For many, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 is a fading memory. For others, vacant lots and boarded up houses serve as daily reminders that the return to better days is still a work in progress. For all of us, there’s a lot to learn from operators that successfully reinvented their washes to not only survive, but ultimately prosper in some of the most challenging markets following the crash. It’s wise to have a plan for the next inevitable slowdown, and these best practices can elevate the value proposition you deliver to your customer, earn their loyalty, and build a foundation for a stronger business. Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of these locations and it’s a story we can all learn something from.

Built in 2006, this express exterior opened in one of the fastest growing cities in Florida. New home sales were off the charts, more being built each day, and unemployment was below 4 percent. One year later, while the wash was just starting to build volume, construction came to a screeching halt. Suddenly, an area that was one of the fastest growing became one of the worst in the country for home foreclosures and financial loss. Once construction stopped, a significant percentage of the population involved in building all those new homes vanished overnight. Those who remained struggled to find jobs and unemployment skyrocketed until it plateaued at 15 percent. To say things were challenging is an understatement. I read that in 2008 the county government considered declaring itself a disaster area to access emergency reserve funding. But here we are today, eight years later, and my friend’s wash continues to hold its own. How? Let’s take a look at what it takes to succeed when business slows.


If you were starving, would you suddenly decide to stitch your mouth closed to solve the problem? Of course not; you might reduce activity while you planned for ways to acquire more, or more nutritious food, but stitching your mouth closed would never enter your mind as a solution. Closing your wash during hours when even one customer would expect you to be open makes about as much sense. I’m not saying to necessarily stay open during a tropical storm or other weather occurrence when customers wouldn’t expect you to be there, but never fall into the trap of sending everyone home early because business is slow. You’ve got to be open, in some form, with the brushes spinning, actively searching for the next opportunity to capture more customers, who wash more frequently, at higher average tickets. That is what will define your future, and it just so happens that the slow times are often the best times to find those opportunities.


Signs are great. Advertising is wonderful. Community involvement is fantastic, but for a retail business trying to capture impulse shoppers driving by its property, nothing is more powerful than looking busy. Passersby see others washing their car and are prompted to remember that they too have to complete that chore. Busy means your service is good. Busy means you deliver value. But how do you create a busy look when you’re not busy? Against conventional wisdom, this operator invested money to keep customers on his property, using the free vacuum service as long as possible. He built a nice control cabinet complete with 20 buckets, each numbered to match its slot in the cabinet. Each bucket contains a bottle of window cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, a body towel and a window towel. Customers leave their keys or license with the attendant who exchanges it for their complimentary bucket of supplies. Automatic rug cleaners were added for customers to use, also free of charge. On “busy” slow days, an additional attendant is employed in the aftercare area. Their sole job is to keep everything spotless and go from customer to customer to make sure they are satisfied with the wash and have all the supplies they need. It’s ironic that this site was originally built without so much as a vending machine to avoid having customers linger in the free-vacuum area. Today, the wash often looks busiest when things are slow. Those are the days when frequent repeat customers who enjoy spending the most time at the wash plan their visit.


As I toured my friend’s wash, I kept hearing the same four words repeated over and over by every customer returning a bucket of detailing supplies. “Thank you so much.” It made me pause to think about what really happened to allow this wash to survive against all odds. It’s more than a bucket of detailing supplies. Customers were enjoying the time spent detailing their car because the tunnel and free supplies took away the heavy lifting at a price and service that exceeded their expectations. Listening to them talk to the attendant, it didn’t sound as if they just had their car washed; they spoke as if they just finished washing their own car and were proud of the job they did. This operator created a loyal fan base that has become his best marketing campaign by providing his customers the tools to take pride in a job well done, at a price they could afford. We hear the term loyalty used often, but what is loyalty?

According to Wikipedia, loyalty is faithfulness or a devotion to a person, country, group, or cause. When the market turned, many operators cut every corner to reduce spending. This operator ran into the burning building and chose to give more to entice the few customers who were coming, to keep coming. It’s often said that 20 percent of your customers account for 80 percent of your revenue. Few of us will ever watch as more than half of our traffic evaporates over a couple of weeks, but the question every operator should be asking themselves is “What am I doing to make sure the best 20 percent of my customers would continue to come even if they were struggling financially?”


Getting in control of your expenses is not the same as cutting back haphazardly at the risk of alienating your best customers. I saved this one for last, because it should be last. Always ensure you’re delivering a value proposition to the customer that can’t be beat, before looking to do it more affordably. Every day there are new products, services, and practices that can shave electric, water, labor, soap consumption, and other variable expenses at the wash. Whether it’s a new training program or process change to reduce labor, preventive maintenance schedule to eliminate repairs, or equipment upgrade to cut labor, energy, detergent, or all three, most money-saving projects require time, effort, and investment. Even a simple task such as replacing your bathroom lights with LEDs takes time and money, which is always easier to do when you’re not staring down the barrel of the next global economic disaster.

As I sit in front of my computer typing this article, I am glad to report that my friend’s wash is now doing great. Unemployment in the city recently dipped below 10 percent, and all the hard work he put in is starting to pay off as the area comes back to life. New families continue to move into the community and his loyal customers are there, waiting to let them know where the best place in town is to get their cars washed.

Good luck and good washing.

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at or at (800) 327-8723 ext. 104.