People new to the industry often ask what is the best type of car wash to own and operate. The answer usually given is to choose the type that best suits one’s lifestyle and yet fits into the marketplace.

For example, self-service was often selected by people with day jobs/careers, because the wash could be operated semi-absentee. Here, the owner would split housekeeping and maintenance duties with a part-time caretaker.

However, self-serve has declined greatly over the years and the competitive environment in many markets has changed considerably. So, operators that haven’t kept up with the times often find themselves in a subordinate position.

For example, sales may be down considerably compared to previous years. The building needs to be refreshed and equipment and technology needs upgrading. It may be difficult to retain help because the job’s boring and low paying at a slow wash. And there is still something of a mortgage to satisfy.

What to do in this situation is often a difficult decision for operators. Selling isn’t usually a good option because the wash is often not worth as much as replacement cost new.

Operators could choose to invigorate by overhauling pumps, adding new products, installing bill acceptors and bay-wall paneling, and adding new lights and a fresh coat of paint.

However, it doesn’t seem to make sense to apply a lot of resources to attract a segment in decline or try to compete against businesses that have a distinct cost advantage.

Consider Checkers quick service restaurant. Instead of fighting it out with McDonald’s and Burger King, Checkers attempted to create a competitive advantage by means of differentiation and niche strategy. Instead of target marketing to soccer moms and kids, Checkers targets 18 to 30 year olds and the middle aged who like fatty, greasy food.

Instead of healthy fare, Checkers offers mega-meat burgers, chili cheese dogs, chili cheese fries, greasy French fries and a variety of fattening drinks to wash it down with.

Checkers is also very fast with an average service time of 45 seconds per customer. Only Taco Bell comes close, whereas it can take almost seven minutes at Chick-fil-A, the industry’s slowest service time.

Arguably, different means self-service would need to be faster, provide better quality, and offer more value. Today, there are several proven approaches to achieve this.

This includes pay-one-price, express exterior, and flex-serve business models. Any one of these business models can help transform an also-ran into a winner.

At pay-one-price, wash-all-you-want, access is controlled with entrance and exit gates. Customers pay one price at a self-pay terminal then has unlimited use of the facilities.

An express wash requires the installation of a conveyor or express in-bay automatic(s) and free-use vacuums.

Flex-serve requires installation of a conveyor or express in-bay automatic(s) and free-use vacuums as well as the conversion of a wand-bay(s) to an express detail service bay or an automated vehicle polisher.

What is the best type? The answer is to choose the one that best suits one’s lifestyle and yet fits into the marketplace. Arguably, express would be suggested most often because it requires the least amount of labor and highest volume potential.

On the other hand, pay-one-price is far less expensive to implement, and flex-serve has far greater market potential than express.

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