The state of the detailing industry

The state of the detailing industry

How new services and operational flexibility helped this market rebound from 2020.

After more than a year of uncertainty, many owners and operators are left pondering the outlook for the car care industry. Thankfully, early reports look positive. Despite mandatory lockdowns and customers working from home, overall sales stayed strong last year for many detail shops and carwashes. In fact, the pandemic reboot and 2021 business rebound may stand ready to drum up record profits for some locations.

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As customers return to daily driving and once again pay for premium services, savvy business owners stand ready to address and improve the issues that a chaotic 2020 revealed. There are real-world examples and overarching trends that can be studied to help make detailing businesses stronger than ever before. Learn more about new best practices and the opportunities that industry experts expect to drive demand for detailing services in 2021 and beyond.

A surprising 2020

The story of the detailing market for 2020 is not a surprise. There was a noticeable loss of business in the first few months of the shutdown, according to Prentice St. Clair, CD-SV, RT and International Detailing Association (IDA) 2021 Hall of Fame inductee. Even so, many operators and suppliers later reported sales records towards the end of the year. In the winter months, demand for do-it-yourself products went through the roof, and the demand for retail detailing services greatly increased.

Overall, the detailing industry held its own in 2020, notes Scott Morgan, senior product manager of professional car care at Evercoat. A major factor was the focus on cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting automobiles, which was obviously related to the pandemic. The negative impact of the shutdown was followed by a rebound in demand, especially for products that would disinfect and sanitize vehicle interiors.  

“Like many small businesses, there was an initial shock when the country — no, the world — was shut down,” says Bud Abraham with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems. “After the initial shock, the smart business owners figured out what they had to do to survive and thrive in this strange, new market situation.”

For some, vehicle detailing is considered a luxury purchase, so there was a percentage of the total market that did not continue to pay for detailing, Abraham reveals. However, those customers with money continued to purchase the same luxury services.

Yet, the pandemic proved to be a tough test for some operators. Like an array of auto service businesses, the detailing industry is filled with many technicians who desire to be entrepreneurs, Abraham continues. Unfortunately, some have only the technical abilities and no real business training or skills. The 2020 market really required that a detail owner possess business skills to survive and even thrive.

Marketing detailing services was one example. “They say when there is 50% less business, you have to work twice as hard to get a share of the 50%,” Abraham states. “Those who have the marketing skills were able to get a comfortable percentage of the business.”

Labor and supply struggles

Morgan explains that labor and product supply shortages were two major operational issues detailing operators faced in 2020. Finding the right employees with the right skill set became more difficult, and some products were consistently hard to acquire. In some cases, shops with these issues had to turn away business.

On-site safety was another labor consideration. For detail businesses with employees, the owner had to ensure workers were masked, gloved and otherwise protected from COVID-19, Abraham adds. Operators had to ensure their waiting rooms and customer service areas were continually sanitized as customers came and went from the business as well. From an equipment standpoint, both the portable vacuums and soil extractors had to be specially cleaned and disinfected to further prevent the spread of the virus.

Related: Wash Talk Ep. 39: Hiring and Employee Retention Practices

For some, labor woes have continued into 2021 as well. Larger operations are still finding it more difficult to bring their employees back, St. Clair notes. This is due to the additional compensation being offered by government agencies for unemployed workers.

Upgrades and opportunities

Detail business owners who promoted the “sanitizing” of vehicle interiors early on in the pandemic actually enjoyed a spike in business, according to Abraham. To a lesser degree, some motorists themselves were contacting detail businesses, asking if they could “sanitize” their vehicles to protect against COVID-19.

Abraham says, “Overall, COVID-19 presented a wonderful opportunity for detail business owners who were able to see opportunity, and of course, had the marketing skills needed to promote the ‘sanitizing’ of interiors for protection against COVID-19.”

St. Clair also points out that disinfection protocols were implemented by many detailing operations. Such protocols included disinfecting/sanitizing vehicle interiors prior to entering, employees donning personal protective equipment and having contactless vehicle delivery for exterior-only services.

These changes showed that, in some cases, consumers were more than willing to drop off and pick up their vehicles at the detail shop, even if they were accustomed to free pickup and delivery, St. Clair states. Many professional detailers shifted business models and the services offered to stay flexible as pandemic-related conditions changed.

Related: Detailing during a pandemic

The disinfection protocols have presented themselves as a vehicle detailing best practice moving forward. St. Clair recommends that workers continue to disinfect interiors before entering. “They’ve always been known to contain more germs than a public restroom floor — we just never took it seriously as an industry,” St. Clair states.

Morgan notes that the past year revealed that training and cross-training have become important best business practices. Training is needed to ensure that shops have enough skilled people to deliver high-quality detailing services. Further, employee education on proper disinfecting and sanitizing will prove important for a long time to come.

Abraham lists a few more detailing service opportunities for businesses looking to expand and improve operations. Potential services include:

  • Sanitizing and disinfecting interiors
  • Application of ceramic coatings
  • Headlight restoration
  • Windshield rock chip repair
  • Application of invisible film protection products.

St. Clair agrees that ceramic coatings continue to drive amazing profits for many detail locations. When it comes to the chemicals needed to operate, detailing businesses also should maintain a healthy backup supply of chemicals and consumables. The last year has shown that owners never know what segment of the detail supply chain will be affected and in what way. Early supply problems included trigger sprayers, then pint bottles and more recently 5-gallon containers.

Developing business skills

Serious detailers increasingly value continuing education opportunities and networking with other industry professionals, St. Clair notes. These options were taken away for more than a year, and now that those in the industry are getting back together at trade shows and industry events, the opportunities are cherished more than ever. St. Clair believes that more and more professionals will seek out these resources moving forward.

Until a detailing operator acquires the necessary business skills, it is unlikely he or she can take advantage of new trends and opportunities, Abraham states. Following trends and opportunities takes money, marketing and promotion, and far too many detail business owners do not have the money to invest. If an operator does have the financial considerations covered, he or she does not have the skills to advertise and promote the new service. As is often said, someone can be the best detailer in town, but if potential customers do not know that, how does an operator get them to patronize a business?

Often, detail business owners tend to be technicians with little or no business skills, Abraham continues. They think that having a complete knowledge of the technical side of the work is all they need, but that is not true. When faced with such business challenges as marketing, advertising, finances, and hiring and training employees, they try to solve these challenges with technical solutions. It does not work. What they must do is either hire someone who has the business skills for their operations or acquire the skills themselves.

“Today, and into the future, detail business owners must realize they need these skills in addition to the technical skills if they are to survive and thrive,” Abraham says.

Outlook for 2021

As things in the U.S. have slowly gotten back to a degree of normalcy, detail location owners who have business skills are thriving and not just surviving in 2021, Abraham states. Things are looking better and better for these types of businesses. Some detail business owners are even reporting the best year they have had since opening.

Morgan notes that expectations are for a rebound in 2021 as more people return to a sense of normalcy. That said, rising operational costs may end up keeping some detailing customers away.

Finally, 2021 so far shows record months for the detailing industry, St. Clair reveals. The demand for used vehicles is driving increased used car detailing. This trend includes retail consumers who want to freshen up older vehicles due to a lack of new vehicles to purchase.

“Demand is through the roof,” St. Clair concludes. “Some consumers have extra discretionary income due to spending less money during the lockdown.”  

Jonathan Abrams is a freelance contributor.

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