Express detailing: It needs a standard - Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Express detailing: It needs a standard

The concept of express detailing is sweeping through the carwash industry like a tornado in Kansas and is gaining more strength and velocity as it goes.

The concept of express detailing is sweeping through the carwash industry like a tornado in Kansas and is gaining more strength and velocity as it goes.

While this may seem like good news to many carwash operators, here’s a word of advice from an “old timer” in the carwash business: During my over 40 years in the business I have seen a lot of carwash diversification efforts come and go. And, many operators didn’t even pursue the diversification opportunities.

Quick waxes and shampoos are not new!

Some of the other “old timers” in the business will remember the Waxcoa Simoniz “Quick Wax Program” of the early 70s, introduced to the industry by L.A. carwash operators Bob Burglin and Sam Itaya. It was as hot a concept then as “express detailing” is today. Then, as quickly as it came onto the scene, it was gone.

Also in the 70s, one of the large carwash equipment manufacturers introduced the “Foam Carpet Shampoo System”. This entailed spraying a moist foam shampoo on the carpets and mats, scrubbing it in with a brush, and vacuuming it up. The service was done either at the entrance or exit of the wash. It too was “hot” for a while, and then died. The “why” is not important. What is important is the fact that a viable service was offered by the carwashes and then faded away.

Will express detailing disappear too?

It might! Certainly, the chances are good that it will if operators do not make more of a commitment to express detailing than they did to the Waxcoa Quick Wax Program or the Foam Carpet Shampoo System.

What’s the problem?

From this author’s perspective, there is still no clear-cut definition of what express detailing is or what the benefits are that it offers the motorist.

This became clear to me when I listened to the recording of an Express Detailing Seminar at an ICA convention. The discussion panel was composed of several of the country’s more successful operators of carwashes with express detailing programs.

After listening to the recording once, I listened to it again to make sure I had heard correctly.

It seemed to me that every operator had a different opinion of the service. Some called it express detailing, some “express wax” and “express carpet shampoo”, and some “express polishing”. Some included the wash, others did not. Prices varied from $19.95 to over $49.95 for the same service. Trying to get an idea of what equipment and chemicals to use was not consistent.

You can see the problem: There is no consistency, no standard presentation of what the service includes, or how it is performed.

Listen to the suppliers

As any good reporter would, I proceeded to dig out the recording of the Express Detailing Seminar held at another ICA convention. The seminar participants represented manufacturers/suppliers to the express detailing business.

After listening to this recording, some of the reasons for the inconsistency among operators became clear: The suppliers exhibited no consistency with regard to the express detailing concept.

Concerned that I may have been listening to the recordings with some preconceived notions, I gave both of them to a marketing/advertising consultant with some 20 years of experience in the carwash industry and asked for his opinion. Surprisingly, it was the same as mine.

The consultant made a very interesting observation about the seminar presented by the suppliers. He noted that each supplier had a totally different opinion about what it took to be successful in express detailing. Each supplier’s opinion, he observed, was based on the particular supplier’s selling perspective.

One speaker advocated franchise operations, where the franchiser controls all aspects of how the business operates. There was merit to this approach. However, he confused matters by constantly referring to full service detailing within the context of an Express Detailing franchise. The speaker offered a franchise.

Another speaker maintained that an intensive training program was all that was needed ― training of both detailers and sales staff. Little mention was made of equipment. This presenter worked for a training consultant.

A third speaker belabored the importance of using the right chemicals ― a nationally recognized brand name of chemicals. The speaker was, of course, from a nationally known chemical company.

Yours truly was also a speaker, and being from an equipment-oriented company, I emphasized the importance of equipment in generating increased productivity and reduced labor costs.

In truth, all of the presenters touched on the importance of other factors involved in running a successful express detailing operation, but there was no doubt about where their emphasis really was.

What’s the solution?

If you agree with my premise that neither the suppliers nor the operators have a clear perspective with regard to the nature of express detailing, then the obvious solution is the establishment of a set of consistent standards.

Standards would work in favor of the consumers’ interests. Motorists would know exactly what they are being offered when a service writer at a carwash approaches them about express detailing services.

Look at the carwash business. There are basic standards. You have automatic full service carwashes, exterior carwashes, some that offer both, and self service carwashes. These types of washes offer the same, basic, consistent services anywhere in the country.

What about the quick lube industry? Whether franchise stores, regional chains, or under independent ownership, these businesses offer clear cut, consistent services to the motorist the same way, at about the same price, anywhere in the country.

Unfortunately, this cannot be said about express detailing. There is not consistency in terms of name, services offered, prices charged, personnel, equipment, or chemicals used.

A long range standard

If you still agree with me at this point, then stay with me a little longer and I will share with you my thoughts about a consistent standard for what the carwash industry calls express detailing.

As you read this recommended standard, keep in mind that several other impulse driven auto service industries are beginning to offer “Express Detailing Services”.

For example, in a recent survey, conducted by a leading trade publication for the lube and oil industry, it was reported that 11 percent of quick lubes offer detailing.

Gasoline station operators are also starting to offer quick waxes and shampoos to their gasoline customers. How long do you think it will be before “Big Oil” locks onto this business as it did with carwashing?

When these majors enter the express detailing business, you can bet they will establish some consistency that will become the standard. Since the carwash industry initiated the concept, don’t you think it should set the standard?


1.     Name

There needs to be a consistent, definable name the motorist can understand. Express Detailing only says, “It is detailing done fast”. For many detail customers, the idea of “fast” could be a negative if not clarified.

I ask: Is it Express Detailing because it is fast, or because it is low priced? Which is it? You see, the name does not clearly state what you do!

What I advocate is the use of the name “Maintenance Detailing Services” to which we might add the line: “Completed in 30 minutes or less”. Even if the customer is not entirely sure of the nature of the services, the term “maintenance” clarifies them as services that maintain the vehicle rather than restore it.

2.     Services

Two basic services will suffice: A quick wax/sealant applied and removed with a tool or by hand on a new, relatively new, or well-maintained vehicle, and a carpet shampoo of slightly dirty carpets (this includes floor mats). When I say slightly dirty, I mean to exclude severely stained carpets/mats or those with ground in dirt and sand which could take you the better part of an hour to do.

You can shampoo seats, but once you include these, it is hard to stop short of doing the whole interior, which is difficult to complete in 30 minutes or less. However, if you have the space, equipment, and personnel, you can offer more services.

If you want to keep it simple: Wax/sealant on the paint and a carpet shampoo.

There are a number of optional services you could offer that can be highly profitable and can be done in 30 minutes or less. They require very little in the way of skill, labor, or equipment:

a.             Guaranteed Paint Sealant

b.            Fabric Protectant

c.             Leather Conditioning

d.            Water Spot Removal

e.             Windshield Chip Repair

The quick lube industry has overwhelmingly embraced windshield chip repair as a part of their menu of optional services.

3.     Pricing

Since the car has to be washed before it can be sealed or waxed, and since you have a carwash, I would charge no less than $39.95 for a maintenance wax/sealant and a carwash; no less than $39.95 for the carpet shampoo, including mats. You can also offer a package of both services at a slight discount say, $74.95.

If you choose to offer the optional quick maintenance services, I would suggest the following prices:

Guaranteed Paint Sealant       $99.95 to $129.95

Fabric Protectant                      $29.95 (no guarantee)

                                                       $69.95 (with guarantee)

Leather Conditioner                  $ 9.95

Water Spot Removal                 $5.00 per window

                                                        $7.50 windshield or rear window

Windshield Chip Repair            $40.00*

*This is what insurance companies will pay while waiving the deductible.

4.     Facilities/Equipment

This is probably the most critical area to consider in establishing a standard for this business. There are several reasons:

a.             Consistent professional image for the consumer.

b.            These are high volume, impulse purchased services like the carwash or quick lube and need to be completed quickly to enable you a volume business and to make money.

c.             If an operator makes no commitment to the business, they will never succeed. Remember the old adage: “You only get out of it what you put into it.”


Establish a separate, two bay area or in a building. If business dictates more space, you could add one or two more bays.


I would equip the facility as follows:

a.             Vacuum

b.            Soil Extractor

c.             Air Powered Orbital Waxer or Dual-Action Tool

d.            Air Powered Rotary Shampooer

e.             Chemical. The number could vary; six is a good number.

f.             Portable Detail Carts with Towel and Refuse Bins

Equipped like this, a wax/sealant could be completed by two people in less than 15 minutes, 30 minutes with one person. A shampoo can be wrapped up in about the same time.

5.     Chemicals

Since you are working on vehicles with paint finishes in relatively good condition and carpets/mats only slightly dirty, your chemical requirements should be minimal:

a.             Sealant: A sealant is a better product than a wax. It goes on easier, comes off faster, and leaves a much more durable finish ― up to six months in some cases.

b.            The One Step Cleaner/Sealant: A combination of light cleaners and sealants to provide some cleaning on paint finishes that have surface dirt, blemishes, etc. Same benefits as a sealant only.

c.             Carpet Shampoo: A foaming shampoo formulated for friction shampooing with a machine or hand brush.

d.            Tar and Grease Remover: Most vehicles will have some tar on the rocker panels. This should be removed prior to waxing.

e.             Dressing: For tires and interiors.

f.             Glass Cleaner: Some exterior only operations may want to clean the glass outside, inside or both.

If you offer the optional services mentioned, you will need:

g.            Fabric Protectant: A Scotchgard type stain repellant coating for carpet and fabric upholstery.

h.             Leather Conditioner: Unlike a dressing, a conditioner replaces oils in leather and moisturizes it.

i.              Glass Polish: Used with “00” or “000” steel wool, you can successfully remove water spots on glass in minutes.

6.     Supplies

For Maintenance Services your supply needs are:

a.             Towels – Three types: Water & Wax, Chemical, Window

b.            Nylon Scrub Brushes for Carpets & Fabric Upholstery

c.             Detail Brushes to Remove Wax Residue

d.            Scrubby Pads to clean Vinyl & Leather

e.             Dressing Applicator Pads

7.     Marketing & Sales

Until these services become recognized by the motorist and purchased as a regular part of cosmetic maintenance, and until the motorist is able to differentiate them from full-service “restoration” detail services, all marketing and sales should be done exclusively to carwash customers only.

Certainly, you will take referrals and word of mouth customers, but save your dollars, and do not confuse the motorist by trying to advertise the service. Keep it at home. There is plenty of business at your wash.

In a full service carwash, the sale should be made by the service writer at the drive-in area for most effective results. That way all transactions are handled through the service writer and cashier.

In the case of an exterior only or self-serve, the sale will have to be made at the location where the express detailing services are being offered to avoid slowing down the cars on the conveyor.

Simply hand out a menu explanation sheet to the customer and, if they are interested, they can be instructed to proceed to the detail facility. There will be variations to this depending on carwash layout and volume. A high volume exterior only wash, for example, does not want to tie up traffic selling detail services at the entrance of the carwash.

An attended self-serve can hand out menu/flyers to customers at the vacuums and in the bays. Signs can be placed in each bay to promote the service.

8.     Training

Actually, the services are so easy to perform that, once you have set up your facility and equipment and chosen the services and chemicals, you can learn to execute them from a manual or video. If you prefer, you should be able to find a few companies able to provide training services. If I can be of any assistance in this regard, give me a call at (800) 284-0123.

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 the founding member of the International Detailing Association and its first executive director. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors.

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