With the proliferation of express car washes, the number of full-serve and flex-serve washes seem to be diminishing and the prices for the exterior car wash continue to rise.This will create an opportunity for the full-service prices to increase, rightfully so, to justify the effort it really takes to appropriately clean the interior of a vehicle and glass — all in a timely manner to satisfy the motoring public.
In its first incarnation, full service was truly a full-service experience. I can remember purchasing gasoline that was added to my car wash ticket, which created a very convenient scenario. In addition, the interior sales space allowed for incidental purchases of car-related items, trinkets, soft drinks, greeting cards, and other convenience related items. Generally, there was a glassed-in area in the interior sales space where you could observe your vehicle in the tunnel and the services it was receiving. Waiting rooms also were comfortable and usually offered free coffee while waiting for your vehicle services to be completed. As the full-service model matured, lube centers were added to supply additional services such as light repairs, state inspections, etc. This model was very convenient, although time consuming. As consumer expectations have changed where speed and convenience now seem to be a higher priority, the industry has responded with the advent of flex and express washes.
I believe that the old layout for full serves — that being ticket writers, vacuums prior to the conveyor, and towel drying at the exit end — is an old model that has too high of a labor component. The new flex model consisting of pay stations, possibly ticket writers, and vacuuming and towel drying at the exit end of the conveyor is the proper approach for full-service cleaning. This also lowers labor costs and allows management to focus on one area at the exit end of the tunnel. It also allows for exterior car washing and in many cases the option for self-serve vacuuming.
Other factors that forced change include the mega gasoline/c-store business, defined by multiple fuel pumps offering gasoline at competitive prices and reasonably priced convenience store items. The growing presence of freestanding quick oil change centers, their large numbers, and the pricing of their services also pressured the full-serve car wash with a quick lube to rethink that investment primarily because of land cost, multiple competitors, and in some cases more convenient locations. There is a question as to whether the lube center, as it’s currently being operated, can survive the long-term push toward electric vehicles. Might they end up changing into some type of battery support service or something similar?
I believe there will be a pent-up demand for flex serve and full-serve car washing as they will be able to address interior cleaning. In addition, flex-serve car washing also allows for detail services. The trick in offering detail services is that the price needs to be substantial enough to cover the extra costs associated with the service such as the extra labor, extra land required, employee training, etc. I do, however, think getting to the right amount will be relatively easy as the prices for the large exterior packages are much higher today. Interior cleaning prices could be an add on of $20 to $40, depending on your market. The interior cleaning procedure should take less than 20 minutes from the time the customer exits the vehicle until the time they reenter the vehicle, with a recommended “kiss off” quality-control person to ensure quality and customer satisfaction. Of course, key to all of this is the people, their training, and the culture of the business. The other benefit of providing a flex wash is less liability as the customers are moving the vehicles. Yet, the format involves additional customer exposure and contact, allowing for a more personal experience. I believe, when done right, full-serve cleaning through a flex wash model is still a very viable business opportunity.
FUTURE OF FULL SERVICE
I am not one to predict the future but if vehicles are going to become autonomous (self-driving) that will eventually result in high-occupancy and high-mileage vehicles similar to taxi cabs and limousines. Customers will utilize their time in travel for things like sleeping, eating, drinking, grooming, sex, getting sick, online shopping, gaming, leaving social media reviews, etc., all of the reasons that most people do not like to take cabs. This will create a demand for more frequent interior cleaning and disinfecting, possibly daily if not more often than that.
Future ride-hailing apps might even include a cleanliness rating scale. Also, the outside of the vehicle will probably include some type of advertising space or a wrap of some type. With higher daily use and higher mileage, there could be a need for daily washing or more in an effort to keep advertising, cameras, and technology operating properly.
In addition, these ride-share programs will likely be used mostly in high-density areas, making land and facility costs extremely expensive for companies to provide such services and house inventory. These companies will want to keep their vehicles close to the area of use so as not to increase mileage and wear and tear. Some exterior car washes that currently have an abundance of vacuum slots might dedicate a few to providing interior cleaning services and possibly offer charging ports during the cleaning process. There is certainly an opportunity here to exploit professional vehicle cleaning. As this segment grows there will be fewer individually owned vehicles on the road, so your current retail customer counts will more than likely be impacted negatively. No one knows how long it will take for this to occur, but technology is moving at an extremely fast pace.
The bottom line is interior cleaning will be with us for as long as there are people who need to be moved from point A to point B.
Ralph Nasca is an industry veteran and manager of Lewisville, TX-based Pro-Tech Service Company LLC. You can visit the company on the web at www.pro-tech-service.com.