As carwash competition surges today, many owners and operators maintain focus on short-term gains and protecting the P&L statement. While setting ambitious business goals, such as generating new business, maintaining car counts and steadily expanding your business and its services, is recommended, it is also good to step back from the day-to-day and see which trends and issues affected customers most throughout the past 60 years. Knowing these carwash customer trends and some of the challenges the industry has had to overcome better prepares your business for success now and into the future.

While this article will provide a glimpse into the past, in preparation for the future, it is highly recommended that you go to industry trade shows as well as other carwash-related events and connect with longstanding industry veterans, such as the carwash professionals interviewed for this article, for a deeper understanding of our industry’s past and how it steadily served customers better over the decades.

Early years in carwashing   

Although the International Carwash Association (ICA) estimates total annual carwash sales revenue of today exceeding $24 billion — and growing — the industry definitely had humble beginnings 60-plus years ago.

Harvey Miller, owner of Car Wash Consultants, entered the carwashing market in the 1950s when customers’ cars were washed with water hoses and mitts. According to Miller, washes of the day consisted of a few arches, such as for pre- and post-rinse, and a drying system that only dried about 50 percent of the cars; most of the washing and drying was done by hand.

Early tunnel conveyor carwashes utilized a hook and chain system that workers attached to customers’ car bumpers. “But, if the car was left in park, which often it was, we would rip the bumpers right off,” recalls Harvey. “We actually had a backroom that was filled with bumpers we accidentally ripped off.”

Sixty-plus years ago the process of carwashing was not considered technologically advanced or automated. And, this lack of equipment maturity showed in the results and customer wait times, which were estimated between 20 minutes to an hour or more.

Much of the work of cleaning the different car surfaces (eg., giant whitewalls) was done by hand by employees with varying results,” says Daniel Pecora, CEO of Erie Brush and Manufacturing Corp. “Mitts and brushes were generally used to wash the front, rear, hood, top and trunk of the car while the ‘automatic’ equipment did the rest.”

According to Pecora’s recollection, all conveyorized carwashes in the U.S. were full service only. Therefore, our industry was not meeting carwash customer trends of the day or serving customers who were interested in exterior only car cleaning.

Stuart Levy, president of Auto Glanz Solutions, also entered the professional carwashing industry around this time. According to Levy, early carwash equipment consisted of a top brush, a wheel brush, 30 guys handwashing and a few rinse arches. “Trying to compare 1963 carwashing to today’s modern carwashing equipment would probably require a major undertaking; the advances are too numerous to list,” concedes Levy.

Levy attributes the 1960s and 1970s as the most challenging times for the carwashing industry. “Why?,” he questions, “because of the way the cars were built. Back then there were all kinds of crazy contours to try and clean. That was the rage for all car manufacturers at that time and it lasted right through the 1960s.”

In the 1970s, because many in the industry were using bristle brush filament, antennas attached to fenders would be pulled off by wrap around brushes, recounts Levy. “They would get caught up in the filament and beat the hell out of all incoming cars until someone discovered that damage was being done; there was nothing worse than the sound of an antenna beating on the side of a car,” he says.

There was a time in carwashing’s history, educates Levy, when cold wax was sold to customers for 50 cents and it was considered an additional profit center … when it worked. “When [the customer’s] vehicle entered the application arch, he pushed in the money,” Levy says, “and sometimes he got his wax, and sometimes he didn’t.”

A matured market and changing carwash customer trends

With the development of rollers, improved materials and a modernized conveyor track system, as well as shifting carwash customer trends, the carwash experience gradually improved. During the 1970s, recalls Miller, carwash equipment was starting to advance and computer-based solutions began to enter the market.

By the late 1990s, computer technology and software drastically evolved, bringing the carwashing industry to a higher level. Miller notes that marketing was also elevated at this time and so too were carwashing program offerings, such as unlimited monthly plans.

In addition to equipment upgrades, carwash supplies and tools, such as microfiber cloths, brushes and sprayers, also advanced through the 1980s and 1990s.

Society also changed dramatically in the 1980s through the present day. More people entered the workforce, are on-the-go and are in need of faster services, at reasonable prices.

Today’s customer wants to buy time so carwash services have shifted to meet that demand. What once was a lengthy full-serve carwash service is now a five-minute or less express wash. Today’s washes offer multiple formats and various revenue generators under one roof,” educates Dave Hail, a 35-year veteran of the carwash industry and currently serving as vice president of research and development for Mister Car Wash.

Putting pressure on traditional full service, self service and in-bay automatic (IBA) carwashes is the emergence of the express carwash.

Express lane

In response to carwash customer trends and demand, and with the help of evolving carwash and computer technologies, experts attribute the invention of the express carwash format as having a big impact on the industry and existing carwashes.

“I never would have imagined that we could thoroughly clean and dry a vehicle with just one person,” asserts Levy. “Not only have [operators] been able to reduce labor costs, but [they also] have been able to increase the average income per car because of the ability to now provide so many additional services.”

Miller also attributes the express model as having a major impact on the industry over the past decade. From the customer’s perspective, he says, it is a clear choice between either a full-serve wash that may take 20 minutes or more for $15-$18 or an express wash for $5-$6 that can take five minutes.

In the express model, volume is the way to long-term profitability. And, to help better serve this volume, the emergence of unlimited wash club programs has played an important role. RFID technology and customer management systems help operators today serve a large customer base with efficiency.

Current challenges     

According to Hail, the current decade presents some of the greatest challenges for carwash owners and operators.

“As operators we are facing customer pressure to provide services faster and with higher quality. At the same time there is a shrinking labor pool; operators are competing against other job opportunities that can offer a controlled environment, higher wages and more benefits than our industry has been traditionally known for,” he says, adding that in recent years his company has noticed more operators realize the value of training, development and employee benefits for attracting and retaining top talent.

Pecora also notices the challenges of today’s era of carwashing competition and attributes this decade to a period for owners and operators to overcome or be overcome.

“The competition is so high, and getting higher, that many owners will have a difficult time trying to keep up with improved technology and advanced marketing techniques and risk falling behind more and more,” notes Pecora. “The main issues of today, including customer friendliness, comfort, cleanliness, appearance and experience will be [continually] improved and operators that don’t improve going forward will experience volume and profit decreases.”

Vehicle manufacturing and designs, such as in the early days of carwashing, are also affecting owners and operators and their wash’s results. Proactive carwash owners stay ahead of the curve by researching and preparing for the changing designs and technologies that are being incorporated in today’s vehicles.

According to Hail, the industry has effectively met these manufacturing challenges and new carwash customer trends, including new paint finish issues, use of sensors, self-driving modes and keyless ignitions.

Sudden acceleration and the prevalence of computers in cars can also cause carwashers headaches, adds Pecora.

“I also see the industry facing increased pressure from other service providers. This will impact available people resources as well as competition for disposable income dollars. The future of our industry depends on us providing the right service touch points. By integrating technology that adds to the customer experience, we can make the carwash process more efficient and user friendly,” adds Hail.

Outpacing the competition is about respecting the challenges of the past and adapting with the times to meet those issues as well as today’s. While equipment, materials and supplies continue to advance and wash formats come in and out of vogue, it’s good to know the customer’s end goal of simply wanting a clean, shiny car at the end of your wash is still in style. Just make sure to keep the bumper intact.