My colleague jokingly complained about his cats peeing on the floor. Not exactly an adversity. And what does that have to do with car washing? Well, it turns out the food this type of cat normally eats is on backorder.

Indefinitely. Thinking the price online was too high, my colleague delayed the purchase and ran out. He went to a store and the shelves were bare. And since he delayed the purchase, online inventory was now sold out. This story, oddly enough, will illustrate the point I’m trying to make. Stick with me on this.

Excellence withers without an adversary; as fire is the test for gold, so adversity is the test of strong men.


The cats are simply (and naturally) expressing their dissatisfaction with the substitution, and he, the owner, is paying the price. Shortages and inflation. Frustration is what happens when you let either of them get ahead of your planning. It’s simply out of your control, or is it?

Some very smart people are publishing tons of stuff about temporary inflation. Me, I just have a business to run. Facts are facts. The annual inflation rate accelerated to 7 percent in the last month of 2021. This is the highest rate since it hit 6.8 percent in 1982. Higher prices combined with COVID labor and delivery disruptions add to the uncertainty surrounding us. Another interesting fact: in 1982 the average 30-year mortgage rate was 16.04 percent as the Federal Reserve struggled to control runaway inflation caused by rising commodity prices, government overspending, and rising wages.

Maybe everything will be back to normal next month when you’re reading this. Regardless, none of us are in control of macroeconomic impacts to our business. The best course of action is to plan for what we can control. And that takes me back to the cats peeing on the floor and customer experience.

Everything Is Forgotten Except a Bad Customer Experience

I started to write this article about making capital investments now, before they inflate even more, to reduce costs going forward. Water reclamation systems to lower water usage. Modern chemical panels to reduce chemical consumption. VFD motor controls to shave your electric bill. It’s sound advice that can build your competitive position and it will put cash in your pocket long after this inflationary cycle ends, but it’s not the most important thing you must do.

Customers will forgive a necessary price increase to continue receiving the quality service they expect. Cut the quality you give to keep the same price, and now you’re playing with fire. Just ask my colleague’s cats how they felt about it.

Search shrinkflation examples and you’ll come up with a list of market leading companies that disagree with me. From what I read, Walmart’s Great Value paper towels, for example, went from 168 2-ply sheets per roll to 120. Nearly a 30 percent drop in product for the same price. Turn down the soap. Cut the high-pressure wheel blasters from the basic wash. Switch off a few blowers. Wait a little longer to replace cloth, vacuum nozzles, pretty much anything wearable. There are so, so, many opportunities to shrink your car wash experience and expense. So many shrinkflation ideas that I can hear one of my early mentors in this business telling me and any other car wash operator: “What? Are you stupid?”

Mr. Sonny Fazio, who opened his first wash in 1949, drilled into my brain a simple philosophy that has proven incredibly profitable through recessions and inflation alike. In his words: “If someone pays for a wash, including your basic wash, they’re expecting a wash! If you can’t deliver that, then you aren’t deserving of this business. If you can’t afford to deliver consistent quality, then charge more for the wash, find a better way to do it, or get the hell out.”

Mr. Sonny didn’t sugarcoat sound advice. And it’s not just wash quality. Customers are feeling cutbacks everywhere from both inflation and staffing issues. We’re all encountering businesses where the staff is tired, rude and untrained. Long hold times, unanswered phones, no call backs, inconsistent hours, overflowing trash receptacles, delays with deliveries and no updates. The other day I stopped to pick up a box-of-joe for a meeting and was greeted with a handwritten note taped to a locked door, “Due to Staffing Issues – Drive-Thru Only Today.” The line was around the building, and I ended up being late. I was frustrated.

Uncertainty and change create frustration. Customers are frustrated. Staff is frustrated. As a car wash owner/operator, it’s my job to actively combat both. I hold the key to making a visit to my wash the highlight of my customers’ day and I’m enjoying that. My staff is enjoying it. It’s a new way to look at things. I’m in control of making a subscription to my wash the most valuable discretionary expense my increasingly cash-strapped customers can make. My goal is to be the least expensive and most satisfying mini vacation someone in my market can buy. It starts with my staff.

Establish Belief Systems.

Yes, I’ve elevated the physical experience. Brighter lights, different scents, new signage, and upgrades to make my free-vacuum stations friendlier. I’ve installed more trash receptacles in case I have less staff to empty them. And that’s the adversity hitting so many service businesses right now. How do you cultivate a well-trained team of smiling employees to delight customers when turnover seems to be skyrocketing? Training alone can take too long to bring new-hires up to speed. Craft an employee belief statement. In other words, get their mindset straight from the get-go.

What would you tell a new employee so they knew everything you expected from them? Not necessarily the tasks they perform, but the attitude to delight customers. What would you tell them to give them the confidence to make the right decisions to cultivate customer loyalty? It’s subtly different than a mission statement. That’s a strategic management tool. This is a down and dirty guide to infect team members with your culture. It must be short, easy to understand, and memorable. I suggest keeping it at 15 seconds or less. Here’s my latest version. I plan to have my marketing company make a nice banner with a smiling team member and hang it prominently in the break room:

“It’s my responsibility to make sure every customer is so impressed with
• the quality of our wash
• the cleanliness of our facility
• and our friendly service with a smile
that they recommend us to friends, family & every stranger that they meet!”

A car wash’s value proposition isn’t complex: we aim to deliver a consistently clean, dry, and shiny car, coupled with a memorable and engaging customer experience. Shutting down the economy in response to a global pandemic has and will continue to produce challenges and unexpected opportunities. It’s an adversary many of us didn’t expect — so why not use it as the fire to pursue excellence.

Protect your customers’ experience no matter what challenges you encounter. Elevate your team’s ability to delight your customers no matter how frequently staff turns over. Make the right decisions at the right time to support those two directives. Alternatively, you can hesitate, second guess, and operate in austerity — just ask my colleague how that worked out with his cats — it’s a funny story.

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 more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.