According to industry surveys, the average crew size for a full-service conveyor wash in 1991 was four off-line positions (two managers, two clerks) and 23 on-line positions (13 full-time, 10 part-time). The average number of online man-hours per week was 495.

By comparison, the average crew size for exterior-only conveyor in 1991 was three off-line positions (two managers, one clerk) and eight on-line positions (four full-time, four part-time). The average number of online man-hours per week was 170.

Today, the average crew size for an express-exterior conveyor wash is five full-time (two managers, three attendants) and three part-time. The average number of online man-hours is about 200 per week. Annual wages and payroll expense based on 200 hours per week and $12 per hour is about $150,000 and $200,000 or so with management salaries.


Why are 200 hours of labor per week needed at an automatic car wash facility that cleans only the exterior of vehicles? Most conveyors are idle during non-business hours, so employees are needed to open and close the facility.

As much as 80 percent of the express customer base comes from transient traffic so employees are needed at POS and the conveyor entrance to help customers. Employees are needed to facilitate a subscription program, which may represent up to 10 percent of the express customer base.

Employees are needed if the operator chooses to manually prep and/or towel dry vehicles. Employees are needed to police the self-service vacuum area and perform housekeeping duties. And finally, employees are needed for routine maintenance and repairs and customer service response.

Investors that want to avoid this labor burden must entertain other business models and innovations.


A great innovation to entertain today is digital technology. Digital technology is based on mathematical concepts that can be used to describe words, images, and objects with digits. Today, digital technology allows retailers to conduct commerce without mirroring the traditional brick-and-mortar business model.

An example is digital car wash networks that are launching such as Superoperator (SO). SO has a package that converts a traditional car wash into a modern digital operation using customer app, dashboard, and a vehicle recognition system. This system allows customers to view prices and available wash sites, select wash programs, pay, and enter and start the wash.

So, while operators may find themselves in a street fight where the only strategic and competitive difference between stores is color scheme and some legacy feelings, SO can provide service to its customers without owning real estate, building, or equipment.

Arguably, it will be a combination of innovation and business model that will allow investors to create digitized car wash sites that can be managed and run remotely — and available to customers around the clock.


Such an unmanned car wash would have considerable appeal to both customers and operators. The unmanned wash would be a cashless business. Sales are pre-paid (e.g., subscription membership, fleet account) or customers pay by mobile app. So, no pay stations are required.

The target market for an unmanned wash includes Millennials and the middle-aged, and fleet operators such as Uber, auto dealerships, government agencies, etc.

So, instead of depending on transient highway traffic, the unmanned wash would rely on digital networking and mobile marketing. Thus, expensive real estate and elaborate building are unnecessary.

As an exterior-only car wash, no self-service area or vacuum system is necessary. Thus, its simple design would be able to go in places where most other types of car washes would not.

Given the strength of its value proposition, an unmanned wash would not need an expensive “show” to drive revenue generation and margins.

And finally, an unmanned wash requires indirect labor for housekeeping, maintenance, and repairs. Customer service response is a shared responsibility between the network administration (i.e., a virtual assistant) and the site manager.

So configured, the unmanned car wash would be able to create a sustainable competitive advantage by several means.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services ( You can reach Bob via e-mail at