Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Smaller space; more detail profits

October 11, 2010

Have you ever thought about calculating the sales per square foot in your detail operation? That is, how many dollars are you getting from the space you rent or own for your detail business. It is a figure that will tell you a lot about your operation.

For example, a detail operation doing $200,000 in annual sales might not think they are doing as well as another detail shop up the street making $300,000. However, if the first shop is 3,000 sq. ft. and the second shop is 9,000 sq. ft., the two operations are actually very similar; each turns out about $34 in annual sales per square foot of production space. Assuming each detail shop operator pays a lease relative to the size of the space, the two businesses are neck and neck.

These calculations show you don’t need a great deal of square footage in your shop to generate high dollars. In fact, some operators may want to consider downsizing their shop space in order to maximize their return on investment.

Here are some ideas you can consider to maximize production without adding square footage.

Extend your hours and days of operation
As an industry, detail shops are closed more than they’re open. You should track how long each vehicle is in your shop. For example, if you keep a customer’s car for two hours and you’re only open eight hours a day, it’s clear you’re never going to be able to produce more than four cars a day.

There are a couple of ways to address this issue. First, there is technology — any equipment that will speed up the detailing process should be considered. Extending your operating days and hours is another way to make more revenue. Both wholesale and retail customers can provide business on Saturdays, and even Sundays. In fact, Saturday could be your busiest day of the week.

If you’re not ready to add more hours or operate a day more per week then have one or more of your employees come in early in order to prep vehicles to have them ready for the detailers when they arrive.

Better scheduling
Like many detail business owners, you probably practice the “in at 8 a.m., out by 6 p.m.” form of scheduling; bringing in a day’s worth of vehicles in the morning and hoping to have them done at day’s end. This might look like you have a full shop but your records might indicate differently. Production is typically slower when the shop is full and more cars have to be maneuvered around in order to complete services.

A simple solution is to try a “load leveling” scheduling. Figure out how many hours of production you can get through your shop in a week, and balance the schedule accordingly. In other words, even out your load by determining ahead of time how many vehicles or services you will complete each day and make arrangements accordingly.

This type of scheduling means vehicles spend less time in the shop before someone is actually working on them so, it improves cycle time. If you can better balance out your schedule, you will see that cycle times will drop and there will be an improvement in the hours produced per job order per day.

Get the shop organized
Even in smaller shops where a detailer doesn’t have to go far to get the tool or chemical they need, a lot of that detailer’s valuable production time can be wasted walking around or looking for something. The key is clearly indicating that everything has a place and everything in its place so no one is hunting around the shop for what they need. You must also train your employees to return these items to the correct locations.

Our observations have shown a detailer can improve production time by being more organized and we’ve determined that if we can help a detailer complete just three-tenths of an hour more labor a day that adds up to a lot of money per year.

At one shop we were evaluating, I watched a detailer spend several minutes looking at every bottle to find the one he needed. I suggested every detailer have his own set of chemical bottles and store them in a tray where they could be labeled and organized accordingly. It’s a simple idea, but you’d be amazed how much time and money you can save in practice.

Better pre-detail inspection
Stopping a detail job midway through the process because the detailer isn’t sure what to do hurts smaller shops especially hard. There isn’t a lot of space to let the vehicle sit while the owner/manager explains what to do and it further reduces the volume for the day.

I recommend a process called “blueprinting” with the goal of eliminating, or at least reducing, such work stoppages. Before a vehicle comes into production, the service writer identifies on the work order everything to be done. The detailer reads the work order before bringing the car into the shop; asks questions, gets answers; then when everything is clear the vehicle is moved into the shop.

Does the vehicle sit idle under this system for a little time before starting the detail process? Probably. But I believe this is more than made up for by the rapid progress the vehicle makes through the detail without the interruption of waiting once the process has begun. It’s a way to get more work through your shop without adding space or employees, or even burning employees out by pushing them too hard.

Better shop layout
If most detail business owners sketched out how vehicles actually move through their shop over several days, the drawing would very quickly resemble a tangled plate of spaghetti. A lot of time spent moving cars could be used for detailing if the shop’s layout allows it.

Improving shop layout also involves freeing up as much floor space as by getting rid of empty barrels, unused equipment and anything “gathering dust.”

Better materials handling
Whether you’re in a metropolitan area and can get chemical and supply deliveries quickly, or in a rural shop that has to have materials shipped in, cut off times are critical to turning big numbers in a small shop. If you order some critical supplies and the supplier’s cut off time to get that order out is 2 p.m., you have to get the order in before then. So find out what the cut off times are for shipments, know your inventory and keep on top of your ordering.

If the most valuable space in your shop is the shop floor, then examine the items and machines you keep on the shop floor and what you can be moved, replaced or removed. For instance, if chemical barrels are taking up too much space, work with your chemical suppliers to purchase supply in smaller containers at the same price.

Wall mounted racks can provide places for chemicals and supplies that might otherwise be taking up floor space. Suspend from the ceiling what you can; a step ladder is all that’s needed to get these items up or down from this storage area, or a pipe rack can even be outfitted with a counter weight system so it can be pulled down to get what you need.

Nearly every shop owner at some point has wished for more shop space, but most shop owners — even those with small shop footprints — can find small ways to boost production without spending a dime on expansion.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car care industry. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors.
Abraham can be contacted at