Finishing Line - January 2009

Ahead: Car Wash of the Future
By Robert Roman

I recently came across two different views on the car wash of the future. The first, by a car wash consultant, envisions a future that belongs to the car wash franchise; recognized chains that all offer the same menu of services at nearly the same price. The other, by a futurist, envisions a future dominated by automatic washes; express exterior with two- or three-man crews and full-service only in larger markets.

The car wash consultant’s view is based on the belief that car wash customers respond best to a business model that stresses consistency and uniformity much like the fast-food hamburger. The futurist, on the other hand, is convinced that the car wash community is trying to revolutionize the industry with the use of technology.

Each outlook is possible, but each ignores a basic axiom: every customer is unique. Arguably, it is the uniqueness of individuals that makes speculation about the car wash of the future difficult.

For example, some people in the industry believe that the growth of low-priced express exteriors will ultimately change the consumer’s perception of the car wash industry from a premium offering to a generic or commoditized one. If you subscribe to conspiracy theories, there may be some basis for this notion. However, the ongoing progress of integrating technology within the car wash industry has been long overdue. Technology has not only made car wash systems more modular, but it also has increased manufacturing flexibility. This has resulted in car wash systems with better quality, process speed, and safety.

As for the eventual existence of a nationally recognized car wash chain, there have been a number of attempts at consolidation and, with the exception of some successful regional chains, most ended in failure. A “McWash” would need to treat the service provision as an industrial process in order to survive. This would force consumers to make a trade-off — sacrifice what they really prefer in order to obtain what they otherwise would not have purchased. However, common experience has shown that consumers, especially women, do not react well when they are forced to accept mediocrity.

For example, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, mass service provider McDonald’s systemized the service encounter through planning, optimal processes, consistency, and capital-intensive investments. These techniques served as the foundation that transformed McDonald’s and the Big Mac hamburger into an American icon. Unfortunately, the application of these techniques had undesirable consequences. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, McDonald’s profits had decreased drastically, and in January 2003, the company posted its first quarterly loss since it went public in 1965.

Analysts attributed this decline to a growing interest in a healthier lifestyle among people, which made them shun fat-laden fast food; increasing competition; and working conditions that disempowered employees, resulting in low morale, high staff turnover, and reduced service quality.

If there are any lessons to be learned from the decline of the UPS of fast food, it is that the car wash of the future will need to tailor products to meet the unique needs of individual customers in such a way that nearly all can find exactly what they want at a reasonable price. This can be achieved by embracing a mindset that puts a premium on creating customer-unique value through something other than homogenization.

For example, the car wash industry continues to serve more and more women. Women want cashless payment options, a very broad selection of services, personalized customer service assistance, and other amenities that will keep them happy and coming back for more. Arguably, this may not happen with a McWash that consists of a standardized equipment package and only three exterior car wash services.

In the final analysis, the requirements for the car wash of the future may not be much different than they are today. It must offer a unique value proposition that will help win new business and, at the same time, maximize volume from existing business. In all likelihood, this will occur for entrepreneurs who are able to combine the most suitable options (i.e. machine, services, management style, etc.) with customized buildings, signage, and other location-specific enhancements.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com) and vice president of Bubble Wash Buildings LLC. You can reach Bob via e-mail at rjrcarwashplan@yahoo.com.

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