Detail Management - December 2009

Profile — The Auto Detailer
By Sharie Sipowicz

Have you ever thought about who the auto detailer is? What do detailers know or what should they know? What skills are required, etc.? This article is a simple look at today’s auto detailer.

The end of another satisfying day. Several customers have picked up their spotlessly clean cars. All are delighted with the service. Auto detailers are well respected for their abilities to make vehicles look like new. Part pseudo-chemists and part automotive experts, they are dedicated to providing a superior cleaning service.

Their efforts are clearly evident — to themselves and to their customers. They know if they do a good job, the customers will be back, and they will tell their friends.


Auto detailing is thorough cleaning, shampooing, polishing, and waxing of motor vehicles, front-to-back, top-to-bottom, and in-and-out. Auto detailers use a variety of cleaning chemicals and tools to meticulously restore a vehicle’s finish to like-new condition.

Detailing services are for those vehicles that are subjected to destructive environmental conditions daily. With normal driving, abrasive dirt — and in some areas, salt — leads to deterioration of the exterior of a car. Acids from insects, tree sap, bird droppings, and other corrosive materials damage the paint and other finishes on the vehicle’s exterior. In the interior, oils in leather evaporate; vinyl gets brittle; fabric upholstery and carpeting dirty. Auto detailers understand the nature of the many materials that comprise a motor vehicle and how to deal with them. These include paint, chrome, aluminum, steel, plastic, fiberglass, carpet, upholstery, vinyl, and rubber. They use a variety of cleaners, compounds, polishes, and waxes as part of their trade.

Their equipment includes pressure washers, soil extractors, vacuums, and buffing tools. They use special brushes for spokes, tires, wheels, and paint. Cotton towels and wool and foam pads all have a purpose.

After cleaning the exterior and interior surfaces, the car is protected from further climate damage. Interiors can be treated with leather or fabric protectant. Depending on the exterior finish, the detailer may choose a paint sealant or a wax.

Auto detailers may offer such additional services as paint touch-up, vinyl repair and dyeing, windshield chip repair, and carpet dyeing.

Owners of auto detail businesses are experts. Through several years of experience, they have learned their trade. They train and supervise their workers to perform the skills as they would. Owners are in charge of bringing in business and working with customers.


An auto detailing business can be started by almost anyone, anywhere. An owner of a detail business can contract with car dealers to clean used cars and to prepare new cars for delivery.

A detail business can also cater to the general public and have several choices: freestanding location; at a car wash; in a dealership, or a mobile operation.

A detailing service is typically independently owned but there are a few franchises. Auto detailing franchises offer complete packages of equipment, supplies, and marketing strategies. They have training programs for personnel and for management. Although licensing fees for a franchise can be high, the success rate can be higher than for an independently owned detail business.

Detailing facilities that cater to the public should be clean, well-lit shops, which is especially appealing to women, who comprise over 50 percent of the patrons.

Friends and business associates refer most customers. Extensive marketing efforts are necessary to solicit new business. Owners sometimes go door-to-door, explain their services, cite credentials, and set up appointments.

They can distribute flyers, make phone calls, and place coupon ads in local publications or direct mailing. Using a mailing list, they can send out letters and brochures to targeted markets.

Retaining customers is vitally important. Some successful business owners establish a database. They keep in contact with customers by mail when they are due for another detailing.

Detail services can be priced between $300 and $600 for a complete detail. Some shops have standard rates posted; others prefer to quote the prices for each vehicle based on an hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours required to do the work.


Having the following personal traits will help a person in setting up and operating a detail business:

  • Ability to concentrate on details
  • Determination
  • Ability to be persuasive
  • Ability to manage and motivate people
  • Good judgment
  • Physical dexterity and stamina
  • Integrity
  • Mechanical aptitude


The following courses will help you develop skills that are helpful in operating an auto detailing business.

Language skills — Being able to communicate properly is essential in this business. English classes teach you how to speak clearly and directly. They also give you reading skills that are important for business endeavors. Spanish is important since some of your employees and many of your customers may be of Spanish origin.

Mathematics — You will need to have basic math skills to operate any business, including auto detailing. Math classes teach you how to analyze costs and manage accounts.

Automotive shop — Any classes in basic mechanics will help you develop skills for working with cars.

Computer science — Most medium- to large-sized businesses use computers.

Chemistry — Understanding basic chemistry is very helpful in this business. You need to understand the many chemical solutions you work with and how they function.


Community colleges offer a variety of courses that help prepare students for careers in business. These include business administration, accounting, bookkeeping, sales, and marketing.

Manufacturers of car care products offer training seminars specifically for auto detailers.
There are also industry consultants and several Internet forums offering a great deal of valuable information.


Auto detailers should have at least three to six months of on-the-job training. Depending upon their aptitude, it can take at least one year to become a professional detailer. Most shops prefer to employ non-experienced personnel, finding these individuals easier to train. New trainees learn by a combination of observation and informal instruction. Their work should be closely supervised until they are proficient.

An important aspect of training is learning the materials to be worked on and how each of the chemical solutions will affect these materials. Most chemicals can damage as well as clean. A degreaser, for example, may be used to take off dirt and grease in an engine, but it can damage carpets, vinyl, or leather.

Learning to operate a buffer is a critical skill. Improper use can damage the paint.


No official licensing or certification is necessary to become an auto detailer. However, state or local agencies may require permits to operate an auto detailing business. Local governments require proper effluent discharge systems to comply with the Clean Water Act.

Business licenses and permits for signs may also be necessary. Local fire codes may require permits for storing hazardous chemicals.

Opening an auto detailing shop can cost from a low of $5,000 to over $50,000 in equipment and supplies.

Other start-up costs may include renovating a building or trailer, advertising, and office equipment and supplies.

Rent on a good location can run $2,000 to $4,000 a month. Insurance can cost $5,000 a year or more. Other ongoing costs are labor and supplies.

Typically, auto detailers locate in or near higher income areas or where professionals work.
Detailers who work for car dealerships should locate as close to the dealers as possible because they have to pick up and deliver the vehicles.

Auto detailing for the general public requires an easily accessible location. The shop must be easy to approach and drive into from the street. The building should have as many service bays as needed to handle the potential volume.

Sufficient parking is necessary for customers’ cars, cars waiting to be serviced, and completed vehicles.

Detailing businesses are usually open 10 to 12 hours a day. Those located in business districts may open only Monday through Friday, while those in residential areas often are the busiest on weekends. In general, owners work 60 to 70 hours a week.

The number of personnel necessary depends on the size of the operation. A typical full-service professional detailing shop might have an assistant manager and a receptionist.

For the detailing, a shop will need two or three professionals who are excellent buffers. Two or more semi-skilled workers are also needed to wash cars and assist detailers. These might include high school or college students who work part time.

Prospects for Success
Auto detailing presents vast opportunities for motivated individuals. It is an industry in its infancy. Only about 20 percent of the population knows what auto detailing is, and less than 15 percent have purchased detailing services. Yet, auto detailing is a huge industry. The biggest challenge for the industry is educating the public.

As the number of detail shops continues to grow, the public slowly is becoming aware of the service. The average price of a new car is over $20,000. That investment warrants maintaining the value by cleaning and protecting the cars exterior and interior.

People are keeping their cars an average of nearly nine years. During this time, they need more services than washing, waxing, and vacuuming the inside.

Risks and Rewards
Many auto detail businesses go out of business quickly. Renting shop space and placing an ad in the Yellow Pages is not enough to create a business. Owners must aggressively inform the public of the benefits of their services.

Auto detailing is a business that relies on qualified labor. However, in order to make a profit, owners often hire unskilled workers at minimum wage. This can lead to problems. Using the wrong chemical solution can ruin one or several of the materials in a car. A worker can remove the paint on a car by not buffing properly.

Chemicals can be dangerous to employees and the environment. The auto detail business owner is responsible for disposing of chemical waste properly.

Successful owners, however, can build steady, long-term operations and make a great living.

Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at

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