

Summary: This month, Professional Carwashing and Detailing® turns to Doug Clemson, owner of Ben’s Car Wash in Zephyrhills, FL, to answer a question from a PC&D reader.

Question: I keep hearing about the benefits of converting to a flex-serve carwash. Will this really increase my bottom line? If so, how do I convert?

Doug Clemson: Professional carwashing has encountered many challenges over the past few years.

These challenges have placed pressure on owners and operators of full-services carwashes to look for new and creative ways to generate cash flow, cut expenses and streamline their business.

Thus the emergence of express exterior washes, on-line extra services and express detailing.

The eventual combination of these elements leads to a more efficient model of business in our industry. One that captures the essential components of the three carwash arenas (full-service, self-service and in-bay automatic), and the two most recognized platforms: traditional full-service and express exterior.

But how are these successfully blended together? What equipment is needed? And what planning is necessary to accomplish the conversion from a full-service wash to a flex-service wash?

Definition of a flex-serve

a. To bend;
b. To exhibit or show off the strength of.

a. Work done for others as an occupation or business;
b. An act or a variety of work done for others, especially for pay.

If I set out to ask many owner/operators of the “definition of flex-service carwashing,” I’d never get this article done and we would have a myriad of opinions. So my intention is not to get into this aspect, but merely look at what is needed to convert platforms.

Blending, combining, learning
Two years ago, I began transitioning my full-service wash into a flex-service by adding a lower price exterior wash to my menu. This “broke in” my customer base into riding through the tunnel and experiencing an alternative to the local IBA’s and at a pricing point below the areas IBA average price.

Unfortunately, at the time I did this, I miscalculated how popular the $5 exterior wash would be. It dropped my average ticket by over $3, as 40 percent of my wash packages became a “lower-price exterior wash.” But this proved to me that a customer base was in my market that sought an alternative to a full-service wash and an alternative to an IBA wash.

I originally opened a few years before (in 2002) as an express exterior and found just the opposite. I switched to a full-service with a towel dry base package of $7 within a few months of opening.

Once we saw customers stay inside their vehicles (and a declining gross) I began to offer “extra online services” such as tire shine and Double Bond Wax™ to drive up the average ticket.

The corresponding result was a decrease in labor of over 300 minutes per day alone (100 cars a day at 3 minutes per application) for applying tire shine and the added online Teflon wax initially generated an extra $700 a month (now $2,100 per month). So the transformation began from a full-service wash into a blending of several wash platforms.

I upgraded along the way by adding high-pressure blasters, tracking spinners, micro-fiber cloth and better tire cleaners, drying agents and shampoos. The final emergence came last December, when we added a gated entry system and auto cashier that handle most transactions. This cut a tremendous amount of labor by streamlining the operation to the point that I considered my wash platform truly a flex-service.

My site is confined to a lot size of 80’x 200’. That’s pretty small. On busy winter days, in snow-bird heaven Florida, it was a challenge to process 150 cars a day as a full-service wash. With growth at near 30 percent per year, my business was going to max out quickly as space limited the movement of a higher volume of cars. So efficiency became a top priority, as did cutting labor.

Initially, the site was selected for an express exterior, but market conditions demanded differently. Space and area for “extra services” were a big challenge.

The layout of a flex-service wash is essential to the smooth operation and a process conducive to low labor cost. The best way to plan would have been prior to building a wash, but this is about converting and we don’t have this luxury of planning. Much is trial and error, cutting and pasting lanes, cars and radius on paper models and experience on what works best for you individually as an operator.

The site now required that entrance lanes and exit lanes would have to intersect and cross, so traffic control issues would have to be managed.

Stacking cars was also an issue because the stacking lane would then block the exit lanes, so loop detectors tied into a gated entry system had to be employed. And again, during peak times, back-ups would become an issue leading to pressure to process cars faster. Growth would always be a factor at the forefront of planning to postpone the maturation of the business constrained by property size.

Eventually, much of the solution was to process cars faster in queue (through-put) and to organize the vacuum/detail lane much like a Trauma Centers Emergency Room (access to all items necessary to the employee on both sides of the car to reduce wasted time). I set up two lanes, two cars deep that have eight vacuum drops (six-claw and two-crevice), a two-sided cart in the center with duplicated items (glass, dash, wonder wafers, towels), and the same items on the outside of the lanes.

This reduced the amount of time wasted “looking for items” necessary to perform a task. The auto cashier, detail (extra service) lanes, and cash register room (in an outside alcove glass room) are all within a 50’ area to keep most of the labor activity concentrated in one area. Employees take turns rotating into the tunnel on an hourly basis and then back to the detail area where they are available to assist on the DRB XPT for the next hour. This gives the employee an opportunity to “up-sell” wash packages for commission or to ask customers already processed at the vacuum lane for additional services. The concentration of staff in one area allows for at a glance review and ease of management.

There has been a conversion from traditional full-service into flex-service. The reduction in labor is a major component and benefit of flex-service. Most of this reduction in labor comes through automation of equipment and the removal of ticket writers, cashiers, greeter’s, prep and after car employees. This transformation reduces labor as a percentage of gross revenue from 40 percent in traditional full-service, to the teens in flex-service.

My labor in 2005 was 28 percent and is now running at 17 percent YTD. Prior to 2003, while I was still transitioning from a full-service, my labor costs were in the 40 percent range. The labor savings became immediately evident with the addition of on-line tire shine applicators in early 2003.

The transformation continued as microfiber cloth was added, reducing prep time by a few seconds per car along with the addition of high pressure blasters tracking tires and rims.

Labor reduction costs through the addition of equipment are only one aspect of the transformation, the “external” surface. The internal transformation in the automation process is just as significant.

Automation of cash management leads to better information gathering. The process of “inwardly digesting” every angle of your operation can enhance your business by making better management decisions based on real-time information.

The addition of gated entry, auto tellers, computerized stacking (reduces theft of service), give aways, mis-queued washes and rewashes yields a more secure way to handle cash.

The reporting sections of the software to the owner/operator allows for “at a glace” labor statistics and up to date cash flow status results in a more hands on approach in real time.

This allows the owner/manager to keep a tighter grip on the labor expenditure, or, the ability to drive higher sales in hour by hour time frames, thereby encouraging sales or trending patterns in car traffic.

In flex-service, up-grading never ends. It is truly fluid in its transition; a better tire brush, a two step application for prep arches, grill brushes, dryers for side mirrors: Planning never ends and information needs to be analyzed to continue to make adjustments in how your business operates.

In the past one to two years, we have seen the re-emergence of top brushes and chain/conveyor types used once in the past. “There are no new ideas, just adaptations to old ones.” We see past trends and practice resurface every few years. Flex-service is really bringing the best aspect of other carwash platforms into one area and producing more efficiency.

The following is a list of suggested equipment to complete a transition from traditional full-service to flex-service:

  • Auto tellers/gated entry to control traffic and secure cash;
  • CTA’s /tire brushes or the new Poodle brush from Sonny’s to reduce prep time and finishing time;
  • High pressure rinse arches, wheel blasters to reduce prep time;
  • Mircofiber cloth on mitters and wraps or combo foam/cloth/mircofiber to reduce labor and turn out a cleaner product;
  • Tire shiner or tire shine applicator to save time, labor and apply on exterior only washes;
  • On-line extra services of waxes, sealants, rain treatments or under carriage rust treatments to generate more cash and drive up low price express exterior average tickets;
  • Good chemical line and water supply of either rinse-off spot free or drying agent for a dryer car; and
  • Good dryer system for exterior only and to reduce labor in towel drying;

Additional options to consider:

  • Commercial washer/dryer system to speed up laundry processing;
  • Chemical dispensing systems in detail lanes to eliminate spray bottles;
  • Hand held interfaces for auto tellers to speed up lines; and
  • Grill brushes, High pressure bumper blasters, mirror washers or dryers.

Doug Clemson ( is the owner of Ben’s Car Wash.