Auto Laundry News - May 2012

Bridging the Gap — A Happy Medium Between Full and Express

By Prentice St. Clair


Over the last 10 years of writing this column, I have often touched on the subject of providing detailing services at a car wash. There have been articles that focus
on providing express detailing. There have been articles that focus on providing full-service detailing. And there have been articles that compare the two.

(Detail-only operators, listen up! Please continue to read even though this seems like it’s “only for car wash owners.” There are some interesting nuggets in here, and you might also develop some great ideas for packaging your services or new menu items to capture those customers who may refuse some of your current offerings.)

This time, I would like to discuss some ideas on how to bridge the gap between express and full-service detailing at a car wash.


This article is intended for those who are thinking, feeling, or receiving feedback from customers that the current car wash detail offerings are not enough. Thus, if you are a car wash operator who is new to detailing, you are probably better off starting with an understanding of detailing that includes a clear-cut differentiation between express and full-service detailing. I say this because one of the most common challenges in providing detailing is a lack of understanding of the fundamental differences between the two types of detail services.

Such a lack of understanding causes customers to be dissatisfied with the service received (in the case of quick-serve express) or with the price (in the case of expensive full-service). Misunderstanding also causes confusion for the sales associates and the detailing technicians. So, if you are new to detailing, take time to search the archives for previous installments of this column that discuss the formal traditional definitions of “express detailing” and “full-service detailing.”

With that said, here are some of the situations that I am trying to address in this column:

  • The car wash owner who provides strictly express detailing using the
    traditional model that demands the service be performed on a vehicle that is in fairly good condition, in 15 minutes or less, and while the customer waits. Yet, a large portion of vehicles doesn’t fit the proper profile of the express detail, or the customer is asking for service that is beyond the scope of express detailing.
  • The car wash owner who is providing full-service detailing but looking for ideas on how to provide service to those customers who want to wait for their vehicles or who are not willing to pay the relatively hefty price commanded by the labor-intensive, thorough full-service detail offering.
  • The car wash operator who is looking for a menu offering that is somewhere in between the full-service and express price, the difference between which can be $100 to $200.


Bridging the gap between express and full-service detailing can be accomplished in a couple of ways: (1) With the advent of some new technologies that allow the addition of service elements that may not have been traditionally included in express offerings, and, (2) perhaps some modifications in personal philosophy about the strictness of the definitions of “express” and “full-service,” especially when it comes to providing service that the customer really wants or the vehicle really needs.

Dry-vapor steam machines have made it possible to quickly and effectively clean seats and carpeting. Since these devices produce true vapor steam, which has minimal water content while packing a dirt-loosening punch, using such a device does not leave mats and carpeting nearly as wet as a hot-water extractor can.

The challenge of cleaning mats in express has always been how it can be done without leaving behind damp mats. Some operators get by this by placing the freshly cleaned mats in the trunk or rear compartment of the customer’s vehicle. This leaves the problem on the shoulders of the customer, who must later remember to re-install the mats. If he or she forgets, the mats will likely become smelly in the trunk that has no air circulation. Not to mention the fact that it is an incomplete service that requires the customer to take the time to re-install the mats.

Nonetheless, some operators benefit from plentiful sunshine, which can dry extracted mats in a matter of a few minutes, especially with the help of air movers.

Hot-water extractors are excellent for deep-cleaning carpets and mats, but even the most powerful machine will leave the mats somewhat damp upon completion of the service. Steam, on the other hand, cleans only the tops of the fibers without soaking them. When you think about it, the top of the fibers is all that the customer sees anyway, so is it really necessary to clean all the way to the nap or base of the fibers, which will never be seen by the customer?

Moreover, “express” detailing is supposed to be a quick cleaning, not a deep cleaning. So the idea here is that if the visible part of the mats looks clean, then this should be a sufficient and satisfactory service result for the express customer. Those customers wanting deep cleaning or special stain removal do not really qualify for the traditional definition of express detailing, because this could take more than 15 minutes, especially if the mats are to be returned to the car fully dry.

A professional-grade dry vapor steamer can clean carpets and seats faster and without as much technician fatigue or noise as a hot-water extractor.


Many express operators provide exterior wash-and-wax service by running the car through the automatic wash, then applying wax through a spray-on-wipe-off process. Several detailing chemical companies are offering higher-quality spray wax that is designed to be applied over the car while it is still wet. Then, while the vehicle is dried with towels, the wax is spread onto the vehicle surface.

The idea here is that two steps are combined — drying the car and applying wax — which, theoretically, should save time. Nonetheless, I have found that, in order to yield a streak-free surface, a lot of extra wiping is necessary. In fact, sometimes two wipe-down steps are necessary. The first one takes off the excess water and spray-wax. The second, with a fresh set of towels, wipes the paint surface to a streak-free finish.

Instead, I recommend using a random-orbit polisher to apply wax. This can have several advantages. First, it allows the use of a cream-based wax, which generally wipes off much faster and more streak-free than a liquid spray-on wax. Second, when used appropriately, the polisher can spread a small amount of wax quickly and evenly — requiring less product per vehicle.

Third, a random-orbit polisher can allow faster application across the painted surface than applying by hand. By myself, I can “wax-on-wax-off” a standard sedan in 15 minutes, assuming I am using an appropriate polisher, chemical, towel, and, most important of all, appropriate technique. Just think how fast two technicians could perform this service.


A random-orbit polisher allows for some flexibility in the extent of the service performed on the vehicle paint. For example, the appearance of a vehicle with light paint scratches can be improved by substituting a polishing pad, a one-step polish-wax, and a slower technique. With this alternative in mind, the express detail shop can offer an appearance improvement service that is one step beyond an express wax-on-wax-off service, while still fitting in with the “express” concepts of “while you wait” and relatively inexpensive.

In other words, the car that would look better with some simple polishing does not necessarily have to go to the full-service detail shop for several labor hours of work at $50 to $100 per hour.

To Clay or Not to Clay?
Most express detail operators agree that performing paint-surface conditioning using detailer’s clay is out of the question for an express service because it takes too long and is beyond the “express” notion of quickly
applying a short-term protective coating of wax to a paint surface that is in relatively good condition.

At the other extreme, the professional full-service detailing operator finds it offensive to put wax on a car that has not been “clayed,” because the wax is essentially being placed on all the surface contamination that does not come off with normal washing. This is akin to waxing the kitchen floor without sweeping it first.

The problem with using detailer’s clay during express is this: to do a good clay job on a car that has not been treated for a couple of years could take 15 to 30 labor minutes, making it time-prohibitive within the express parameters.
Fortunately, there is new technology available for paint surface preparation. It comes in the form of specialized surface preparation devices: sponges and towels that have been coated with a rubber-like material that behaves much like traditional detailing clay. I have found these devices to allow reasonably good removal of paint surface contamination in much less time than that required by a clay bar.

Using these newer surface preparation devices could very well allow the express detail operation to offer contamination removal as part of the “express exterior” service, or as an upgrade to that service. Each of these options would provide noticeably superior results for the customer and allow the operator to charge more per vehicle for the added value. All of this could easily be done within the purview of the 15-minute-or-less express detailing genre.


It is important for the car wash operator to understand that the suggested services in this article will still be performed in a rapid manner, with the technician focusing more on efficiency versus effectiveness. Express detail services, by nature, are not intended to be thorough.

Thus, although I am suggesting that there may be a happy medium between express and full-service, that middle ground must still be sold as “value-added vehicle appearance maintenance.” It is not intended to be restorative or super-thorough, like full-service detailing. It must still be made clear to the customer that the vehicle will not look brand new, but much better, with some short-term protective benefits to help keep it looking that way if the service is provided on a regular (i.e., several times a year) basis.

It is clear, then, that there is still plenty of room for full-service detailing services for all those cars and situations in which express detailing just won’t work well.


Those of you who have followed my writings over the years might find it strange that I am actually suggesting something other than an “either-or” approach to offering express versus full-service detailing. Indeed, it does feel a bit out of character to be suggesting a happy medium. However, I have been impressed in recent years with new technologies and techniques that can allow the express detailing operation to offer better results than has been typically attained up to now in express detailing. I welcome comments and questions.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm.
To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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