What do consumers want? Whoever unravels that little puzzle will have discovered every marketer’s Holy Grail. It is a puzzle that has given rise to reams of theories and a library’s worth of books and scholarly papers. And still the answer remains elusive, not least because consumers are a fickle bunch with ever-changing wants and perceived needs. This question, as it applies to car washing, has been bugging me since the International Carwash Association’s The Car Wash Show in Las Vegas last April.

At the show, I sat in on a presentation highlighting some of the findings of the latest ICA Consumer Study. One nugget of information was particularly intriguing. The study reported that 43 percent of professional car wash users said it was important to have the vehicle interior vacuumed for them; 44 percent said it was worth the extra cost. Try as I might, I’m unable to square those findings with the apparent popularity of the exterior express model, which features self-serve vacuuming as an integral element.

A sizable proportion of the washing public must have been sold on the express exterior concept. How else does one explain the reported trend: new-construction conveyor projects going from a 50/50 split between express exterior and full/flex in the early 2000s to a 70/30 ratio favoring exterior express in 2015. Does this mean that the express exterior developers are simply writing off nearly half of professional car wash users as potential customers, or do they have access to market research that looks different than the ICA Consumer Study? Or does the allure of low/no labor simply outweigh all other considerations?

In a recent paper titled “The New Consumer Manifesto — Why Old is New and Young is Old News,” Lori Bitter, author of the book The Grandparent Economy, claims that advertising and marketing are broken, and makes the case for targeting an older demographic: There are over 100 million people over the age of 50 in the United States, i.e., one in three. By 2020, the population of 65-plus-year-olds will grow 39 percent. The 50-plus demographic has enormous spending power, Bitter says — $3.2 trillion annually. This very same demographic will have entered what she identifies as the “Catered Experience Stage” of their lives. “Services that cater to a consumer’s needs are king,” she writes, “DIY is out. Having it done for you is in.” Where does that leave self-vacuuming?

In his Auto Detailing column last October, Prentice St. Clair refers to the “increasing homogenization of low-labor car washing,” pointing out that consumers are seeing fewer and fewer differences from one car wash to the next. This kind of “sameness” bears much of the responsibility for the demise of shopping malls, according to Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and author of, among other titles, Shops that POP! 7 Steps to Extraordinary Retail Success. “Filled with the same stores offering the same merchandise at the same ‘sale’ price, it’s too much of the same thing,” she says. “Customers have lost interest.”

That’s the last thing operators want. Differentiation is essential, whether in site appearance, service offerings, loyalty programs, or even if it means coming full circle, as Anthony Analetto suggests in his On the Wash Front column last June, and “reintroducing labor to the wash process.”