Being the first to market doesn’t guarantee success. But being the first — and the best — is a recipe for dominance.
WOW Carwash was one of the first express washes in the greater Las Vegas area when it launched in 2017, quickly cornering the market. However, over the past seven years, plenty of express competition has entered the space, and WOW continues to set the pace for excellence.
For the fifth consecutive year, WOW has been named the Best of Las Vegas Gold Winner based on community voting.
“It’s a reflection of how our guests perceive us, and it feels great. Our team members are really motivated by it,” WOW co-founder and CEO Scott Wainwright says about the recognition. “We try to focus on team members having a smile on their faces, being welcoming, and treating guests with a high level of respect and friendliness.”
How did WOW build this rapport with its customers? Slowly and deliberately. Unlike many modern express chains, WOW didn’t grow its holdings extremely rapidly. Instead opting for slow organic growth over the past seven years, expanding from one location to the chain’s current 11 sites.
Prior to forming WOW, Wainwright and his brother-in-law Todd Bender were partners in a home-building business in California. The duo’s business was so successful throughout the state’s Central Valley that they delivered around 250 homes a year at the height of their success.
“In 2015, construction had slowed down and we were looking for another avenue where we could use the processes that we had cultivated in the home building business as far as development and scaling,” says Wainwright. “We came across the express car wash model, and it just really fit our culture, team, and competencies. We felt like we could be effective at it.”
The partners began looking for the right market to dip their toes into the car wash industry, eventually finding ample opportunity in Las Vegas. At the time, Las Vegas was dominated by gas station in-bay automatics and possessed no express exteriors of consequence.
“There were probably 80 gas station car washes in town at the time,” says Wainwright. “But as far as the express model, there were only a couple. We couldn’t figure out why nobody had built express washes in Vegas. I was kind of wondering if it was even going to work.”
The partners were nervous about their first entry into car washing, but they were not timid when it came to their initial investment. They built their first wash from the ground up on an A-level site, sparing no expense with a 150-foot MacNeil-equipped tunnel featuring all the bells and whistles.
In fact, in true Vegas style, they went all-in, not just designing, building, and launching one site, but two within quick succession. When the rope dropped on the first WOW location, the second was already more than halfway complete.
“We received the certificate of occupancy at noon, opened the doors, and washed around 300 cars that first day,” says Wainwright. “That made me feel good. It was like, okay, this will actually work.”
WOW has continued to scale since the early days of the business, averaging a little more than one new site a year since its launch. While that is an impressive pace, it pales compared to the speed at which other start-up chains have expanded their holdings in recent years.
“We have continued to build,” Wainwright says. “But we are not as aggressive as many other groups out there. We like to be strategic and not get ahead of our skis. Some of these big groups grow so quickly that their operations start to decline. We want to ensure that our offering stays consistent.”
While WOW has expanded through measured, steady growth, the partners are ready to put the proverbial pedal to the metal over the next two years. WOW will expand its 11 sites to 19 this year and plans to reach 30 by the end of 2025. The ownership is also looking at markets outside of the Vegas area that could see WOW’s site number rise even further.
“As we waited, we worked on our systems, processes, people, and culture,” Wainwright says of the decision to increase WOW’s store count significantly. “Once we had those dialed in, we were able to take a more aggressive position.”
All but one of WOW’s 11 current locations have been ground-up builds. WOW prefers to build rather than acquire their sites to provide a consistent experience and ensure that when customers see one of their sites it will be instantly recognized as a WOW wash.
This consistent branding is vital for the success of the wash’s subscription business. More than 60 percent of site traffic comes from WOW’s unlimited wash club members, and the high concentration of identical sites in and around Vegas ensures that members can quickly find a nearby site and enjoy a familiar, consistent experience when they pull in.
The success of the unlimited program is undeniable. Despite the absence of a significant marketing campaign, the club is extremely popular with customers and makes a healthy contribution to WOW’s bottom line.
“We don’t do much,” Wainwright says of WOW’s marketing efforts. “We do some social media and texting campaigns, but for the most part, it’s word of mouth. Our customers are so happy with our experience that they recommend us to their friends and family.”
In addition to word of mouth, WOW builds awareness and loyalty within the community through its charitable efforts, helping raise funds for a variety of non-profits.
“We are very engaged with the community,” Wainwright says. “For example, we will designate a weekend towards a local charity, and whatever revenue we generate, we donate to them. In addition, we serve food every month at the Salvation Army, organize park clean-ups, and are active with St. Jude, among other charitable endeavors. It helps us give back to the community and connect with our customers.”
As WOW transitions to full-on expansion mode, its commitment to providing a consistent and dependable customer experience, coupled with its ability to connect with the local community, will serve it well. Thanks to the slow-and-steady growth approach the wash employed during its formative years, it is now poised to scale its operations without fear of a drop-off in performance and operational misfires.