As I sit down at the computer to tap out this column, I am reminded of the character Michael Corleone’s famous line from the movie The Godfather: Part 3: “Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in!”

Actually, it is an honor to be asked once again to write this column for my longtime friends at Auto Laundry News. Previous to last April’s premature “farewell” due to conflicting obligations, I had supplied content for this column for 20 years. And now, I’m back to offer my colleagues in the car care industry knowledge and understanding from the wonderful world of automotive detailing.

Picking Back Up

In the February 2023 issue, I put forth the somewhat daunting topic “The 100 Questions You Must Answer” when considering adding detailing to a car wash operation. It was, admittedly, like leaving a huge hidden fortune with no map showing how to find it. In the coming months, I intend to occasionally sprinkle this column with a more in-depth look at each of these questions, with the hope of helping with this important decision.

Those who already offer detailing will find the information helpful in evaluating their operation, with the goal of discovering hidden problems and identifying the culprit of known issues. Readers who are considering refurbishing or upgrading their detailing operations will find that they must also be able to answer these questions to maximize the return-on-investment of said improvements.

Here’s the background. Having provided consulting, training, and operational assessments at detail shops around the country for 25 years, I’ve seen it all: stand-alone detail shops, detail centers at car washes, detail departments at dealerships, etc. I’ve seen the full range of shops, from absolute pits to brand-new sparkling multi-million-dollar complexes.

The most frustrating scenario for me is to go into an operation in which the owner has invested heavily in setting up the shop without consulting someone about the elements that can be included to maximize the operation’s efficiency and effectiveness. For example, I’ve been to a new multi-million-dollar detail center that did not have a wash bay because the powers that be thought it would be enough to run the cars through an automatic car wash. 

Many common errors are made, typically impacting efficiency, profitability, quality, and customer satisfaction. Implementing a valid answer to each of the “100 questions” greatly increases the likelihood that the errors can be avoided or eliminated, leading to obvious benefits to the abovementioned factors.

There are about 15 categories of questions to be answered, so I’ll spend roughly one column on each area, starting this month by asking, “What services are to be provided?”

Service Options

The types of services that will be provided have a major impact on the design and outfitting of the detailing area, as well as training, pricing, and marketing. Some market research in this area can help the operator understand which services would most likely be embraced by consumers in their area.

The main options for services that go beyond what the car wash tunnel can provide include:
•          Express detailing
•          Full-service detailing
•          Hand washing
•          Specialized reconditioning services

Express Vs. Full-Service Detailing. By far, the most common services offered at a car wash are simple auto detailing, falling into one of two main categories: express or full-service. It is critical to understand the difference between these two closely related services that are vastly different in their execution.

Each service has a different goal. The aim of express detailing is to quickly provide protection and added gloss to the exterior or quickly clean some interior areas that perhaps need extra attention not normally provided by the typical car wash procedure.

On the other hand, full-service detailing aims to thoroughly rejuvenate or recondition a well-used or neglected vehicle and bring its condition as close to new as possible.

Express detailing is typically provided in 15 minutes or less, whereas full-service detailing takes hours — basically as much time as is required to reach the full-service detailing goal. Express detailing provides the customer a convenient and inexpensive way to regularly maintain the vehicle’s appearance.

Express detailing allows more flexibility in the facility space needed and typically requires a more compact set of detailing chemicals and equipment. Also, express services are simpler to deliver, resulting in less required training, opening it up to a wider range of employee skill levels.   

Full-service detailing provides the customer with complete reconditioning and protection when the condition of the vehicle or the customer’s expectations are beyond that which can be satisfied by express techniques. Full service is typically performed in a dedicated space (e.g., a detail bay) that allows the vehicle to remain in one spot for several hours without hindering the flow of the rest of the operation. Because it is a much more extensive and thorough service than express, full-service requires a larger variety of detailing chemicals and potentially a full range of tools and equipment.

By its nature, express detailing is only appropriate for vehicles that are newer or in good, clean condition. Full-service detailing can be offered for virtually any vehicle, regardless of condition. Although there are limits to what a technician can do (e.g., clearcoat separation), full-service detailing opens the door to servicing a larger percentage of vehicles running through your car wash.

Express detailing is typically marketed to car wash patrons by upselling incoming custo-mers on an additional while-you-wait service that enhances the appearance of the well-maintained vehicle beyond what the automatic car wash equipment can provide. On the other hand, full-service detailing opens the marketing effort to the general public, including those who might never patronize your car wash otherwise.

The motoring public contains many potential customers with an entire range of auto appearance needs and vehicle conditions that a well-equipped, full-service detailing operation can best serve. Moreover, a well-lubricated detail shop can handle wholesale, dealership, and fleet detailing, which is a great way to take care of the operation’s bread-and-butter financial needs.

Hand Washing. There will always be a contingent of customers who just will not use any kind of automatic car wash. Also, certain vehicles may simply not fit properly into the automatic equipment, for example, low-profile sports cars and oversized trucks. For these situations, hand washing is a great option. The hand wash also allows the operator to offer a more thorough and extensive washing experience for the persnickety customer.

Specialized Auto Appearance Services. And then there is the wide-open world of specialized detailing and reconditioning services that typically avail themselves to the full-service detailing operation. When an operator has decided to include separate facilities with enclosed service bays in the design of the detailing area, there is an inherent opportunity to offer services that require such dedicated space. These specialized auto appearance services fall into four categories:
•          Premium appearance protection services
•          Advanced detailing services
•          Additional reconditioning services
•          Cosmetic enhancement and customization services

Advanced detailing services include paint perfection and rejuvenation, odor elimination, wheel polishing, and headlight restoration, to name a few. Really, advanced reconditioning services are anything beyond what would be included in a “standard” detail package. Premium appearance protection services include highly profitable ceramic coating and protective film installation.

Additional reconditioning services are those services that are beyond the typical detail offering and often require additional training and equipment that are not normally included in a detail shop. These include such services as:
•          Paintless dent and ding removal
•          Windshield chip repair
•          Leather re-dyeing and interior surface repair
•          Painted wheel repair
•          Minor body paint repairs and spot-blending

Finally, a potentially high-profit area of automotive appearance exists within the realm of cosmetic enhancement and customization services. Examples of these are window tinting, vehicle vinyl wraps, and aftermarket customization installations. A surprisingly high percentage of the motoring public desires to customize the appearance of their ride. Car wash operators that can dedicate space for these services can potentially bring in an entirely new customer base by offering these services.

Each of these specialized automotive services will require formal training and a special set of tools, equipment, and supplies. Nonetheless, if properly marketed, these services can bring in considerable revenue. The simple “detail shop” becomes the one-stop “auto salon.” You get the picture.


I sincerely hope that returning to <I>Auto Laundry News <P>as a contributing editor specializing in the detail world will assist colleagues in the car wash segment. I welcome your questions and comments to my listed e-mail or phone. In the meantime, I hope the readers enjoy this in-depth exploration into the merging of auto detailing and car washing.

Prentice St. Clair, CD-SV/RIT, has been serving the automotive reconditioning industry since 1999 with impassioned consulting and training and the goal of increasing the profitability of the automotive detailing and reconditioning industry. He is proud to have been inducted into the International Detailing Association’s Hall of Fame. Prentice welcomes inquiries that lead to the opportunity to help readers achieve excellent results. He can be reached via call or text at (619) 701-1100 or e-mail at