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Operations and Management

The effect of the pandemic on carwashing

The coronavirus pandemic and its direct effects on U.S. businesses, especially small businesses, caught many off-guard, to say the least. But, was our industry better prepared by coincidence compared to most others, especially in the areas of contactless transactions and services? From my viewpoint and in general, the answer has been an optimistically cautious “yes.”

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Did carwashes across the country shut down, change plans, alter service offerings, reduce staff and make other hard choices that many retail, consumer-facing businesses had to make? Yes. Were traffic counts lower during spring and summer months this year, as fewer cars were on the road in need of washing? For many carwashes, this answer was also “yes.”

But, there is a silver lining for those modern, cutting-edge and technology-embracing carwashes in 2020. This industry was once considered one in which key economic indicators, such as unemployment and disposable income, drove general demand and market performance, so if nothing else, this pandemic has reinforced the need for such advancements as contactless payments and consistent revenue with subscription-based programs in order to stabilize business when needed most, according to our research.

In late July, I interviewed Stu Crum, CEO of True Blue Car Wash. The video interview, which can be found on Carwash.com, confirms many industry professionals’ early thoughts on the pandemic and its potential effect on carwash businesses.

“We planned for the worst. We really thought the bottom was going to fall off … [but] that really hasn’t happened,” said Crum. “From a revenue standpoint, yes we were affected in March, but it came back in April and came back strong in May and June. [We] had a record June both from a revenue and EBITA perspective.” 

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Carwashing — in particular express exterior — is proving to be resilient in the face of prolonged economic concern and a pandemic, according to several insiders I have spoken with in recent months. These factors and others are causing investors to lean in with consolidation efforts.

Of course, while many carwashes were able to weather the storm this year so far, others, including many full-serve carwashes, were forced to close down or significantly change. I spoke with one California full-serve operator in April who expressed frustration over a lack of communication with local officials; confusing or different guidelines from county to county within the state; labor concerns, including layoffs; and more hardships endured from the pandemic.

We’re here to help inform all carwashes, regardless of how they are impacted from these uncertain times. In addition to our popular Top 50 U.S. Conveyor Chain List, we have also included several articles in this issue to help keep you informed and educated on operating a carwash or detailing business during unprecedented times. It might still be a long road to normalcy, but early reactions support optimism for continued carwash growth.    

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