It is quite normal for a trade magazine to publish articles on the state of their industry and what new innovations and trends are occurring. Writing on the subject of auto detailing for over 25 years, I have often written many such articles, and at times have been able to report some major innovations and new trends in the industry.
Let's take a look, for a moment, at the history of the detail industry to get a perspective on where it is today and what the future holds for the detailing industry.
Before the 1980s, detailing was a wholesale service done by, or for, the automobile detailer to restore used cars to a like-new condition. There literally was not a "retail" detailing market because the average American did not own their vehicles long enough to require a detail service. According to NADA (National Auto Dealer's Association), the average American owned a vehicle for 3.2 years in 1978.
However, as vehicle prices began to increase in the 1980s, so too did the length of ownership. For example, the average price of a used car in 1982 was about $3,000 and a new car just over $10,000. Today, the average prices are, respectively, over $15,000 and over $24,000. And the corresponding length of ownership has moved to over eight years today.
So you have people paying more for their cars and keeping them longer.
Plus, the social environment has changed in that you have people working longer hours and husbands and wives both working with less opportunity for leisure-time activities. As a result, the DIY (do it yourself) market has given way to the DIFM (do it for me) market. Consumers are paying others to do some of the things that they commonly did in the past, such as washing the car; cutting the lawn; painting the house; washing the windows; and waxing the car.
As a result, today's consumers not only want their cars washed, but they recognize a need for polishing and waxing and interior cleaning and shampoo and want someone to do that for them.
This is what has given rise to the major change in the detail industry that began in the 1980s and has mushroomed into a huge business opportunity today.
Express maintenance detailing services
For a number of years the existing detail industry, which was wholesale oriented, did not respond to the consumer demand for detail service because their focus was simply on doing work for the auto dealer. However, the automatic carwash, the consumer's purveyor of car care service, was more or less forced into the detail business by consumer demand. Later, other auto service businesses saw the potential: Body shops; quick lube shops; and even auto dealers themselves began offering detail service to the retail customer.
But the carwash industry found that their fast service did not fit well with the time consuming detail service. The carwash customer wanted a service they could get quickly while at the carwash. So what was born out of this situation was a new side to the detail industry, what is now called express maintenance detailing services, which typically are a quick wax only and/or a quick carpet shampoo and maybe seat shampoo. Detail services that can be completed in 30 minutes or less.
Since the late 1980s, express detailing services have become a huge moneymaker for carwash operations that understand what they are selling and have sufficient space, equipment and personnel to process the demand. Some Southern California operators reported selling 25 percent of their carwash customers an express detail service resulted in revenues of $1,000,000 a year.
Without question express detailing services are something every carwash operator should be considering, and they will only continue to grow in popularity with carwash customers.
Full-service restoration detailing
While this form of detailing has remained the same, in concept, it has changed. Some carwash operations are still offering full-service detailing services, and as mentioned, body shops, quick lube operations and auto dealers are also cashing in on the demand for more extensive car care and offering this service to their patrons.
As well, the number of freestanding detail shops has evolved from just doing wholesale detailing for the auto dealer to a combination of dealer work and retail work, with the edge with today's freestanding detail business going to retail.
More and more business savvy detail business owners are not willing to provide full-service detailing services for the dealer at the "low prices" that dealers typically were charged in the past by the "back-alley" detail operations. As a result, more and more auto dealers themselves are taking their detail needs in-house and setting up their own detail departments to do their new car get-ready, used car detailing and also to capitalize on the consumer demand for detailing by offering it to their customers.
This is one of the major things that has occurred in the industry that should continue for the next 10 years.
As well, another major phenomenon has occurred in the detail business, and that is the rise of mobile detailing. Everyday you find more and more "want-to-be" entrepreneurs opening up a mobile detailing business bringing the detail service to the consumers at home or to their office. Even to their athletic clubs, country clubs, etc.
The reason for the growth of the mobile detail business is the seemingly low entry cost to set up such a business operation. Plus, it appears to be a "one-person" business, requiring no employees and the corresponding costs that go with having employees.
For many who enter the mobile business it can be relatively low cost because they are not complying with all of the laws of the land. No water containment system, no business license and minimal equipment investment.
But for those who setup a true business with the necessary equipment, water containment system, business license, etc., they could be looking at an investment of $12,000 to $15,000, depending on whether they operate out of a pickup, van or trailer (open or closed). Plus they have the high cost of gasoline and insurance, if they can obtain it.
The downsides of mobile detailing should be considered by anyone looking to go into this type of detailing business.
• Weather: You can only be active in areas with good weather. You are literally out of business in winter in areas where it freezes or continually rains.
• Time: An operator wastes a great deal of time driving from one house or office to another, so a great deal of valuable detailing time is lost driving. Therefore your time to make money is limited.
• Insurance: For most insurance companies, mobile detailing is an unknown entity, and they either will not offer insurance or put the business in a high-rate category.
• Water containment systems: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws in all states require waste water be contained, removed and disposed of in a prescribed manner, which can be costly.
• Pricing: Unfortunately the consumer does not perceive the mobile detail service to be as worth as much as the same service done in a shop. So the prices charged and paid for by the motorist are far less than they should be for a custom service brought to your home or office.
All of this said, there are some mobile detailers in the Sun Belt states who not only do cars but also boats, airplanes and RVs and make a very good living.
One product that has made a comeback in the past 10 years has been waterless wash. Introduced in 1990s, you might remember the multi-level marketing product called Dri-Wash & Guard which was sold mainly to consumers who did not want to use water to wash their cars. It was never accepted by the professional detail or carwash industries, of course.
But a few companies, namely Pronto Wash out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, embarked on an aggressive franchise program selling master distributorships all over the world, and their efforts, plus another franchise company out of England and one out of Australia, got some interest in waterless washing going again, especially in the professional industry. This interest was helped along by the major emphasis on everything green.
Many of the small mobile washers and detailers set up their businesses without a pressure washer and without using water, "washing cars" with waterless wash. While there is a place for the waterless wash chemical in a detailer's arsenal of products, it is not, in my opinion, a viable concept that is going to have a major impact on the industry. Most of the franchise companies are struggling, but probably not as much as those they sold into the business.
These seem to be the major trends that we have seen in the detail industry the past 10 years and seem to be the way it will go into the future.
The one thing that might change and have a major impact on the detail industry is the chance that a large company, such as a major chemical company or large investment group, will see the potential that the auto detailing presents and will set up a Starbucks-type operation in the detailing industry — or possibly a Jiffy Lube-type of detail franchise. Both would be, no doubt, state-of-the-art and give detailing a sense of legitimacy as found with other auto services businesses.
Next month, part 2 will discuss the equipment, chemical, system and supply trends and innovations for 2012. Until then, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].
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 a founding member of and first executive director of the International Detailing Association, and a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted [email protected].