Auto Detailing - January 2008

Make More Money:
Seven Ways to Help You Increase Profits
By Prentice St. Clair

Automotive detailing attracts many entrepreneurs, because it is a relatively simple and inexpensive business to begin. There is a high level of turnover in the industry, however, because many operators do not understand or cannot implement principles that create a profitable operation. Those reading this column may have experienced one or more of the following thoughts at one time or another during their detailing career:

  • I work my tail off all day and I’m still not making very much money.
  • I’m tired of living week-to-week without being able to pay my bills on time.
  • I thought that when you own your own business you could become rich.
  • The earning capacity of my business has reached a plateau — I don’t know how I can get more money out of it.
  • I seem to be in a rut — I work all day long and just scrape by.


If you can identify with any of these thoughts, perhaps the start of the New Year is a good time to take a serious look at your operation. There are several ways to increase profit. In this article we will touch on the following seven:

  • Increase or change the pricing structure
  • Change the target market
  • Increase operational efficiency
  • Add new profit centers
  • Duplicate labor
  • Lower monetary expenses
  • Decrease non-monetary expenses

1. Increase or Change Pricing Structure
One of the most common problems in the detailing industry today is inappropriate pricing. Many technicians simply are not charging enough for their service, or they are providing only marginal service in order to justify keeping prices low. I suggest that you divide the price of your most popular detailing package by the average number of hours it takes to complete the job. Take away half of the dollars-per-hour figure to account for taxes and business expenses and you have a rough idea of how much money you are making per hour (i.e., net income). If you are netting less than $25 per hour, I suggest that something needs to be changed. That means that you should be shooting for an average gross of at least $50 per hour.

You can make more money per hour by charging more, increasing efficiency, duplicating yourself (with employees), or adding high-profit services. The easiest of these is charging more, but you must also add extra value for the customer. Think about simple tasks that you can add to your existing packages that will make an increased price more palatable to your existing customers. For example, you could add a “free” interior vacuum and window cleaning to your exterior detail package. Also, as you raise prices, make sure that you spend a little extra time making sure that the job is done well — provide excellent service at a higher price.

2. Change Target Market
If your customers are not willing to pay more for your service, perhaps you are working in the wrong market. For retail detailing, I recommend targeting the vehicle owners who have the desire for and the disposable income to pay for automotive appearance perfection. This usually means approaching the population that is in the upper 10 percent of the income group in your area. These people are already accustomed to paying others — like housekeepers and landscapers — to provide service. It will make sense to them to pay for quality vehicle care as well. Plus, they typically have the money to pay for the service.

3. Increase Operational Efficiency
Maybe it’s simply taking you too long to get the work done. If you look at the detailing survey results in this issue (starting on page 31), you will see the average number of labor hours to complete popular detailing packages. A complete detail is typically about four labor hours in length. If your complete detail takes significantly longer than four labor hours, perhaps you need to examine your efficiency. Efficiency can be improved by standardizing procedures, using the appropriate chemical for the surface at hand, and by using tools and machines that reduce the time that it typically takes to do a job by hand.

4. Add New Profit Centers
Every professional detailer reaches a plateau at which the price for the job is as high as the market will bear and the efficiency is at its highest level. At this point, the profitability of the operation has “maxed out.” So, to make more money, the operator must do something different, like add more shops, add more employees, or add new ways to profit from each vehicle that comes in. There are several services that can be provided that will bring in a much larger gross per-hour rate than standard detailing. A simple and low-cost way to do this is to add premium protection to your package options. For example, selling the customer on application of a polymer paint sealant instead of standard wax is fairly easy, since sealants provide better protection and last longer than waxes. Thus, you can mark up the price significantly without spending any more time on the vehicle than you normally would. Another great premium protection idea is liquid repellent for the carpeting and fabric seats. This 10-minute service can fetch as much as $100 per application in addition to the standard detail price!

Beyond detailing, there are a number of services that can be added with a relatively small price, like windshield repair, paintless dent removal, paint touch-up and spot blending, and interior surface repairs. Many of these services can fetch as much as three times the per-hour profit of a typical detail.

5. Duplication
If you are working solo, you are somewhat limited as to the amount of work you can actually perform in a day. To increase your revenue in this case, you must “duplicate yourself” by starting a second operation or adding employees to your current operation. The idea is to increase the number of vehicles that can be processed in a day. If you train and motivate your employees correctly, you can increase the number of vehicles completed by your operation per day, and increase revenue.

6. Decrease Monetary Expenses
My experience is that detailers generally are not investing enough into their businesses, rather than too much. So this is probably a non-issue. However, it never hurts to take a look at your expenses every once in a while — at least every six months. If you are keeping good books, you should be able to balance your books once a month and see exactly what your expenditures are and where they are going. Some examples of wasteful spending: buying small quantities at a time instead of bulk purchase of commodity chemicals, spending too much on the wrong kind of insurance, and spending money on ineffective advertising.

7. Decrease Non-Monetary Expenses
Specifically, inefficient use of time. First, there is down time due to injury or illness. In our profession, our bodies are our most important tool. So invest in your “equipment” by taking good care of yourself — exercising, eating right, and seeking regular “body maintenance” provided by health practitioners like massage therapists and chiropractors. Next, let’s take a lesson from that upper 10 percent that I mentioned earlier: pay someone to do the jobs that take too much of your time. There are professionals like bookkeepers, lawyers, accountants, and others that can perform necessary business tasks much more efficiently and effectively than you can for a relatively small fee, freeing you up to make more money.

Finally, think about some of the things that distract you from your work — like broken tools, stopping work to answer the phone, or providing warranty work to dissatisfied customers instead of getting it right the first time. If you can take an objective look at your day-to-day activities, you will probably find some things that are eating up your time, yet have simple solutions.


These are just some common examples of dysfunctions in an automotive reconditioning business. You may find other examples within your own business. My recommendation is to make a list of the issues that you know can be improved within your business, prioritize it, and then create an achievable schedule for attacking each of the items one-by-one. For example, you may want to handle one issue per month. Write some action steps for each issue and start with the first few action steps during the first week of the month. Then watch your profits grow!

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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