Convenience should be a primary goal of any business, and self-service carwashes are no exception. Convenience refers not only to the location, but to services offered at the facility as well. Self-service carwash owners should strive to provide one-stop, inclusive services that reach beyond the typical demographic to increase market share as well as maximize income.

Successful self-service carwashes are located close to population centers and offer features catered to the area’s clientele. Selecting an ideal site may prove easier than determining the ideal services to offer. Traffic surveys or simple observations help determine the optimum location. However, prioritizing features desired by perspective customers is less readily measured.

Since most self-service carwash business owners do not fit into the demographic of their typical customer, many owners settle on the concept of offering the basic selections. However, sites reaching larger target audiences add services and draw customers from a larger portion of the population and from greater distances.

While some of these services represent a significant investment, others cost little to implement and provide benefits to both the customer and the business’ bottom line.

Expanded offerings

Considerations for expanding services should be site specific and fill the needs of the target customer. There is no template to use when choosing services. Locations differ as much as the neighborhoods in which the carwashes are constructed.

Centrally located bill changers reduce customer efficiency at some locations (these sites benefit from in-bay bill acceptance), while these same centrally located bill changers provide social opportunities at other sites. Moreover, hand-held air dryers are obvious choices in some locations yet are infrequently used in others.

Equipment offering customers increased selections allow the owner to adapt more readily as neighborhoods evolve and requirements change. Bay selections should be easily added or removed depending on the relative popularity of use. Seasonal flexibility permits the offering of bug-off options in spring and summer months then changing to rust inhibitor in fall and winter months.

If it fits in the bay, customers wash it

Self-service carwashes provide more flexibility than any other professional carwashing format. A significant percentage of cycles are used for washing items other than cars. The self-service wash bay accommodates a wide variety of items including recreational vehicles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, lawn and garden equipment, patio furniture, outdoor grills and other items.

Observation and customer surveys help determine opportunities to better serve customers. Nearby businesses may benefit from the carwash accepting business credit or fleet cards. Other areas populated with off-road vehicles that generate muddier bays may benefit from a high-volume “mud-blaster” bay to concentrate mud deposits in a specific bay with an increased vending price and improved impact washing. Areas with more boats may benefit from an outboard marine flush.

Vending items offered may also be adjusted to better fill the needs of customers or seasonal variations.

Where to begin

Bay meter boxes are the self-service carwash’s point of sale. This is a critical area for consideration since this is the point of contact between carwash customer and the self-service business. Clear and simple instructions and straightforward operation improve interaction and customer satisfaction. By numbering selections, the owner clearly communicates wash options and pricing.

Accepting most any form of payment in the bay (e.g., coins, bills or credit cards) and providing easy-to-read display timers also serves to enrich the customer’s experience.

Tire cleaner, presoak, soap, foam brush, wax, rinse and spot-free rinse bay selections tend to serve most needs of the typical customer. Vacuum cleaners and carwash product vendors outside the bay are other typical services provided. Additional in-bay selections worth consideration include:

  • Tire brush
  • Tire shine
  • Rubber protect
  • Tire inflation
  • Undercarriage wash
  • Rust inhibitor
  • Bug-off
  • Wheel & chrome cleaner
  • Tri-color foam gun conditioner
  • Low-pressure waxes
  • Hand-held air dry
  • Marine flush
  • In-bay vacuum
  • Mud blaster.

Expanding the demographic

The typical self-service customer is 18 to 35 years of age with a lower median income. Adding an in-bay automatic wash or a flex-serve tunnel to a facility will widen the demographic served (the typical customers are slightly older with a higher income). Combination wash sites, sites with automatic and self-service offerings, will have increased activity over either a self-service or automatic stand-alone facility.

The increased activity of vehicles using the facility attracts more customers to both wash options. Additionally, these combination sites generate changeover customers; typical self-service customers periodically use the automatic equipment or typical automatic customers use the self-service bays.

Thinking outside the bay

Services provided at the carwash are not limited to the wash bay. Sites with ample real estate may provide various income centers. Vending opportunities vary greatly, but the goal should remain to improve services for customers while generating additional income. Vending and service choices include:

  • Pet washes
  • Drink and snack vending
  • Water vending
  • Ice vending
  • Rug beater/carpet cleaner
  • Air blower/dryer.

Alternately, a self-service carwash may be the added service to a number of business models. A range of businesses may benefit from the addition of self-service carwashes to their facility to improve their community convenience. The most common are the convenience and fuel stores that supplement services by adding self-service carwash bays. Other businesses that benefit from providing self-service carwashes to their sites may include coin laundries, storage facilities, automotive detail shops, oil change centers, tire shops, boat docks or grocery stores.

Attention to various facets of the carwash business improves the customer’s experience and generates increased income. Self-service carwashes provide a vital link in carwash service offerings.

Although fewer self-service carwashes are built now than in the recent past, the format is far from obsolete. Opportunities are abundant from new sites, adding sites at existing businesses and purchasing existing self-service locations to updating the equipment and adapting to the present market.


Gary Wirges is the president of CustomKraft Industries Inc. CustomKraft is a self-service carwash manufacturer located in North Little Rock, Arkansas. You can reach the company at 1-800-869-1448 or www.customkraft.com.