I live in the northeast and travel quite a bit in and around the area and I have yet to find an in-bay wash that is truly impressive. Sparkly new express washes adorn the landscape, but in-bays, at least in this part of the country, seem relegated to an afterthought.
I am a fan of the concept. An always open, quick, efficient, unmanned facility that can get my car clean for around $10 is a win for me. But I often find myself, if not disappointed in the experience, at least underwhelmed.
In this month’s issue, our annual In-Bay Automatic Survey explores the segment’s current state and helps operators benchmark their wash against their peers. Starting on page 31, we highlight a host of in-bay statistics, and as I was reviewing them, it became clear to me that what I have experienced with the segment in the northeast is happening across the country.
Unlike the thriving express market, which has seen new investors powered by venture capital flock to the concept, the in-bay business is still primarily a mom-and-pop affair. And at least according to our findings, mom-and-pop aren’t keeping up with the times.
New blood is not flocking to the in-bay segment. Just four percent of respondents have less than five years of industry experience, with a staggering 53 percent reporting more than 20 years in the car wash game — the average length of industry experience is 23 years. Experience is vital to success, but the question must be poised: Are these veteran operators striving for excellence or simply doing the bare minimum and slowly disappearing into the background?
More than half of those surveyed report an express exterior in their market, and around 40 percent of those with an express competitor say it has hurt their business. While many in-bay operators are struggling with new contenders, they are not bolstering their offerings at a pace commiserate with the express players — less than a third will invest in new equipment in the next 12 months.
Over the past several years, much talk has centered around converting in-bay automatics into short conveyorized tunnels. Contributing editor Robert Roman explores the benefits starting on page 28 of this issue. Despite the increased throughput and large potential revenue increases, not one in-bay operator that participated in this year’s survey has converted an in-bay in the past 12 months, and none plan to do so in the foreseeable future.
Yes, equipment upgrades and site retooling require significant capital expenditure. With the high construction, equipment, and interest costs, it is pretty clear why absentee in-bay operators aren’t rushing to re-equip their sites. But less costly things can be done to improve the experience — LED lighting, signage, a fresh coat of paint, etc. can help draw customers to the wash.
And beyond site upgrades, let’s not forget one of the easiest ways to attract customers to a wash: a digital presence. I know when I am in a new town and in need of a car wash, the first thing I do is pull out my phone and conduct a quick search. At that point, if a wash doesn’t have a web presence, it has no chance of winning my business. Sixty-one percent of survey respondents do not have a website.
Unless operators invest to reinvigorate their in-bay sites, express washes will continue to eat their lunch.