More than 20 years ago, I presented at the annual ICA trade show on planning for a new car wash. The target audience was operators new to the industry.

After the presentation, I was surrounded by 20 people who wanted to ask more questions, obtain materials, exchange business cards, etc. This was because the car wash industry was experiencing a lot of change. This included Internet access, express exteriors, flex-serve, growth in car wash use, and so forth. Investors were eager for information and to learn how they could get in on the action.

Another big trend was the increase in self-service sites built with one or more in-bay automatics. In-bay automatics represented a big change for operators long accustomed to coin acceptors, tokens, hog-hair brushes, and manual spray bays. Automatics also meant greater start-up expenses for new investors because in-bays require more land, buildings, sophisticated equipment, and marketing and promotional techniques.

Pundits at that time remarked that if certain car wash operators didn’t keep up with the times, they were in danger of being left behind. Auto Laundry News survey data suggests in-bay operators are still not keeping up with the times. Most glaring is the percentage of operators with access to the Internet (96 percent) as compared to the percentage that have a website (less than 40 percent).

A car wash without a website has less chance of being recognized. There is one less way to inform customers.

E-commerce is not possible. More importantly, the competition probably has one.

Similarly glaring is the percentage of operators accepting mobile or contactless payment (less than 20 percent). According to Fit Small Business, more than 50 percent of adults regularly use some form of contactless payment — cards, mobile wallets, wearable devices, etc.

Another area of concern is extra pay services. Less than 40 percent of operators offer surface protection, and less than 10 percent offer ceramic. Another trend is that automatic wash revenues as a percentage of total income have increased steadily over the last 10 years, from 56 percent to 67 percent. During this period, in-bay average monthly wash revenue increased from $7,000 to $14,000. These trends mirror ICA data showing consumers’ increasing preference for automatic car wash.

More than half of survey respondents report 20 years or more in the car wash business, up from 23 percent in 2009. Conversely, only 4 percent report being in the car wash industry for fewer than five years. This is down from 29 percent in 2009. In other words, operators are getting increasingly older, and new blood is not entering the product class.

The data indicates that self-service and in-bay operators can do many things to raise benchmarks, most of which involve adding more technology. For example, we mentioned some of the benefits of having a website. Today, getting a professionally made site is relatively inexpensive, and once it is set up properly, it is virtually maintenance-free. Sites can even be set up to accept payments for products and services.

In addition, point-of-sale with smart technology, remote vehicle identification, and contactless payment allows operators to offer subscription programs. Monthly wash plans have become the bread and butter for many operators, generating more than half of their total sales revenues.

Bob Roman is a car wash consultant and can be reached at