Early in my career, my mentor advised me about the importance of the P.T. Barnum aspect of the car wash industry. Barnum was an American showman remembered for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

For example, it’s typical for a full-service conveyor car wash to have an entrance hallway leading to the lobby, which has observation glass along the tunnel wall so customers can watch their vehicle being cleaned and dried.

Here, many operators tend to put on a “show” for the customer that includes colorful foams, spinning brushes, flashing neon or LED lights, water spray, and roaring air producers.

Creatively, some operators have gone as far as to install water guns in the hallway so the kids (and adults) can shoot streams of water at the cars.

Conversely, with the express conveyor and in-bay automatic, the show must be observable to the customer from inside the vehicle.

This begins with the point-of-sale, which has a bright and clear touch screen with easy to read instructions as well as an intelligible synthesized voice.

This is followed by a smiling attendant who waves customers onto the conveyor. Next, the customer faces a grand entrance arch. The top of arch has a welcome greeting, the left side lists some simple dos and don’ts, and the right side has an iconography of the main features.

Once inside the tunnel, there is a glowing lava bath, colored and scented soaps, whirling brushes, and finally a rinse that rapidly dissipates foam leaving excess water that beads up and is blown away by the driers.

Usually this is a three to four minute process regardless of whether the customer chooses the basic wash or the most expensive wash.

More commonplace today is top-package merchandising where the service menu includes a basic wash plus three or four wash packages. Here, each successive package contains more value-added products and carries a higher price. Today, this type of merchandising has been augmented with a four-step paint sealant process.

Let’s examine a basic exterior wash offered by one of the car wash operators I’ve worked with. First is pre-soak (synonymous with soap, detergent, surfactant), then wash (friction and high pressure for the wheels), rinse (pre-treated tap water infused with drying aid), and dry (forced air producers). Price is $5 and cost of goods is $1.

On the other end of the spectrum is the top-package wash where this operator has literally thrown in the kitchen sink not to mention a light show. This includes soap (lava bath), tire and wheel cleaner, underbody, rust inhibitor, tri-foam, water repellant, hot wax (lava bath), ceramic shield, spot-free rinse, tire shine, and dry. Price is $18 and cost of goods is $4.

Whether the top package is worth three times the base price depends on the consumer. Arguably, there are few consumers who would take the time and effort to research car wash chemistry and the attributes and benefits of the products, not to mention the active ingredients.

Consequently, consumers must trust they are actually receiving all of the products they paid for and will perform as advertised. Thus, the elaborate light shows, glowing foam, LED embedded brushes and arches, flashing product signs, and other optics.

Today, however, there are products such as hot wax and ceramic shield, where you can actually see and feel the difference. More importantly, these newer products far exceed the performance of the old.

For example, while recovering from surgery, my wife had to step up to the plate in terms of cleaning our car. I suggested a local express wash that I frequented occasionally. Frugal as she is, my wife purchased the basic wash for $5 and added hot wax for an extra $3.

Then she comes home and tells me, “Hey, it looks just as good as when you go out and spend $18 for the best.” In other words, the likelihood of an $18 wash in our future is now doubtful.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com). You can reach Bob via e-mail at bob@carwashplan.com.