Somewhere on my journey of raising three kids, someone must have introduced me to the belief that “Because I Said So!” was a bad parenting strategy. Not sure who it was. It certainly was annoying at times, but I’m grateful. It forced me 99 times out of 100 to patiently explain the “why” to my children. And as they became young adults, they would jokingly admit to having used the strategy “what would Dad do.” I’m proud of that. I’m proud of them. And of course, there is that one time out of a 100 where the tables turned. Those profound realizations that my gut reactions were wrong, irrational, or simply out of date.

The profit potential of owning and operating a professional car wash is skyrocketing. The path to success, however, is less clear than ever before. If you asked me 20 years ago if there was one way to build a car wash, I would have answered “Yes, the right way.”  That is no longer true.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” — Henry Ford

Mitter or top brush? Wash belt or chain conveyor? Prefab or brick-and-stick construction? VFDs on vacuums or not? The choices you make impact how you deliver customer value, and in turn, how successful your business will be.

It’s ironic. After so many years of preaching the best practices of delivering a clean, dry, shiny product, it’s no longer enough. As we pull people from the driveway and the demand rate for an express wash continues to grow, so do customer expectations. Clean, dry, shiny is a basic expectation, no longer a competitive advantage.

Profit Doesn’t Only Come from Reducing Costs

Yes, I was that guy — cut costs to make more money. I remember the excitement of finding a cheaper way to construct a car wash building with split-face bricks that looked “nice enough” with zero maintenance. I remember the excitement of finding the cheapest tree to fulfill our city’s landscaping requirement. At times, I’d try to figure out ways to make the most money possible by delivering a consistent quality service at the lowest price. It’s a mentality that worked reasonably well when customers visited the wash to complete the “chore” of washing their car.

But customers willingly shell out incredible amounts of money for an enjoyable experience; and will even thank you for that opportunity. There’s a reason we pay more for a meal at a fine restaurant than we do at a fast-food joint. It’s not about completing the chore of feeding ourselves. It’s not even entirely about the taste of the food. It’s the experience we’re willing to pay for. Feeling important. Feeling special. Feeling like a winner. Being served. And feeling like we’re doing good for ourselves or others.

Crafting a Customer Experience is Profitable

What other industry can deliver a “fine dining” experience in an automated real estate-based business with limited inventory, no spoilage, and growth opportunity? As a car wash owner, it doesn’t get better than this. It also couldn’t have been done just a few short years ago. Think about it: advancements in wash formats — namely express exterior with free vacuums — lights, foam, branding, chemistry, POS systems, scents, and customers on social media helping you spread the word about your amazing tunnel experience. Hell, it’s even conveyorized with the ability to process as many $30 top package tickets as we can load every hour. And yes, there are express washes out there asking and getting $30 for the wash they deliver.

Conveyorized car washing. This is an admission, not an about-face. Chain-and-roller conveyors have and will continue to service the professional car washer well. Reliable demand, redundancy, serviceability, and lower up-front capital cost being just a few of the reasons I love this format. But technology and innovation don’t stand still. Wash-belt conveyors have hit their stride.

Reliability, maintenance, and even online wheel cleaning have been addressed. And, well, nobody notices what they’re used to.

Like it or not, nothing in a car wash can change a customer’s perceived experience as quickly or dramatically as using a wash belt. It’s inviting and it’s a change a customer notices. And since the customer expects every car wash to deliver, well, a car wash, they don’t care or consider whether it cleans their wheels better or worse. That’s your problem. For them the belt is a unique experience. The kind they’re itching to share on social media. It’s “easy” and “smooth” and “cool.” It’s an experience that is relatively new to most and something they only see as airport people-movers. But to have their vehicle rolling through a wash on it? You’ve just delivered a “fine dining” experience. More than a few, about 20 percent in my experience, will then actively find ways to justify socially why they just spent $30 on your top package, and try to get others to do it too.

Next up is just my musing on what I’m contemplating for my son’s next wash. Who says I can’t let customers drive onto an inviting short belt? They notice the difference, check. They get the experience, check. Then “launch” them perfectly aligned and in neutral onto and over/under chain conveyor? Will it deliver all the wash-belt experience goodness with the practical advantages of a chain conveyor? Or is this one of those 1 in 100 times I’m missing the point? Stay tuned and shoot me an e-mail with your thoughts. 

The Other Debate

Several years ago, in an article like this, I agreed that, yes, top brushes clean better than mitters. I acknowledged that, yes, advancements in foam wash materials, detergents, equipment, and automatic retracts changed the game. I admitted that if I only had space for one horizontal cleaning component in a tunnel then it would be a top brush. Now I keep seeing tunnels built with multiple top brushes, and no mitter. It’s a mistake. If you have the room, you should install one mitter and one top brush, not two of either one.

Why not two of the same? Because I said so. First, you don’t need to retract a mitter. This means you’ll still partly clean the horizontal surfaces of a pickup or other vehicle even when the top brush is retracted. Second, different cars with different angles are cleaned by different angles, motions, and materials. This means that if your top brush misses a spot, it will be missed by every top brush you have in the tunnel. And third, and this is the overlooked biggie, a mitter is a softer and more welcoming customer experience, which is why I prefer to install a mitter first, followed later in the wash by a top brush.

As of today, that’s my stand. It will stay that way until it doesn’t. Our industry is changing. Customer expectations are evolving. Technology, chemistry, and innovations are happening at an accelerating pace. The only known known is that there are known unknowns. And I for one plan to keep learning and to keep enjoying the profound realizations that my gut reactions were wrong. Irrational. Or simply out of date. Of which replacing all mitters with top brushes isn’t one!

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.