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Will express washing bring us full circle?

October 11, 2010
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This month's cover story focuses on the inevitable move to at least offering exterior-only washing at full-service carwashes, and why it is likely that some of those full-serves will make complete conversions to the express concept.

Labor issues are among the main drivers of this trend, and the bad news is that they simply are never going to get better. Good help will remain expensive, unreliable and hard to find in many markets for some time.

The interesting thing about the rise of express washing is that it makes one wonder whether it will force some operators to return to some version of the service-intensive wash formats that are now out of fashion.

What a $2 or $3 exterior wash really does is commoditize the carwash product. It makes price the main focal point of the consumer's decision, and with 50 percent of the country still homewashing, maybe a commoditized, entry-level wash is what the industry needs.

But how do you compete when a product has been commoditized? You either commoditize it further, or you add value.

If you are competing with a $3 carwash, one way to compete is to operate as a $2 or $1 carwash. For nearly all operators, that would simply never work.

Instead, when those operators realize they can not just compete on price, they will try to compete by adding value.

People are busy, these operators will reason, so what if they could get an express wash and buy gas at the same time? How about a convenience store? Maybe they could charge more if they added interior vacuuming?

You get the picture. The operators who get in early, buy decent and reliable equipment, and find the right sites with good demographics, will probably wash express-only forever and be really glad they did.

But there will inevitably be operators who can not compete with these discount operations on volume and price, and will be forced to head in the other direction. Maybe some of these operators won't be able to compete with express at all — there certainly have been many washes that have gone out of business in the Detroit area, where discount washing is king.

But before the bubble bursts, there will be a flurry of activity from these washes as they look to build value. In the end, many will probably end up catering to a much more upscale clientele, reaping large tickets on lower volume.

Either way, express washing is here to stay. Conveyorized operators will either adopt it or adapt to it, but, they can not afford to ignore it.

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