Every car wash owner is an entrepreneur. The foundation of your competitive advantage is the ability to remain relevant to changing customers and employees. And boy, do I believe we have some changes on the horizon; in fact, we are already seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Shutting down the world for a year, fueling the economy with stimulus payments, and funneling all communication through a camera and an internet connection is bound to have an effect.

The pace of technology and user adoption of technology has accelerated at an alarming pace. How customers perceive, engage with, and buy services is changing. Attracting and retaining talent is changing.

The good news: our industry hasn’t been turned upside down like so many others. We are in a position to manage for the present and the future. Let’s get going …

Supply and Demand. Not Min Wage

Some markets are already seeing this in full swing. HELP WANTED! Signs on every hotel, restaurant, c-store, car wash, and business. Forget about last year’s rhetoric about a $15 minimum wage. Supply and demand are pushing many to promote $15 an hour plus perks just to attract labor desperately needed.

Is this good long term? Is this bad long term? Will it last? Does anyone know for certain? Do I know? Probably not. I certainly have opinions, but as a business owner I cannot let that distract me from the truth in front of me. The cost of labor to run my business is up.

A Job Isn’t Enough

The competition for workers has become a lot more severe. It’s a candidates market right now and the factors beyond our control aren’t helping.

Besides that, COVID has highlighted the things workers value most.

They want career advancement, skill development, a company culture that reflects what is most important to them, and work-life balance.

As car wash owners, we no longer compete with other local retail and service businesses for the best hourly labor. Each day offers the labor pool new and more convenient methods of earning money on their terms. This fire has been smoldering for years. A pandemic recovery may pour a proverbial 50-gallon drum full of gasoline onto what was previously a little fire.

Labor and Car Wash Profits

Safe to say, profits will take a hit if there is a heavy reliance on labor. If you’re still using labor to produce a clean, dry, and shiny vehicle then consider this a wake-up call. Equipment, chemistry, and controls have been available to deliver total automation of the wash process for many years now. Invest in making your site look more attractive with signs and new paint and deliver a value to the customer with chemistry and wash packages. If this hasn’t been done, it will be tough for customers to swallow a price increase. Now is a good time to take a walk around your property and see what can be done to upgrade the site and wash menu from the customer’s point of view.

A dedicated team focused on delivering an exceptional customer experience will always set a wash apart. Use staff where the value justifies the expense and develop training programs to get them there. Basically, plan now and provide a career with a path for growth rather than a job leading to nowhere.

I challenge you to think about our industry in a way beyond washing cars. This industry is not only entrepreneurial, but it also provides an employee the opportunity to hone many skills in customer service, equipment repair and maintenance, chemical distribution, technology, sales, marketing, and general management. Talk about an opportunity! It’s not only Business 101 — it’s an MBA in a practical format — employees are getting paid to learn and not having to pay tuition.

Cash Won’t Be King

From Apple Pay to Venmo, it is safe to say the relationship with physical currency has been permanently altered. I certainly do not see a near-term future where I’d accept Bitcoin for payment. But if you offer an unlimited wash plan, your customer will expect the ability to manage it from someplace on their phone. What is more, they may switch to a competitor who offers a better online experience to control that account.

Advanced license plate recognition, pay stations, online payment portals — our industry already has the technology available to satisfy every customer’s buying preference. Losing business because a customer felt it too challenging to give you their money is a risk not worth taking.

Clean, Dry, and Shiny May Not Be Enough

A meal has always been more valuable with a beautiful presentation. More recently that value has been elevated by the opportunity to photograph that meal and share on social media. There is no denying that the “feel good” reinforcement of friends and family liking a post has real-world value. Dollar and cents value.

Restaurants have long understood this. It’s time car wash operators embrace this truth as well. As I watch the world return to normal and speculate about changes to embrace in a post-pandemic economy, this has floated to the top of my list.

Conventional wisdom used to be that Millennials wanted unique experiences they could share online. Then Generation Z. Now, having spent a year attending everything from weddings to funerals through a camera and an Internet connection, I suspect everyone is searching for snap-shot moments.

Look first at your branding and signage. Whether you’re branding is corporate, luxurious, or playful with cartoon characters popping out of everywhere it must be clear, present, and abundant. A visit to your wash must be so memorable that it creates an experience you feel a customer would photograph and share online.

Inside the tunnel are you using the latest signage and LED lighting to make an impact and confirm the purchase of extra service? What’s the experience of your foam applications; is it complete, varied, colored, and scented? In other words, is it a shareable experience?

Reach Customers Where They Are

Dramatically increasing the percentage of online purchases over the last year of pandemic restrictions taught me some things: Compare prices. Search for discounts. Pay attention to digital promotions.

To reach customers where they now shop, I’ve embraced digital marketing. That’s not to say I learned how to do it. Instead, I hired someone to help me engage customers on search and social media channels. If someone is searching Car Wash on YELP! or WAZE or Safari or wherever they search, I want my wash to pop up first when they are within a certain proximity.

… And In the End …

Last week I found myself at a long overdue celebration postponed for nearly a year due to COVID. The wine flowed freely. Speeches were given. Toasts were made. Congratulatory hugs were given. And it reminded me that at the end of the day everything is about the people. The customers we serve, and the teams we assemble to serve them better.

Working to provide more memorable experiences, convenient ways to engage with our businesses, and rewarding career paths for our staff are what makes a business both profitable and worthwhile. Changes that I’ll never be finished making, no matter the reason.

Good luck and good washing

Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.