Over the last 16-some-odd years of contact with the carwash industry, I have watched express detailing come and go in popularity, and I have observed a myriad of definitions and service delivery options of express detailing.

Defining ‘express’

To those of us who understand how much time and effort is involved in traditional automotive detailing, the term “express detailing” seems an oxymoron. But the carwash industry has insisted over the years that it can offer an abbreviated version of detailing to waiting customers. It is possible to do so, given we make sure the service offered is appropriate for the customers’ needs and vehicles’ conditions.

It is important that we as an industry create and maintain a standard definition of express detailing. To that end the International Carwash Association offered the following definition in its Express Detailing Certification Program of the early 2000s: “Express detailing is a quick-serve appearance-care process that can be satisfactorily and conveniently delivered within 15 minutes or less after vehicle washing.”

This definition implies that express detailing is:

  • Something more than just a carwash
  • Done quickly (preferably within 15 minutes)
  • Performed while the customer waits (offering customer convenience).

The target customer for express services includes customers who have newer vehicles or those detailed on a regular basis.

List of common express services

Exactly what services are performed on the express menu? It depends on who you ask. Across the country there is a large range of services performed which operators call express detailing. But the most common express services are the following four:

  1. Exterior hand wax
  2. Interior “super clean”
  3. Seat cleaning
  4. Mat and carpet shampoo.

The express hand wax typically involves a quick application of an easy-on/easy-off wax product with short-term durability. Additionally, the windows are cleaned, and the tires are dressed.

The interior super clean service typically involves a vacuum, dust and light wipe-down of the interior as well as dressing the dash and other panels. The seat cleaning option involves either extracting fabric seats or cleaning and conditioning leather seats. The mat and carpet shampoo involves extraction of those items.

Issue one:  Waxing by hand or machine?

Many operators apply wax literally by hand using an easy-on/easy-off liquid or cream wax with short-term durability. This has several potential disadvantages. Because the wax is applied by hand, several problems can occur.

There is the potential for chemical waste from using too much wax. The application is often spotty or takes a long time to apply thoroughly and evenly. Because there is too much chemical use, the owner/operator often tries to save money by using an inexpensive product. We find the cheaper liquid waxes provide inferior visual results since the car doesn’t look much better than it did before the wax application.

Solution — The solution is to apply the wax using an orbital polisher and soft foam pad. The motion of an appropriate orbital polisher imitates hand motion but with much greater speed. With the correct training the technician can apply express wax much faster than by hand, yet the application tends to be more even and thorough.

Moreover, since the orbital machine applies wax more evenly and in lighter coats, it uses as much as 75 percent less product than hand application. This allows the owner to select better-quality cream waxes that improve the final appearance and feel of the paint.

Some operators object to the use of machines because they believe this disqualifies the use of the term hand wax. I suggest the important activity of hand waxing is the removal of the wax residue, regardless of how it is applied. The hand removal involves the finesse and attention to detail that makes the finished car look great. Objections by picky customers can be assuaged by reassuring them the machine applies the wax more thoroughly and evenly than by hand.

Issue two:  To clay or not to clay

Most operators would agree it is impractical to offer clay service as an express detail service because it simply takes too long. As we know, claying the car removes paint surface contamination that does not come off with normal washing. Such contamination includes environmental fall-out, rail dust or iron oxide deposits, paint overspray and any of a myriad of other tiny particles that attach themselves to the paint over time.

A common symptom of surface contamination is a rough feeling on the paint even after washing and waxing. The solution is to use some kind of contamination removal system, and the industry standard for decades has been the use of detailer’s clay — that Play-Doh-looking rectangular block of plastic resin. Those familiar with the use of detailer’s clay know it takes a long time, is tedious and expensive.

After claying the vehicle it must be wiped down and waxed. So until now, claying and waxing a car has been an impractical offering as an express service because it takes too long with one or two technicians or requires a small army of labor to provide within the 15-minute delivery time.

Solution — A new surface contamination removal system has been around for a few years now but is still unknown by many. This tool, called a “surface prep device,” consists of a polymerized rubber coating applied to one side of any number of devices including a microfiber towel, a foam pad or a microfiber wash mitt. This polymerized rubber acts similarly to detailer’s clay in that rubbing it across the paint surface, lubricated with an appropriate spray-wax, will remove almost all the surface contamination from the paint.

Those with experience with detailer’s clay know that a piece dropped on the ground must be thrown away; otherwise it will scratch the car because it grabs grit from the ground. Also, the piece of clay typically has only a few square inches of available work area, making claying a complete car a time-consuming prospect.

The surface prep device, on the other hand, can offer the user 50 square inches or more of working area, making the process faster. If the surface prep device is dropped on the ground, it just needs to be rinsed off, and it’s ready for continued use. High-quality surface prep devices can last for hundreds of vehicle applications with little diminishment in effectiveness.

At this point you might be thinking, “That’s great, but I still have to wax the car after using your fancy ‘surface prep thingy’!” Here’s part two of the solution: New, high-impact, high-quality, spray-on lubricants are available for use with the surface prep technology. The active ingredient in this new breed of spray wax is a polymer resin similar to those used in highly-touted polymer paint sealants.

The use of a high-quality, spray-polymer lubricant in combination with a high-quality surface prep towel or mitt allows a detail technician to clay and wax a car within 15 minutes. Since the lubricant leaves a phenomenally silky smooth surface, the car needs only to be wiped down with a couple of clean microfiber towels. Spray-polymer has sealant-like durability, so no additional waxing step is needed — the protection is already there.

As with all express services, this service should be sold only to customers who have vehicles appropriate for the service. These would be newer cars or those with mild accumulations of surface contamination, which can be quickly and thoroughly removed in 15 minutes with the new technology.

Inappropriate vehicles have been parked near industrial sites for years or have been coated with paint overspray. In these cases it is often best to go back to the two complete steps using heavy-duty detailer’s clay and polishing and/or waxing the paint. This can be accomplished by the trained technician, but will take a couple of labor hours that cannot be compensated by traditional express prices.

Here’s the best part of the spray-sealant/surface prep device combo: Since you are effectively claying and waxing the vehicle in the same 15-minute service, you should be able to charge at least twice the amount of a traditional express hand wax service.

Summary

In future articles I will discuss other common issues with express detailing, including interior detailing challenges and selling challenges. Keep reading every month.

Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer (Skills-Validated). As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has provided training and consulting to carwash and detail operations since 1999. He is available at 619-701-1100 or [email protected]