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Detailing

The evolution of express detailing

In the almost 50 years I have been writing articles for the carwash and detailing industries, there have been a myriad of changes in both industries — so many, in fact, that a good author could write a book on either industry. For many years, the carwash and detail industries were separate entities for one major reason:The carwash industry focused on the retail market, whereas the detail industry was almost entirely devoted to the auto dealer market.While there was some overlap, it was not enough to discuss.

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However, in the 1980s, the detail industry began to see an interest from retail consumers wanting a service beyond the carwash to maintain the cosmetic care of their vehicles. There were numerous reasons for this interest:

  • The average price of a motor vehicle was increasing. 
  • For many people, the automobile was becoming their second-largest investment.
  • They were keeping their vehicles longer. 
  • They wanted to protect their leisure time.
  • Over 50% of the motorists were women.

But like all change, the detail industry was resistant; they kept detailing cars for auto dealers at a lower price than they could get from a retail customer. In fairness to the detail business owners at that time, they were almost all technicians who were operating a business that provided detailing. They had no expertise in how to market to — or even deal with — a retail customer.

Understanding retailing

It was really difficult to see the amount of money detail business owners were losing, because they had no idea the potential the retail market offered them in the 1980s and even into the 1990s.

However, carwash operators — as purveyors of cosmetic car care services to the retail customer — were in a phenomenal position to reap the benefits of this market demand. They had the customers who were already spending their money on minimal car care (a full service carwash); they had the visible retail location; they had the money to finance a detail operation; they had the personnel (or ability to hire the right personnel) to perform detailing services; and most of them had the marketing savvy to exploit the market opportunity.

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So, it was the carwash operator from the early 1980s into the early 2000s who drove the retail demand for auto detailing services.

That said, it was not an easy task for the carwash operator. How so? The carwash purchase is an impulse purchase, where the customer drives by a visible carwash location and decides to drive into the wash. So, if an operator has a great, visible location on a heavily traveled street and gives a good carwash at a reasonable price, he or she will do very well with little marketing effort. 

On the other hand, the detail service is more of what we call a destination-oriented purchase, where the customer plans to have detail service done and either drops in for an appointment or calls and makes an appointment. This was difficult for carwash operators to understand, as they simply expected the customer would just ask for the service. 

And, the big mistake they made was to hire “detail technicians” to operate the detail department in the carwash. The problem here was you had detailers who only had experience in how to detail a car and none in dealing with a retail customer, so they were really unable to capitalize on the customer potential.

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That said, enough carwash operators were successful in offering retail detailing that its popularity continued to grow with motorists, and detail business owners began to realize that they were missing out on a potential market. So, we saw the professional detail industry moving ever so slowly toward the retail market and away from the wholesale dealer market.

Enter express maintenance detailing

While the detail industry was transitioning to the retail market, many carwash operators realized they were not well-equipped to handle a destination-oriented purchase in their impulse-oriented carwash businesses, and as a result, they began to transition into what the carwash industry erroneously called “express detailing.”

The question was: How can you do something that normally takes four to five hours so quickly? In spite of this confusion, the express detail concept was a natural winner for those carwash operators astute enough to figure out that what they were offering was a quick (30 minutes or less) wax or carpet shampoo at a price-point (initially $24.95 to $29.95 for either service),which was much lower than a professional detailer could charge for the same service. And, as carwash operators began to understand what they were selling, they used the term “maintenance detail services” in their on-site marketing to generate sales of over $1 million a year in some washes.

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It was a perfect fit for the carwash operator and the motorist. The customer was already at the carwash and was already out of the car (in the case of a full service wash); the service took 30 minutes or less; and there was a low price point. Needless to say, this concept dominated the industry well into the 21st century. 

But a number of factors were at play in the carwash industry that did not bode well for the development of full service carwashes:

As a result of these and other issues, most new investors in the carwash business began to build exterior or express carwash locations, which required very little labor, were less costly to build and equip, required less land and were easier for which to obtain zone permits. And with this mindset, the concept of express maintenance detail services started to wane with carwash operations.

Related: The evolution of express exterior carwashing

Where things stand today

If nothing really changed and things more or less remained the same for carwash operators, they would be fine — at least the full service and exterior wash operations that were doing a healthy volume of business would be. But for others not reaching profitable wash volumes, something like express detailing could be just what they needed.

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However, with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation and the world as I write this article, we know things are not the same and will not be the same for quite some time. Even as the U.S. begins to lift quarantines, things will not go back to normal immediately.

From what I understand, most — if not all — full service carwashes are either completely closed (as in Colorado, at the time of writing this article) or they can stay open offering exterior-only washes but closing the free-vacuum lanes. In addition, with fewer people driving, there are tremendously reduced volumes in most washes, and they will remain low until things get back to normal, and who knows how long that will be?

It seems that during this post-COVID-19 time, carwash operators should be looking for simple sources of revenue. The express maintenance detailing concept can be that source of revenue like it has been for the industry. As for existing exterior carwashes with no indoor space for express detailing, they can put up a portable tent for one or two vehicles somewhere on the property to enjoy the additional revenues that can be generated.

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In a future article, I will revisit what is needed for a successful express maintenance detailing operation at your carwash, but for now, let’s work on generating additional profits.  


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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