To detail or not to detail?

To detail or not to detail?

The difficult question facing many carwash operators is: Should they commit to a program of “professional detailing”?

Since the early 1980s, the auto detail industry has undergone a never-before-experienced growth — or more appropriately, an explosion. For a variety of reasons, today’s motorist is demanding cosmetic car care services beyond the normal professional carwash. Some of the reasons are: the protection of leisure time, the rising cost of automobiles and the increasing length of ownership.

In addition, the motorist has become increasingly aware of their inability to service the cosmetic needs of the vehicle, considering the high-tech paint finishes as well as sophisticated leather upholsteries. In any case, this has translated itself into a business opportunity without comparison in the auto service industry. 

The carwash operator

There’s probably no businessperson better positioned to capture this opportunity than the professional carwash operator. They’re even better prepared than the existing detail shop. Why? 

For years, existing detail shops catered primarily to the auto dealer. Most detail operations were wholesale-oriented, not retail-oriented. As a result, the existing detail business usually doesn’t have a good retail location, nor do they have an attractive facility, well-groomed employees and well-trained employees, and are not familiar with retail marketing and merchandising. They have little experience with advertising and don’t know how to deal with the needs of the retail customer. 

On the other hand, a carwash operator has it all: 

  • Excellent retail location
  • Attractive facility
  • Well-trained and -groomed employees
  • Experience with merchandising
  • Advertising expertise
  • Capability to deal with the retail customer.

What’s the problem then?

While all of these factors are important to success in the professional detailing business, they are only a part of the picture. 

Less than 70% of the motoring public really understands what auto detailing is all about. Even though these people may want all of the services, they are unable to verbalize this need due to a lack of understanding. Therefore, it is critical for success in detailing that you recognize this key marketing factor and be ready to deal with it. 

It is not enough to offer the service by hanging a few signs and expecting the customers to purchase the service. Even though they want the service, it is your obligation to help them better understand exactly what their vehicle requires. 

However,if you want to win the race in which you have a tremendous head start, you must make a decision to commit to becoming a professional auto detail specialist. 

The program

As the title of this article notes: To detail or not to detail? How does this relate to the decision to offer detail services? 

I am speaking to you in terms of being a planner in a new industry. Make the same commitment to detailing that you’ve made to carwashing. 

For example, consider the commitment you would make to enter the quick lube business. You need a competent manager, a separate building, specialized equipment, well-trained employees and a merchandising program, among other things — all of this in a business that is saturated, competitive and loaded with big companies operating nationwide chains of stores. 

The retail-oriented detail industry, on the other hand, has no real competition, has no big players and offers unlimited potential. 

What is the potential?

Considering that there are over 130 million automobiles in the U.S., it has been estimated the U.S. market could support at least 10,000 detail centers each doing 3,000 cars per year. This only represents 25% of the market. 

It is my opinion that you should commit to auto detailing as you would if you were setting up a new carwash or quick lube business.

Don’t shortcut. If you want to be a professional in the auto detail business for the long run, do what it takes. A partial shortcut approach to auto detailing will only result in short-term successes, if at all. You can ask the many carwash operators who have already learned this fact. 


In a race, it is good to know your competitors and where they are after the race starts. In the detail business, you have the existing detail operations that are not really very much competition if your plan is to go after the retail customer.

However, a new type of competition is coming in fast: the investor and the entrepreneur. Those astute businesspeople have recognized the potential for professional auto detailing and are doing something about it in a professional way. 

These competitors take two forms: 

  • The entrepreneur
  • The investor buyer.

From all reports, most are experiencing excellent results. It is estimated that the aforementioned groups increased their market share from 4,000 detail businesses in 1980 to over 15,000 today — with room to spare.

What this means is that the carwash operator is in a position to capture a major position in this market.

Keep in mind that you can establish what a professional detail center should be, setting the standard for the industry. You can be a pioneer. As you educate motorists in automotive detailing, they will come to expect that level of professionalism. Any business offering less will find itself in a very uncompetitive position. 

Therefore, if you are considering a decision to enter the auto detail business, you need to make the decision for the long run. 

Start slow and see if it works

Many operators we talk to state that they “want to start slow and see if they can make a go of it.” That’s short-sighted. 

If they doubt the potential of this industry and their own abilities to function successfully in the business, they shouldn’t be in it in the first place. 

On the other hand, if you don’t have the money to set up a professional detail center, that is another issue. There are alternative ways to begin slow and reach the level of professionalism you desire. However, even this is not recommended. 

Think about it. How many would consider entering the quick-lube business with a floor jack, oil pan, grease gun and a few cans of oil? The analogy is the same for auto detailing. 

Therefore, if you plan to do auto detailing for the long run, you should make a commitment to do it professionally and do what it takes — no shortcuts.  

RL “Bud” Abraham has been in the carwash and detailing industries since 1969 and is considered one of the foremost experts in the field. He worked for several carwash manufacturers and started his own company, DETAIL PLUS, in 1986. He was the founder and first executive secretary of the International Detailing Association. Today, he offers consulting services on carwashing and/or detailing to operators and manufacturers. Contact Bud at [email protected].

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