It’s going to get tougher to compete. It is one thing to do battle for customers with Joe’s Car Wash five miles down the road or Sally’s Auto Spa in the neighboring zip code. It’s another to take on an expansion-minded chain builder. What operators now face is competition from developers and/or aggregators who have little interest in having a mere presence in a given market. Their goal is nothing less than to dominate the geographic areas in which they choose to operate by adding location after location, thus offering their subscriber customers more flexibility in deciding when and where to wash and denying other operators the opportunity to bid for business.

A one- or two-site operator might leverage the convenience of his locations into a local win. That competitive edge disappears, however, when a multi-site operation scatters its locations across wide swaths of a state, or even a region. Picture this: a motorist from Town A is visiting Town B and needs her car washed. She can choose your facility or have her car washed at the Town B location of statewide Brand X whose wash club she subscribed to in Town A. You lose. The same scenario can play itself out in neighborhood after neighborhood.

Rather than easing up, conditions are bound to get more challenging. Car washes are being snapped up by consolidators at an increasing pace. When you hear stories of new developments being planned, it’s not about one or two sites, but tens of sites. Challenges are there to be overcome, though. Most of the multi-site portfolios consist almost exclusively of express exterior washes. One way to compete would be to offer services that they do not — i.e., interior cleaning. I know, I know. Operators who have discovered the joys of the highly automated express exterior model will be loath to return to a high-labor, headache-heavy full-service setup. The reality is, however, that there is — and probably always will be — a need for full-service car washing.

Now we are told that, in our pursuit of customers, we’ve been doing it all wrong. In a post on her website (, Pam Danziger, founder of Unity Marketing, claims that the traditional view of a consumer’s path to purchase — awareness, familiarity, consideration, purchase — is obsolete. She quotes this bit of wisdom from consumer psychologist Chris Gray: “Consumer behavior is always a means to an emotional end.” Thus, talking features and benefits is all well and good, but the promise of emotional rewards is a much stronger come-on.

What consumers value determines the path they take, Danziger says. With regard to the service experience, they look to convenience, ease of use, great customer service, and incentives, among others. As far as the product is concerned, no brand can go wrong by offering the highest standards of quality, she adds, which, in the case of the car wash, is a clean, shiny, dry car. Finally, today’s consumers want to know where the businesses they support stand on social values — e.g., support for local charities, community involvement, and responsible environmental stewardship.

One more complication to contend with: Thanks to the Internet, consumers can assess your business, form an opinion, and, fairly or not, render a judgement — all without ever setting foot on your premises. To successfully compete in the real world, you also need to master the digital one.