Could two seemingly incompatible trends in car washing be vying for the upper hand? The industry is getting ever closer to full automation, while at the same time working to create a more retail look and feel for its customers. These developments are not necessarily complementary.

The new retail paradigm has shifted from a focus on product to people, writes Pam Danziger in her marketing article in the March, 2018 issue of Auto Laundry News. “The human element in retail is the most important factor in attracting customers and driving sales. That’s why people — both the people you serve, i.e., the customers, and the people who do the serving, i.e., staff — are the most critical factors in retail success today.”

Danziger is a marketing expert, but her take coincides remarkably with that of AJ Rassamni, a car wash owner/operator and author of two books written specifically for our industry. In his article in this issue, “Out with the Old,” he writes: “The overall experience is not provided by the owner of the business, but rather by the employees who are providing the service and are in direct contact with the customers. People do business with people, not companies.”

These observations present a challenge for the express exterior format, which has been made possible by the automation of the car wash. It’s a challenge because the express format eliminates the “human element;” at the very least it minimizes “people” involvement.

But that is what today’s car wash customer wants says one school of thought. As a panelist on the CEO Forum at the Southwest Car Wash Association Show in Arlington, TX this past February, Paul Fazio of Sonny’s Enterprises pointed to changing customer preferences: they don’t like being sold to, they like to choose; they don’t want to give up their car; they believe machines do a better job than people; they don’t like car wash employees in their cars; they want value, speed, and convenience; and they are price sensitive.

Bake all of these ingredients into the car wash pie, and you end up with an express exterior wash, and, in the process, you overcome consumers’ top two objections to washing commercially quoted by Fazio: it’s too expensive; it takes too long.

Operators — and new investors particularly — have taken note to which the proliferation of express washes bears testimony. And this creates a set of problems all its own: commoditization, a threat explored, shall we say, passionately during the Conveyor Idea Exchange at the SCWA show. With so many express exteriors being built — all essentially the same — consumers cannot tell the difference. To resolve the issue, owners need to set their operations apart, offer something unique, or, one participant suggested, bring back the personal touch.

It is the loss of this personal touch that Roger Pencek laments in his “Market Analysis” article in this issue. It is a loss that will not be readily recouped. Ownership in this industry is changing from family to investor, Fazio says.

The car wash is no longer the owner’s “baby,” he explains, the enterprise he conceived and nurtured — now it’s strictly business.