Unlimited wash memberships have taken the industry by storm. Growing in lockstep with the express exterior model, you would be hard pressed to find a tunnel operator that doesn’t offer some version of the concept.
As attractive as an unlimited wash club is to car wash power users, the offering has not been available to the most discriminating of customers. Car washers that prefer the personal touch of a hand wash have for the most part been stuck on the outside looking in. But Mark Johnson of Autoworx Car Wash and Detail Center is looking to change that.
The detail and car wash veteran pioneered the unlimited hand wash experience in Wilmington, NC and is introducing the concept in the Myrtle Beach, SC market.
Johnson entered the car care business in 1988, opening a fixed location detail shop in Wilmington, focusing on wholesale dealer work. As the business grew he began to concentrate on the retail side of the business, while looking to capitalize on what he believed was a hole in the market.
At a high-end detail center atypical full-service detail starts around $300 and can balloon to well over a $1,000 if the customer opts for a super-protective ceramic coating. Customers are coming in and spending a fair amount of money because they believe in the detailer and have built a relationship with them. And when they need a maintenance wash they often turn to their trusted detailer for that personalized treatment and experience.
However, most detail operations are not set up to perform simple car washes quickly at scale. In the name of customer service they will reluctantly wash the customer’s car, which ties up a skilled detailer with a low-margin task and diverts them from their primary function of full-scale automotive detailing.
“I always had this idea in my head of how to maintain cars that we detail in a way that is the best for the customer and us,” he says. “I wanted to create a process that is sort of automated, but had people in the tunnel hand washing cars with microfiber and the correct chemicals. But we needed to be able to produce cars at the same level from a production standpoint as a traditional automated wash.”
After years of perfecting the concept in his mind, Johnson got his chance to put his vision into reality in 2007. A wash became available in the Wilmington market and Johnson and his then partner decided the time was right to turn their dream into reality.
“When we opened up the wash we quickly proved that the concept was solid while continuing to grow on the detail side of things to where we became the leader in our market,” Johnson says. “We were washing cars in our tunnel that you generally wouldn’t put in an automated car wash. Now customers didn’t have to call a detailer to do upkeep washes or do it themselves in their driveway. We could do it for them safely and quickly.”
The 100-plus-foot concept doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of a typical automated wash. There are no brushes, high pressure rinses, and harsh chemicals. Johnson’s concept relies on good old fashioned elbow grease, with a few pieces of light-touch equipment mixed in to help safely accelerate the process.
When customers pull into the drive they are meet with a tablet wielding greater who takes their order and answers any questions. Once a wash package is selected the car is loaded onto the conveyor and sent down the tunnel.
A pair of employees give the car a quick rinse and get to work scrubbing the vehicle down with a gentle soap while it slowly makes its way down the conveyor. Not all of the work is done by hand, some rinse arches, tires scrubbers, and blowers are deployed to make the process quicker and more efficient but nothing touches the vehicle’s surface except for the microfiber mitts of the wash’s experienced crew.
The only high pressure in the tunnel is saved for the wheels and tires, Johnson wanted to ensure that the car’s body was not exposed to potentially damaging high-pressure.
“I didn’t want any high-pressure spray in the tunnel,” says Johnson. “One of the things I was seeing as a detailer were convertibles where high-pressure spray had frayed the top. The pressure is too much for convertibles and it can damage the seals and cause the top to leak.”
By eliminating friction and high pressure from the tunnel while still leveraging some labor-saving automation, the tunnel was able to efficiently, and safely wash cars at scale. The wash, when properly staffed, can process anywhere from 200 to 300 cars per day.
Johnson and his partner grew the unique concept in Wilmington to the market leader, servicing a loyal customer base while drawing in new washers and introducing them to both the hand wash experience and the full-service detailing services the business was built upon.
After more than a dozen years operating the automated hand wash, Johnson and his partner parted ways in 2019. Johnson accepted a buy-out and took the proceeds from his half of the flourishing business to develop the concept in Myrtle Beach.
Johnson opened Autoworx Car Wash and Detail Center in January of this year, introducing the concept to a new market and enjoying a successful first year of operation. The new location sports a slightly longer 120-foot conveyorized tunnel featuring the same concept and equipment array as the Wilmington location. Just like the Wilmington site Autoworx offers an unlimited wash club which proved to be an instant hit.
“Our unlimited plan is just $14.99 a month,” says Johnson. “The price point keeps the customers coming back, and when they see all the detailing and things that we’re doing, it feeds that side as well.”
While the unlimited plan is less than $15 a month, customers have the ability to purchase add-ons as needed. Interior cleaning, triple-foam protectant, tire dressing, etc. are all available to transform the basic wash into a dazzling package. In fact, the average unlimited plan customer spends around $12 per visit on upgrades, and is able to customize their wash experience every time to address their current needs.
While the hand wash and its unlimited wash club have enjoyed a successful first year of operation, results have obviously been hampered by the ongoing health crisis. In January and February of this year volumes were through the roof, but when COVID-19 hit in March car counts crashed — customers simply weren’t getting out and washing their cars. Over the summer months and into the fall volume has increased and customer demand is evident for the concept, but the pandemic did put a damper on what should have been a banner first year for Autoworx.
While the hand wash side of the business has been challenged by COVID-19, the detailing bays have enjoyed an incredible first year of operation. Customers are not only getting their cars detailed but are bringing in their boats and RVs for full-service details at a record-setting rate.
“The detailing side has been extremely busy,” Johnson says. “We are doing a ton of details and coatings. And we have had our hands full with RVs, boats, and aircraft. The hand wash side is continually growing each month as well.”
With a successful albeit challenging first year of operation under his belt, Johnson is looking toward 2021 where he hopes to expand the automated hand wash concept to new communities while continuing to provide superior detail services.
Name: Autoworx Car Wash and Detail Center
Location: Myrtle Beach, SC
Owner: Mark Johnson
Year Founded: 2020
Concept: Automated Hand Wash and Full-Serve Detail
Tunnel Length: 120 Feet
Throughput: 200 to 300 Cars Per Day