Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Painting by the numbers

August 19, 2009

As automotive refinishing technology progresses, one would think new vehicles would prove to be more impervious to the perils of highway driving.

However, the tough EPA regulations governing the type of paints used today are making it harder to keep a shiny new paint job safe from stone chips. While frustrating for new car owners, this type of damage creates a larger market for those who specialize in paint chip repair and opens new opportunities for anyone serving the cosmetic improvement segment of the automotive business.

As any experienced detailer or carwash owner knows, repeat customers are eager to address just about everything possible to make their cars look better. From vacuumed floors to oil-free engine compartments, this clientele is eager for aesthetic perfection, and they are willing to pay for it.

Yet, while a paint chip repair is still a relatively small portion of services offered by the industry, paint repair remains one of the most profitable car care services.

Matt Uhrig of Jacksonville, FL knows it can easily generate $70,000 to over $100,000 in sales as a stand-alone business.

Uhrig is a photographer by trade, but got into the chip repair business about three years ago to pay the bills. He averages about $700 a day doing touch-up work for used car dealerships.

“I only work three days a week,” Uhrig said, “but it allows me the freedom to pursue my real passion.

Touch-up techniques
With a growing number of carwashes and independent detailers competing for full-service detail customers, the ability to offer additional services is important.

While the traditional, albeit antiquated and largely inefficient method of using touch-up paint to carefully paint in the chips is still widely practiced, there are many new options on the market to expedite and make it practical to offer this common repair.

Many companies offer turnkey paint chip repair systems to automotive cosmetic specialists. Most focus on the mobile concept, with all components included in a system enabling the technician to make repairs on the fly.

Application techniques vary widely. Some require the use of a portable generator and airbrush to spray the paint while others use a syringe to get paint into each chip one at a time. One technique incorporates a “wipe on, wipe off” method where the paint is applied with a brush, rag or other instrument. Excess paint is buffed off or otherwise removed by manual or chemical methods.

These systems generally offer one of two ways to obtain a color match. One method offers a line of tints mixed for each repair to match the vehicles’ color. They come with a microfiche or computer color formulation library. The technician locates the color code on the vehicle and looks it up on the supplied formulation database.

The tints are mixed on a gram scale in small quantities and applied using one of the application techniques.

Another system relies on a line of premixed paints. The technician achieves a relative color match by eye using the closest color available in the toolbox. These systems bypass the process of color mixing, although with thousands of colors on the market some slight tinting may still necessary depending on the number of paints included in the kit.

The cost of these touch-up systems varies widely, from about $500 to $25,000 or more. Some are sold as franchises or under licensing agreements with protected territories, while others can be acquired “as is” with no further financial obligations.

Because the speed, quality and cost of repairs vary, those looking to add this type of service should spend some time examining their customer base as well as the profit potential.

The first two types of application methods (spray or needle systems) are not efficient. They do not allow for quality repair, but are more economical to purchase. They are most widely used in the paint chip repair business.

The systems which incorporate spraying do allow a greater ability to repair vehicles with more damage — spot blending a bumper for example. The needle and wipe-on/wipe-off methods do not allow for this type of repair. The ability to spray will also yield higher dollar repairs, typically about $125 to $150 per job.

Selling at the carwash
While the means to add this service are more available these days, the best way to bring the service into daily operations is not always clear.

Carwashes which offer complete detailing are probably best positioned to take advantage of the potential. For liability concerns, most of these businesses require employees walk around each vehicle prior to service to note any damage. This is an opportune moment to check for paint-chip and other minor touch-up needs.

Customers willing to spend $125 to have a full detail would likely pay an additional $45 to $75 to fix their chips as well.

The selling point is not just an aesthetic perspective, but repair also prevents rusting and a decline in the vehicles’ value.

With 75 percent or more of vehicles older than a year needing touch-ups, there is unlimited additional profit rolling through these carwash bays on a daily basis.

Buying a system
While larger operations could easily write a check to pay for any of these paint chip repair systems, it is worth looking into payment options.

Before purchasing a system, consider:

Ease of training and guidance in beginning the service;

Is a trial period available?

Is there a pay-as-you-go program?

Does the company provide ways to help you sell this service to your customers? and

Will it be in their long-term best interests to see your business succeed at using the system?

Not very long ago, the paintless dent repair business was an anomaly in the automotive repair business. Now it’s well over a $100 million a year profit center.

With virtually no other businesses in the retail marketplace offering a specific “paint touch-up” service, this niche market is untapped and in its infancy.

The customer base is there waiting to be addressed. It’s a void in need of filling and certainly one worth investigating.

Dan McCool is president of Dr. ColorChip Corp., a company specializing in retail and commercial paint chip repair systems. Prior to becoming president, McCool was in the detail business for 10 years.