Detailing - December 2008

Make Money: How We Can
in this Economy, Part 2
By Kevin Farrell

In last month’s issue of Auto Laundry News, we offered some solace to detailers concerned about a drop off in business. Cautioning against straight discounting, we suggested that rather than impose their own standards, detailers carefully listen to the needs and wants of customers, and tailor their services accordingly. With this approach, detailers can in many cases meet — and even exceed — customer expectations with procedures that are less time consuming and therefore less expensive. This month, we look at ways to adapt express detailing services in light of current economic circumstances.


The nature of express detailing — and whether it should even be called express detailing — has been discussed for many years. Many detailers and especially car washes perform variations of express detailing and are extremely successful doing it. The terminology can be whatever you and your customer agree to. Nothing has to be set in stone. What does the customer want? Can a minimal service make the car look good? That is the key question. If you know that a service done quickly with minimal time spent on the vehicle can still make it look good, then go for it. This is a great way to make money — and for customers to save some cash.

But we have to get over the fact that the vehicle may not be perfect when the job is done. If the customer likes it, that’s all that matters. It’s something that all detailers can provide very easily — a great maintenance service in between full-service details. With the economy being as it is, many of your customers will not be doing as many full-service details. Having a service that is more maintenance oriented and cheaper, will keep them coming in and keep you profitable.


Car washes have been doing express detailing for a long time and many are very successful at it. I talk to many car wash owners who only do express detailing and do not get involved in full-service details. They get express details done quickly — within a certain time frame — to make sure they are making money and not just staying “busy.” Customers are satisfied and they keep coming back. When you look at the price charged compared to the time spent on the car, the hourly labor rate could be, and should be, as high as a full-service detail.

But what can be provided and, more importantly, what should not be provided in an express detail? The term “express” actually bugs me a little bit. It means super fast, which sometimes is not a reality, and it implies “cheap,” which we do not want to be. To combine the word “express” and the word “detail” as a term just does not seem to work for me. I would push for a different terminology for this type of service, especially for detailers.

Obviously you need to be quick, and that will mean the vehicle most likely will not be perfect. But perfection is not what we are looking for. Will the interior be perfect? Probably not. You will most likely not be scrubbing it and shampooing everything. The exterior will get maybe a light orbital one-step buff. Maybe you can quickly clay it, maybe not. Perhaps the wheels can’t be perfectly cleaned, but most of the brake dust will be gone. Most likely there will still be imperfections in the paint, but it will be clean and shiny. You can get a car to look “clean,” if not “detailed,” in a short period of time, and still make the customer happy.

Express detailing services can be packaged and performed in many different ways. It’s best to leave decisions in this regard to the individual detailer and the market being served. There really is no right or wrong answer as to what to provide. It boils down to what the customer will accept for the money you charge.

Car washes have an advantage because the car is being washed in the tunnel with minimal labor and time. From a detailer standpoint, it’s a bit more challenging. The wash will still have to be quick. This means not as much time spent on wheels, tar, bugs, etc. Clean, not perfect, is the goal. Then you need to figure out how to buff or wax the car, what to do on the inside, and how to make it look really good in a short amount of time.

For a mobile detailer to be profitable with this type of service, he will have to inform a customer that he can’t travel to one location to detail just one vehicle. That will be a money-losing proposition after all the expenses and travel time have been accounted for. So make it a policy to do at least two or three vehicles per location for that type of service.

The bottom line is that detailing can be profitable even if you are not performing show-car details on every single car. We can, and must adapt. Discounts will get you in trouble and lose you money. Adapting and finding new ways to provide innovative services to satisfy customers and still make money will keep you in business and profitable in the long run.

Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (, a full-service auto-detailing business located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor for a detailing program he developed for, in and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

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