The carwash industry has always had concerns about labor costs and availability of good labor, and with the pandemic, the labor situation has become even worse with the government paying people to be unemployed. I say that because many people are receiving more money for being unemployed than they would receive if they were working.
For years, in the traditional full service model, most carwash operators have struggled to make it all work. For that reason, an alternative is needed for operators having a difficult time.
The recent evolution from full service to exterior only and express washing is clear proof of what I am saying. Now is the time for another alternative — what I call the “express plus” carwash.
As mentioned, there has been a concern in the automatic carwash industry that the traditional full service carwash might be moving toward a “white elephant status” because of a number of factors beyond the carwash operator’s control, including:
- Rising labor costs
- A dwindling source of dependable labor
- Higher workers’ comp insurance rates
- The general difficulty in managing such a large labor force with the peaks and valleys in carwash volume from day to day — and even hour to hour — due to weather, area of the country, etc.
That is not to say there aren’t many full service carwashes that are still very profitable and doing high volumes and generating excellent revenues per car. But in most cases, these are in the larger population areas and/or carwashes that have been established for years — and some with little or no competition.
But for those operators who are not so fortunate, changes must be made if they are to survive, and part of the change must take into consideration the changing buying habits of today’s consumers.
In almost every industry, consumers are buying convenience. In fact, marketing experts say that this is what made Founder Ray Kroc a success with McDonald’s: his recognition that he was not selling hamburgers and french fries but convenience.
Applying this to the carwash industry, we see customers who are in a hurry, customers possessive of their time, customers with children and pets in their vehicles, sales reps with vehicles loaded with samples and customers who simply do not want strangers in their vehicles.
What is a carwash really worth?
There is also the issue of value. What is a carwash really worth? It is not a question of whether a customer can afford what the operator wants to charge but of what “value” he or she places on a carwash. Does the consumer really feel that a carwash is worth $20 to $30? I think not, and if you honestly asked yourself that question, as a consumer, you would have to say no.
Independent studies clearly reveal that when the prices at the full service carwashes rise, reported volumes decrease for many operations across the country.
The birth of the exterior carwash concept
At the same time full service carwash operators were struggling with the problems mentioned, other operators were pioneering or switching to another carwash concept that had been more or less ignored by most of the “professional carwash operators” — that being the conveyorized exterior carwash concept.
The conveyorized exterior carwash made its major impact on the industry in the early ‘70s when the oil companies discovered that a free carwash with a fill-up could dramatically increase the sales of gasoline. As a result, they dumped millions of dollars into the development of thousands of exterior wash operations with gasoline all over the U.S.
While some operations were company-owned, many others were privately owned but financed by oil companies.
While many of the traditional full service carwash operators bemoaned the oil company encroachment into the carwash industry and felt they were devaluing the carwash business with their free carwash concept, the clear fact remained that, overall, the free carwash with a gas purchase brought millions of motorists that had never before used carwashes into them.
Then came the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s, which put an immediate halt to the development of further oil company-owned or -financed exterior gas/washes.
There were, however, a few astute carwash operators across the country that recognized that the exterior carwash, without gasoline, was a viable concept and that what they were selling was convenience and not a carwash. These “pioneers” began to develop chains of exterior-only carwashes in their markets that today are thriving businesses basically unaffected by many of the problems faced by the traditional full service carwash operator.
Volume vs. revenue
The key to the success of the conveyorized exterior carwash is based on high volume, which is fueled by low price as well as fast and convenient service.
Many operations across the country are pricing their exterior washes at $5 to $8 while operating with one or two employees and reporting volumes that are double and triple what full service carwashes might do per month — not to mention that labor costs less than 20% of gross sales.
Many full service operations that have converted to exterior-only in recent years have also reported volumes three times as much as they were as a full service wash.
In spite of the obvious success of the exterior concept, many full service carwash advocates argue against the exterior wash concept by using the “revenue per car” position. They believe that high revenue per car will offset the lower volumes and higher labor costs.
Certainly, if a full service operator is enjoying high or moderate volumes and experiencing a high revenue per car as well as a nice pre-tax profit and does not mind managing the labor that goes with operating a full service wash, one would be hard-pressed to argue with them.
But, what about the operator who is not enjoying profitable volume, does not have a high revenue per car or simply does not want the hassles of managing the typical labor issues inherent in operating a full service carwash?
Or what about the operator who is coming into the carwash business for the first time? If full service carwash management and profitability is difficult for an experienced operator, how much more so is it going to be for a newbie to the industry? We all know the answer to that.
There are so many stories of multimillion-dollar carwash facilities built by inexperienced investors that failed within a couple years of being built because of the difficulties in managing a full service carwash and the labor.
That is where the exterior carwash concept comes in as the answer to these problems.
Maximizing the investment
All those arguments aside, what it amounts to is a more realistic way to maximize investment.
If you have an existing carwash facility, you have paid for the land, the construction, the building and the equipment, and you have labor on-site. But, you are rarely operating much above 30% capacity.
By offering a lower-priced exterior wash, you literally drive business into the carwash. You might call this a form of “guerrilla marketing” — attracting new customers who would not pay the higher full service carwash prices.
And, at the same time, bringing regular customers in more often.
It is reported that exterior washes offering a lower price are bringing customers in at least once a week and more. They’re even washing excellent volumes on days that rain might be forecast and even on rainy days themselves. Why? Because it is now a “value” to drive a clean car.
Another benefit to the operator from all of this is that the vehicles are much cleaner and easier to wash, resulting in more satisfied customers.
From the exterior wash to the express plus concept
Now that we have established the benefits of exterior carwashing — lower labor, higher volume, easier management and more revenue — we can easily transition to a discussion of the express plus detailing concept.
Recalling the point made earlier that the motorist has a ceiling on what he or she feels a carwash is worth (and that might be $5 to $10), what is the motorist’s perception or value of auto detailing services? Keep in mind that the market for auto detailing services is limited in that less than 20% of the motoring public purchase detailing services on a regular basis.
The big marketing question is: “Who are these customers?”
They certainly are neither the coupon clippers nor the discount gasoline purchasers. They are people who recognize the need for services to maintain the cosmetic condition of their vehicles, do not want to do it themselves and have the money to spend to have someone else do it for them. They are, in short, your current carwash customers.
The important factors to remember about detailing customers are these:
- They recognize detailing services are worth more than a carwash.
- They pay the higher prices for the service.
- They usually go to the detail shop for an estimate.
- They make an appointment.
- They drop off their cars on the day of the appointment.
- They leave them, usually all day.
- They come back and pick them up.
All this and they pay a high price. At a full service restoration detailing center, a customer will pay at least $75 to $100 for just a wash and wax service.
That said, now let us look at how an express plus carwash and detailing operation can benefit the carwash operator and the motorist at the same time — a win-win.
What the carwash operator is able to do with the express plus concept is to provide detailing services to the customer that eliminates the high prices and all of the hassle for the motorist. How so?
Let’s look at the benefits an express plus detailing operation offers:
- The prices are at least 50% to 75% less expensive than they would be at a full service detail center.
- They are convenient, since the motorist is already at the carwash.
- The motorists do not have to make an appointment; they can purchase the services “on-demand,” so to speak.
- Since any one of the services can be completed in 15 to 30 minutes, they do not have to leave their vehicles.
It does not take a marketing genius to see that the operator of an express plus exterior carwash and detail center is in a position to maximize the investment in land, construction, building and equipment by utilizing this operating platform.
You are giving the motorists what they want and eliminating the high price and hassle.
The merchandizing program
Typically, the exterior carwash would offer either two or three wash packages, although we suggest only two:
- Exterior wash: $5 to $8
- Wash with polish and wax: $8 to $12.
In addition, you should sell blocks of five washes at a $1 discount on the wash package and $2 off the wash and polish package. Operators using this approach will sell washes in advance to up to 40% of customers.
Express detail services
The detailing program typically offers a choice of four express detailing services that can be completed by one person in 30 minutes and two people in 15 minutes:
- Exterior wash and wax: $39.95 to $49.95
- Exterior wash and carpet shampoo: $39.95 to $49.95
- Exterior wash and seat shampoo: $39.95 to $49.95
- Exterior wash and super interior clean: $39.95.
There should be a discount attached to the services:
- Purchase two services: $10 discount
- Purchase three services: $20 discount
- Purchase four services: $30 discount.
This discount program for some operators can result in an average sale per customer of two services.
Add a fifth service
For existing full service carwash operations considering the transition from traditional full service to the express plus concept or for those die-hards who think that “their customers are different than anywhere else in the country,” you could offer a fifth service — what we call an express plus interior clean.
This service also comes with the wash, so it is billed as an exterior wash and interior clean as opposed to the super interior clean at $39.95. The interior clean is priced at only $19.95 — a $20 savings compared to the super interior clean.
What do customers receive with an interior clean? Besides the exterior carwash, they get the following:
- Hand dry of vehicle exterior and door jambs
- Complete interior vacuum of carpets and seats
- Complete interior dusting of dash, door panels and seats
- Interior window clean
- Interior fragrance
- Tire dressing.
Some might say, “Hey, this is nothing but a glorified full service wash.” Glorified it is, but it’s a lot more service. The key factor is that “it is not a carwash service” — it is a “detail service.” In other words, services the customer perceives as being more valuable than a carwash and for which they will pay more money.
With express plus, you are offering the carwash at a price where it will attract more customers more often. On the other hand, you are offering detail services at prices much cheaper than the customer would normally pay in addition to being far more convenient to purchase.
Even if customers should complain about the interior clean at $19.95, you can point out that besides getting far more service than they would get with a traditional full service wash, they can purchase the “interior clean” for only $12.95 if they purchase a second express service, such as a wax.
With an express plus carwash, we have shown how the operator will reduce labor by offering an exterior wash only. Many exterior carwash operators are reporting labor percentages from below 20% of gross revenues.
With the express detailing services, your labor and material costs are less than 15% of gross revenue, because the only real costs are for labor and materials and possibly sales commissions, because all other costs are already being paid by the carwash.
To present it more graphically, if you received $39.95 for an express service and your costs for labor, materials and the carwash were $10, the net profit would be $30 per car.
First, you must ask what volumes you can expect from your exterior carwash. That, of course, depends on location, layout, pricing, speed, quality and consistency of service. But, assuming these are above average, you can expect double or triple the volume you would get with a full service wash.
One operator who converted an older, existing full service wash to a lower-priced exterior-only ($5) went from 6,000 cars a month with 50% labor to 18,000 cars per month with 20% labor.
Because the express detail operation feeds off carwash volume, it is critical for operators to understand that it is in their best interests to do all they can to increase and maintain the highest carwash volumes to feed their express detail operations.
Your express detail volume can range from 5% to over 25% of carwash volume. Some existing exterior washes that have converted to an exit-end express detailing operation are reporting 5% to 8%. This is low because these customers are “in a hurry” and typically come to the exterior carwash because they don’t have to get out of the car; they are already conditioned to stay in their vehicles.
On the other hand, traditional full service washes —where the customer is out of the car by choice — are reporting consistent express detail volumes from 10% to over 20% of volume.
Because the express plus concept is relatively new, numbers are not conclusive. But, most new operations in which the customer has not been completely conditioned to an exterior wash only are reporting detail volumes of 10%.
I’m convinced … what’s next?
Besides doing what is necessary to establish and/or operate a successful exterior carwash, you need to consider the needs of a high-volume express detailing operation, including space, equipment, chemicals, supplies, personnel and management.
To operate an express detailing operation in any carwash requires a minimum of two bays. With two bays and four people, you can turn out a minimum of eight to nine cars per hour, depending on the services sold.
Whether you should have more than two bays is determined by your carwash volume.
For example, if you wash 500 cars per day and sell 10% of your customers an express detail service, you have the potential of doing 50 express services a day. Of course, like your carwash business, the volume will not be consistent from hour to hour. You might be slow one hour and “slammed” the next hour. So, it is critical that you balance the amount of space you allocate for express detailing to the volume of your carwash.
Keep in mind also that your ability to process the work quickly will result in greater volume.
Believe it or not, operators are always saying to me, “Well, I really don’t need more than one bay and one person, because we do not do the volume to justify more.” They are totally blind to the fact that they are responsible for the lack of volume by their attitude and failure to allocate the necessary space for the potential volume.
Like space, the amount of equipment you have or do not have will also affect the volume your express operation will enjoy. You cannot have a high-volume express detail operation with an orbital, single extractor and a few bottles of chemicals.
Remember, to get a service completed in 15 minutes with two people means they must be working simultaneously on both sides of the car. This means double the equipment. For example, if an operator has two bays dedicated to express detailing services, he or she should have the same equipment in between both cars on the right and left sides.
Now you have a situation where four people can be working on two vehicles simultaneously. If the equipment is not set up in this way, you will have workers waiting for the extractor, orbital, etc. This is a waste of paid manpower and loss of revenue-producing volume, and it makes customers wait longer than they should. It is a classic case of “tripping over dollars to save dimes.” You are paying for the equipment without having it in lost volume and high labor costs.
For a simple express detailing operation you will need the following equipment at minimum:
- Soil extractors on each side of every vehicle
- Wet/dry shop vacuums on each side of every vehicle
- Rotary shampoo tools for carpets
- Orbital waxers to apply wax
- Detail work carts.
For a more organized and efficient express detailing operation, you can choose the portable express detailing machines that feature the following:
- Internal heated soil extractor
- Internal wet/dry vacuum
- Dispensing of four chemicals
- Chemical dilution system
- Spray gun wax applicator for wax or paint sealant
- Mini orbital waxer
- Rotary shampoo tool
- Air lines to power air tools and blow out interiors
- Detail work carts.
For the most efficient express detailing operation, you should have a portable detailing cart on each side of every car. So, as mentioned, you would need a unit in the middle and one on the left and right of the vehicles, allowing two people to work simultaneously on each car.
For operators who are more committed to express detailing or who build an exit-end express detailing operation, you may want to consider installing permanently mounted express detailing equipment that provides the following:
- Heated soil extractor
- Wet/dry vacuum
- Dispensing of six or more chemicals
- Automatic chemical dilution and dispensing system
- Spray gun wax applicator
- Rotary shampoo tool(s)
- Mini orbital waxer
- Air lines to power air tools and blow out interiors
- Two air lines to power air tools
- Detail work carts.
The key consideration that a carwash operator must realize is that equipment should increase productivity and reduce labor. If it will do so, then you should purchase it, because otherwise you would be paying for it in lost revenues and higher labor costs.
Because express detailing is typically limited to a few services, the demand for supplies is relatively small. The following would be all an operator would need in the area of detailing supplies:
- Plastic floor mats
- Plastic seat covers
- Scrub pads
- Dressing applicator pads
- Detail brushes
- Detail toothbrushes
- Mini orbital waxer terry bonnets
- Nylon scrub brushes
- Paint and tar scrapers
- Steel wool.
What you do not need in an express detailing operation are experienced detailers. There are many reasons for this that could involve a very lengthy discussion. But, the major reasons that anyone in the full service detailing business knows are the following:
- Their experience is only good if you let them do what they want.
- They often are the unemployable, transient workers who are not stable.
- They do not understand the concept of express maintenance detailing services.
- They are used to working “by the car” at their own pace, whereas your express operation is high-volume with quality.
The only personnel to hire for a carwash express operation are people with good values who want to work for whatever reason and who are trainable and motivated. Then, you can teach them what you want them to do.
Depending on the volume of your express detail operation, you can have express detail employees only, cross-train people to work in both the carwash and the express detail operation or have a mix of both. If you have a carwash with high volume and predictable daily carwash volume, you can easily anticipate what you will do in the express detail area and staff accordingly. In your position, I would have certain people trained to work only in the express area and a few of your better carwash people cross-trained to help out on days when you are extremely busy.
As far as payment goes, operators constantly ask how to pay express employees. Assuming you have some very good employees, I would pay them by the hour and pay them a little more per hour. This will motivate your carwash employees to want to “move-up.” Or it should, if they are the right employees.
As an incentive program, you set a standard of two express services per person per hour. So, if you have two-person teams on a car, then they should process four cars per hour.
However, if they can process one more service per hour, then give them a $5 bonus. Why so high? Crunch the numbers. If you make, say, $35 gross on the service, at most you would have a $10 cost in this service. That means an additional $25 in revenue to you, because the worker(s) did one more car. If you give them $5, you are still putting $20 more net revenue in your pocket. And, at $5 per additional car, you will have really motivated employees who could make up to $40 or $50 more per day. That is an incentive, and it is possible to achieve if they decide to work hard.
The final and most important part of an express plus program is management. There can be three levels of management, such as:
- Express detail manager: This would be a working person who knows exactly the procedures you want followed and the time standards expected. He or she must be able to hire, train and motivate employees. This person can be paid by the hour and incentivized by how many cars and revenues over the two services per man-hour the entire department can achieve. He or she needs to have management skills, not detailing skills.
- Carwash general manager (GM): If your wash operates with a GM, then it will be his or her responsibility to ensure that all of the standards and procedures in the express detailing area are being met — procedures, time standards, volume and general employee attitude and conduct. He or she should meet weekly with the department manager to review the performance of the area. It is absolutely critical that the GM buy into the express program and not let it get lost in operating the carwash, which can — and often does — happen in many carwashes across the country.
- Carwash owner: If you have no GM, then you must assume a dual role. If you have a GM, then you need to review his or her performance in regards to the express detailing area in terms of the factors mentioned. He or she should be on top of the service writers to ensure they know how to sell the services and that they are, in fact, doing so. It is critical that you buy into the express detail area and convey that to everyone who works at the wash.
There you have it: a complete discussion of the express plus program with the logic of the concept and what is needed to make it work.
If you are considering a revision of your current full service operation to a flex service concept, then you should look at the express plus concept. Or, if you are considering building a new carwash, you should adopt the express plus concept.
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]