Let’s imagine for a moment that carwashes are like banks or Starbucks — there’s one on every corner. Now, imagine that a motorist who is looking for a carwash pulls up to an intersection where he has those four options. Pretend that said motorist has all the time in the world and doesn’t care about which side of the street the carwash is on. Let’s also pretend that these carwashes are equal in terms of type, prices, services and customer service.

But, our imaginary motorist doesn’t know those last few details. Our imaginary motorist only knows what he sees. So, what’s he going to do? Like with a book, he’s going to judge a carwash based on its cover.

Now, imagine you are the motorist, glancing around the intersection and making a split-second decision about where to go. Carwash A’s faded, dirty paint is peeling, weeds are growing through cracks in the asphalt, stray pieces of litter tumble across the site and the architecture looks like something out of the 1960s. No one is on the lot. Is it even open?

Carwash B appears very similar architecturally to Carwash A, but it has clean, bright paint and a tidy lot without litter or weeds. There are a couple of people there, but are they employees or customers? You can’t tell, but it still looks more appealing than Carwash A.

Carwash C has upped the game. The architecture is a little more modern. It not only has bright, clean paint and a tidy lot, but it even managed to add some landscaping — a few trees line the property, and bushes and flowers frame a bright sign proclaiming the name of the carwash with its eye-catching logo. There are several people on this lot, and the employees are clearly indicated by their uniforms. This one could be the winner.

But wait. You just noticed the signage from Carwash D. It’s telling you that it offers free air and free vacuums and that there’s a pet wash on the lot, which you just couldn’t see from your vantage point. Your dog isn’t with you right now, but you want to check it out for potential future visits. Outwardly, it looks just as clean and modern as Carwash C and has all the landscaping features, and even from the road, the employees look uniform and professional. But does Carwash C offer the other amenities Carwash D does? You can’t be sure, and you don’t want to waste time going from one wash to the other, so you decide on Carwash D.

Not hard to imagine, right? We’ve all been there, whether we’re looking for a gas station, restaurant and so on. And, by analyzing the four choices, you probably realized that carwash appearance isn’t just about keeping the area clean. If it was, you might have gone to Carwash B, which is plain and outdated but cleaner than Carwash A. In this industry, you need to get noticed to get business.

In the business of selling clean

“Our industry is based on the concept of cleanliness, so the outward appearance of the carwash is absolutely critical,” asserts Jason Sears, communications manager for Innovative Control Systems (ICS). “Your customers’ perceptions are their reality, and if they do not arrive to a clean, well-organized carwash site, their expectations will be that much harder to meet. More importantly, their business will be that much harder to earn.”

When you’re in the business of selling “clean and shiny,” it’s going to reflect badly on you if your business’ appearance isn’t also clean and shiny. “It’s all kind of a psychological, emotional, mental experience one goes through,” notes Stuart Levy, president of Clean Car Consultant.

Related: Building your business beyond curb appeal

According to Levy, many carwashes in the past would often let the buildings fall into disrepair. While Levy doesn’t believe this is as prevalent today, he notes that appearance still matters.

To that end, daily site cleaning is a must. Levy advises, “Employees have a lot of downtime during the course of the day. What they should be doing instead of looking at their phones is … walking the property looking for cigarette butts, looking for stray paper, looking for anything that could create a negative appearance on the property, because there are always things that are blowing from the street onto the property that do not belong there.”

According to Chris McKenna of McKenna Assets LLC, keeping the restrooms spick and span is also a must. For instance, he notes, you might not turn out the cleanest car, but if a customer uses your restroom and finds it clean, it could be the difference between them returning or you losing a customer. In other words, McKenna says, cleanliness can even overcome other shortcomings of your wash.

So, the first step to keeping your carwash attractive is to keep it clean. Wash dirt off the walls and windows, including in the tunnel. Pick up trash on the lot. If you have landscaping, keep it free of weeds.

You might even need to take it to the next level. Some minor cosmetic surgery that you can give your carwash could be a fresh coat of paint (especially if yours is faded or peeling) or repaving the asphalt to fill potholes or cracks. Maybe you can add landscaping or rejuvenate what you do have: Plant some new flowers, trim bushes and trees, keep the grass cut short, remove any dead plants or re-sod areas where the grass has died.

Unfortunately, while landscaping can certainly beautify a site, it may not always be a possible solution, especially for carwashes in ultra-urban concrete jungles like New York City and Chicago. So, what can you do? Again, it might come back to painting the building or, as Levy recommends, putting up attractive signage to pull motorists off the street — professional signage that’s not simply arrows pointing but that indicates where to enter, which services are offered and so on. In addition, McKenna notes, urban carwashes need to use their space efficiently.

“Regardless of where the property is located, be it in a more rural area or a more urban area, there are always ways to enhance the appearance of a piece of property,” Levy affirms.

Get in the mode of modern

“The prevailing thought amongst a typical carwash customer is that a modern, clean carwash is a better overall wash,” states Todd Davy, director of sales for DRB Systems. While this isn’t to say that your carwash can’t have a retro vibe (nostalgia is a hot concept nowadays, and many carwashes do play on that theme), there’s a difference between having a carwash that has not updated its look since the 1960s and one that is “dressed up” like something from the 1960s. Customers can tell the difference.

Related: Profile of carwash success: Rock-n-Wash

“A carwash, particularly in today’s market, needs to have what I call ‘the look,’” Levy adds. “It has to have a professional appearance about it. It can’t just be an open door on one end and an open exit on the other with cars coming out. The building structure itself should have a certain amount of aesthetics and pizazz that is attractive to the motorist.”

So, if you have a carwash 20 or more years older that’s struggling with appearance issues, what can you do? According to Sears, with the pace of technological innovation occurring in the industry, there are several ways to modernize the look of your wash. For instance, having digital menus or payment terminals with customizable videos are possible options.

Davy adds, “A simple upgrade to LED lighting gives your site a new feel, and customers notice the difference. It’s an easy fix for the operator and will save money in the long run. [Also,] things like adding self-pay stations with new canopies and lighting, re-sealing blacktop, fresh paint, digital signage and bright/simple-to-read menus make a big difference. Customers associate these things with ‘modern’ carwashes.”

Of course, not every carwash will need the same makeover treatment. For carwash owners who don’t know what they should do to elevate a site’s appearance, it’s recommended to contact a consultant or architect that specializes in carwashes.

For instance, McKenna asks, “Do the canopies need replacing? How’s the roof? Does it need paint? How’s the tunnel look? Are the uniforms outdated? Do the bathrooms need remodeling? It could be a number of things. It could be one or two of those things, or it could be all of those things. But, [the carwash] would have to be assessed based on the site.”

The first and last impressions

So far, we’ve merely discussed cosmetic issues. But, impressions are also important to a wash’s appearance.

Take, for example, the appearance of your employees. They need to be in some sort of uniform that identifies the carwash. It can be as simple as a shirt and jeans — it is an outdoor labor industry after all — but there needs to be consistency of some sort.

Levy emphasizes that the greeter needs to be especially presentable. “[Greeters] are the first person generally that the motorist comes in contact with and sets the overall tone for what is going to be the overall experience going through that carwash,” he says. If the greeter is ill-dressed or unkempt, the customer may have second thoughts about coming in.

One sizeable element of the carwash that can count for both first and last impressions is the vacuum area. For express exterior carwashes especially, vacuums are an important element of appearance. Think about a typical express exterior site. Roughly half or more of the site might be dedicated to vacuum stations, and they might even be visible from the road. You need to use that space as an effective marketing tool.

“Bright colors are great at bringing customers in off the road,” Davy says. “The vacuum area should be well-lit, and you should have digital signage and banners advertising your vacuum stations, whether they are free for all customers or free for just your unlimited plan members.”

The amount of customers in the stations will also impact whether motorists pull into the carwash or not. McKenna says that as long as you always have at least a few vacuum stations open or that customers can perceive that things are moving along, they will come. “But, if the place looks like it’s just backed up and they look like they’re in for a wait, they’ll probably pass you up and come back later or maybe even go to the other express down the street,” he claims. “Don’t let customers just sit there [in the vacuum station], lollygag and take 20 minutes on their cars and make it their own personal detailing center.”

Furthermore, Levy adds, “This is probably the last thing that a customer is going to do after the car is washed. So, it’s imperative that they have what I call ‘a good vacuum experience.’” According to Levy, a good vacuum experience entails properly working vacuums, a tidy vacuum area and clean hoses and nozzles. The lattermost is especially important, since if dirt comes off on the motorist’s hand after handling a vacuum nozzle, he or she will immediately deem that a bad vacuum experience and probably even consider the overall carwash experience negative.

Thus, despite the adage we are all taught as children about not judging books by their covers, we humans cannot help but do so. Therefore, if you want your carwash to get noticed, you need to make its appearance stand out.