I must be getting older, I mean wiser. I just returned from The Car Wash Show 2022 and found myself saying “remember when” more times than I can count. Reminiscing about days gone by with friends and colleagues I’ve known for most of my adult life was fun. Fooling myself that they were better days as a car wash business would be well, delusional. The other day while driving, the GPS mapping app on my phone stopped working. I pulled over to a gas station. I restarted my phone. I certainly didn’t try to buy a map. I didn’t ask for directions. Some progress is so life changing that there’s no going back. I got my phone GPS to work again.
Which brings me to multiple conversations I had on the show floor about a pressing topic: how close is too close to build another wash? It’s a question posed by both operators looking to build additional locations in a market they’re in and by operators looking to enter a market with existing competitors.
My answer: it depends. I’ll admit it’s a weak, albeit true, answer. Once upon a time conventional wisdom was not to build within a three-mile radius of another wash. That evolved into not within a five-to-seven-minute drivetime. And now, the truth … it depends. Every market is different. Physical differences. Demographic differences. Different people wash with different frequencies. Different demographics have different capture rates. Radius and drive times are just outdated shortcuts.
Population density matters immensely. Look at a market like New Jersey. A three-mile radius near Union City may be home to over 1.5 million people. Take a 25-minute drive to Hackensack and the same three-mile radius will have fewer than 300,000 heads. Which one do you think can support more car washes?
WHAT MAKES SENSE
First is to accurately define the boundaries of the market you’re planning to compete in. Incorporate into your calculation large delineators such as rivers, traffic patterns, demographic shifts, and major highways. It makes sense. I know two washes, separated by a major highway, that don’t view each other as competition — despite being less than a mile apart. Instead, each of them is on the outside ring of a different market that extends from a center several miles away.
Wash format is another delineator. Express exterior washes with free vacuums have shifted the value proposition for consumers both in time and money. The model has brought waves of new customers to professional car washing. Monthly wash clubs and premium online services have changed customer expectations. When evaluating how close is too close, you must compare the value proposition competitors provide to what you plan to offer. I personally have different criteria with how close I’d build to a self-serve, a full-serve, or a well-run express-exterior sporting 5,000 loyal club members. Makes sense, right?
Site selection will often dictate the success of a wash. I have seen operators make money “in spite of themselves” when they have chosen a great location. Conversely, I have seen great operators believe that their marketing and management skills can overcome a poor location struggling to stay alive. The fact is that part of selecting a winning site relies on understanding the market you’re evaluating.
Traffic should exceed 25K cars per day. Bear in mind that commuter traffic (people on their way to and from work) will stop less often for a car wash than local residents. Also, when looking at a property on a divided highway, or without a nearby turning lane, only consider the traffic on your side of the street.
The property must be visible and easily accessible. Ideally there is a deceleration lane. In a perfect world, your proposed property is on the right-hand side after a stoplight. Car washes are often a convenience and impulse buy; visibility is critical.
Zoning rules must allow you to prominently promote your brand and service. Never make assumptions. Confirm with reasonable certainty that you will be able to effectively promote your business to customers driving by with sufficient time to slow down and pull in. If that isn’t available, I’d consider moving on to another piece of land.
Go beyond population density per conveyor. You need customers, not people. Counting heads isn’t enough. Look for markets with high occupancy rates. Mixed residential with some apartment inventory is preferable. Apartment complexes rarely allow driveway washing and can positively impact overall volume.
Speed matters. Too fast, and potential customers will zip past never realizing your wash is there. Too congested, and frustrated drivers, eager to get through the traffic, seldom pull in for a car wash. The rule of thumb is 45 mph. Are there exceptions? Of course. Stop lights and signs can create intermittent traffic conditions that work well even at 60 mph, but these are outliers.
Age matters. Look for markets with at least 55 percent of the total working population between the ages of 25 to 55. The logic here is quite simple: employed people have more disposable income than retirees and students. Due to time constraints, they are also more attracted to the express exterior format.
Income matters. Watch this one closely. Just a few years ago the goal was to find markets where 50 percent or more made over $50K household income per year. Recent inflation is reducing disposable income. And now, with many express-exteriors pushing $25 or more for their top drive-through package, income requirements are critical for express, flex, and full-serve wash.
Growth matters. Total population and income in your selected market should be projected to grow over the next five years. Enter a market too early, and you may fail before it takes off. Buy too late, and the cost of the land may not fit your investment objective. Review census data to see if the population is growing. Visit the city planner’s office to see which — if any — areas have been plotted for retail development. You’re looking for opportunities to get in before land prices surge that have sufficient traffic to support your businesses during that growth.
Factor in impact fees. Required utilities should be available before you make an offer. This includes the presence of a two-inch water main and sewer connection. Three-phase electricity must also be available. Determine all impact fees, and don’t assume unless you enjoy wasting time and money.
Look for permit-able properties. If the land is not approved for a car wash, be prepared to spend tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars to get an exception made, with no guarantee that you’ll have anything to show for it. That said, the right site may be worth the battle.
Many years ago, I visited the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, FL. I faintly remember returning home amazed with the engineering genius on display. But all these years later what stands out most was the Thomas Edison quote I saw printed on a mug in the gift shop: “Hell, there are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something.” The trajectory of the car wash industry is just taking off. It’s a long runway before we’re truly flying. And in so many ways, that quote is my best answer to what the new rules are in finding success as our industry explodes with opportunity.
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.