Operators fear the commoditization of car washing. It is a fear that has long been expressed, but one that acquired an amplified urgency with the advent of the express exterior model. It is not difficult to see why. The express-exterior car wash famously minimizes the need for labor, relying instead on automation, which enables the wash to perform the same tasks repeatedly, customer after customer, with no variation in the outcome. This is great for consistency, but it also enables the competitor down the road to duplicate those even results by employing the same automated process.

The results of this leveling in outcomes could be seen in what, some years ago, became a race to the bottom — in pricing, that is. In some markets, operators promoted the $3 wash plus free self-vacuuming. While the dollar amount crept up some, the concept remained the same: a dirt-cheap offering in hopes of volume. This approach has, thankfully, all but disappeared.

Service offerings at all car washes follow a predictable pattern: it starts with a basic wash that might include wheel cleaner, a foam bath, and air dry. From there, subsequent packages grow in size and cost through the add-on of additional services. It currently tops out with the addition of a ceramic coating or sealant. The sameness from one express wash to another extends beyond the service offering — they all look alike. Granted they are built for utility, but you end up in every instance with an elongated box surrounded by self-vacuum stalls. Aside from varying roof lines and opting for different finishes like ceramic tile, faux stonework, or other cosmetic touches there is not much you can do to set the building apart.

So, we have lookalike car washes that produce essentially the same end product, via the same process, at more or less the same price. Now that sounds a lot like commodity defined: a product or service widely available and interchangeable with one provided by another company. In some markets, location is still a factor in separating a wash from its competitors — convenience remains a consumer consideration. But, with washes being built a mile or two from one another, location loses its meaning as a differentiating element.

Once you’ve reached the point where consumers figure a car wash is a car wash, you’ve lost the battle for stand-apart status. The question is: Are we there yet?

In his “On the Wash Front” column in this issue, Anthony Analetto makes a forceful argument that we are not there. “Cleaner, drier, shinier, faster isn’t the only value we sell,” he writes. He is, of course, correct. There is much more to today’s car wash than efficiently moving a vehicle through the wash tunnel. Turn to page 8 and learn how he plans and works at delivering a customer experience that sets his wash apart from his competitors.

Another feature that can be found at just about every car wash these days is the monthly unlimited wash club. While its ubiquity tends to further the perception of the car wash as a commodity, it could very well be the operator’s ace in the hole. Wash club membership keeps patrons loyal. It discourages customers from capriciously skipping from this car wash to that — exactly the behavior commoditization enables.