For years the carwash industry has wrestled with both rising labor costs and the availability of good labor. To counter these problems many full-service carwash operators are moving to the conveyorized express or exterior wash concept with great success. Certainly there are many full-service carwashes that are very profitable, experiencing high volumes and generating excellent revenues per car. They shouldn’t change. Then again, many operators are asking themselves if they need or even want the aggravation that goes with operating a traditional full-service carwash.
As any experienced operator will tell you, profits aside, operating a full-service carwash with its high labor requirements and uncertain weather conditions in many areas of the country creates nothing but daily aggravation — and who needs that in life?
Today’s consumers want convenience, and marketing experts and historians say that this is what made Ray Kroc of McDonald’s a success. He recognized he was selling convenience, not just hamburgers and french fries. If you apply this to the carwash industry today, you see customers who are in a hurry, possessive of their time, have vehicles loaded with children and pets, and others who simply do not want strangers in their vehicle.
What about value? Today, carwash operators have to honestly ask themselves, “What is a carwash worth?” It is not a question of what the customer can afford, but what “value” they place on the carwash. Does the consumer really feel that a carwash is worth $20? If an operator honestly asked themselves that question, as a consumer, they would have to say ‘no’. That is what I believe a large majority of motorists believe.
Independent studies clearly reveal that when the prices at full-service carwashes began to rise, volumes began to decrease for many carwash operations across the country. While full-service carwash operators are struggling with those problems, other operators are switching to or building exterior carwash operations. The conveyorized exterior carwash made its major impact on the industry in the early 70s when oil companies discovered that a free carwash with a fill-up could dramatically increase the sales of gasoline. As a result, they dumped millions of dollars into the development of thousands of exterior wash operations with gasoline all over the U.S.
Some operations were company-owned and many others were privately-owned but financed by the oil companies. While many of the traditional full-service carwash operators bemoaned the oil company encroachment into the carwash industry and felt they were “prostituting” the carwash business with their free carwash concept, the fact remained that the free carwash with a gas purchase brought millions of motorists into professional carwashes for the first time. When the oil embargo of the mid-seventies hit, it put an immediate halt to the development oil company owned or financed exterior gas/washes. However, the die was cast. A few astute carwash operators across the country recognized the exterior carwash concept was viable and that they, like Ray Kroc, were selling convenience and not just a carwash. These operators began to develop chains of exterior-only carwashes that today are thriving businesses unaffected by many of the problems faced by the traditional full-service carwash operator.