Auto Detailing - October 2008

At the Car Wash
Part 4: Full-service Menu Options

By Prentice St. Clair

This is the fourth in a series about offering detailing at a car wash. In last month’s column, we discussed express detailing menu options. It was noted that the most common express detailing packages are exterior wax application, mat cleaning, fabric seat cleaning, leather seat cleaning and conditioning, and express interior.

In this month’s column, we will discuss what types of menu items can be included for full-service detailing.


I believe that the choice to offer full-service detailing is separate from the choice to offer express detailing. For some operators, express detailing is sufficient in consideration of their space and staffing limitations, as well as the needs of the customers. For others, full-service is a goldmine, an additional profit center that can tap into the desires of those customers whose vehicles do not fit the limited profile that can be handled by express detailing.

Further, I know of operations that offer only full-service detailing, citing reasons that often include one of the following:

  • The clientele is generally not interested in express and desire only the thoroughness afforded by full-service techniques.
  • The philosophy that “express detailing” is an oxymoron and detailing is an all-or-nothing proposition.
  • After factoring in staffing, space, and layout considerations, full-service is more profitable and easier to deliver than express.

Full-service detailing requires dedicated space (typically in an enclosed bay, although it can be performed under a canopy in fair-weather climates), a significantly longer list of equipment and supplies compared to express, and a staff that is trained in the specific techniques that make up the processes that are needed to achieve the standards of each package offered.

Next, let’s explore what menu items can be offered specifically on the full-service side.


Interview 10 different operators and you will find them using 10 different menus. By the same token, you will get different answers from different consultants on the subject. Certainly, there is no right or wrong way to set up a menu. Nonetheless, there are common menu suggestions that seem to work better in most situations.

In creating a menu of full-service detailing options, a common challenge is determining the number of packages to offer. The goal, of course, is to create the most amount of profit from the detailing space.

I believe that a full-service detailing technician, fully trained and properly equipped, should be able to generate an average of $50 to $100 per hour. So each package has to be priced so that the time it takes to deliver the package produces that kind of average.

For some operators, the ideal menu item is one that provides high-level service and takes several labor hours to complete. For these types of packages, the price would be rather high to account for the time and effort needed to complete. For other operators, volume is the goal, and the menu items tend to be less expensive and less time-intensive detailing services. Still other operators choose to offer both types of packages on their menus, which can become rather large.


What I have noticed over the years is that car wash operators tend to over-complicate their menus. You pull into the drive-up lane and are confronted with a daunting menu that includes three or four wash levels, several wash add-ons, three to six express detailing packages, and four to eight full-service detailing packages. The customer must then choose from a list with more than 20 options.

For regular wash customers who have been considering “taking it up a notch” to detailing, the range of choices can be confusing. Moreover, imagine the brain chaos for the first-time drive-up customer. Of course, a good service advisor at the drive-up area will help resolve some of the problem.

Look at the detailing menu that the customer sees upon driving up to the service advisor. Does it look like the menu at your favorite fast food restaurant drive-up? My experience has been that, unless you know what you want at the specific restaurant, it takes a minute or two to navigate the menu to figure out what you want and perhaps a couple of questions to the order taker. Ever wait in a drive-through line behind someone who does not know what they want? It seems to take forever while the customer tries to figure out all that is offered and asks thirteen questions in the process.

Does the detailing menu look like this and cause the same problems?

So, by now, you can probably guess where I am going with this discussion. In general, I have had the greatest success with simple menus that have only a few packages from which to choose. Virtually all of the operators with whom I have worked have found that simple is best.

There are several disadvantages to having more extensive detailing menus.

Generally speaking, if multiple packages are offered for the same category of service, the customer will gravitate to the least expensive. For example, if you make available three levels of exterior detail (e.g., wash and wax; wash, clay, and wax; wash, clay, polish, and wax), most customers will automatically choose the “wash and wax” only option, regardless of the condition of the vehicle.

This necessitates the time and effort of the service writer or detail manager to convince the customer that his or her vehicle really needs more for the best result. Instead, offer only a “standard exterior detail” that includes the most commonly needed services, like wash, clay, light polish, and wax.

Other operators seem to be hell-bent on splitting up elements of interior detailing. They offer seat cleaning and carpet cleaning as “add-ons” to the interior detail. It seems to me, if you are going to detail the inside of the car, do it all, because all of those elements are inside the vehicle. If you clean everything but the carpets, then the inside of the car isn’t really completely clean.

Some operators like to have a package system with several levels, like bronze, silver, gold, platinum, with each level having a couple of service elements added. This type of menu is more difficult for the customer to understand, more difficult to sell, and more difficult to deliver. Often times, the less expensive packages leave out services that should be included in basic detailing, so the customer is torn between paying the least amount and getting what the car needs.

Having many packages also means that the salesperson has a difficult task of memorizing each package and what goes into it. Moreover, it is difficult to monitor actual service delivery to make sure that only the service elements for which payment was received are delivered.


Each person reading this information has a special set of circumstances, including location, costs, clientele, reputation, skills, abilities, and salesmanship. Without examining each situation independently, it’s difficult to make recommendations that will work for everyone. But for those who are struggling with packages, are ready for a change, or simply don’t know where to start, I will offer some recommendations.

I suggest that a detail operation (fixed or mobile), with retail customers, have a simple offering of three “standard” detail packages: exterior, interior, and both. The service elements that I include in a “standard exterior detail” are mentioned above.

The service elements included in a “standard interior detail” include:

  • Thorough vacuum
  • Steam-clean headliner
  • Clean and condition all interior vinyl and plastic panels
  • Clean all carpets and mats
  • Steam clean fabric seats
  • Steam clean and condition leather seats
  • Clean all interior glass

The “both” package includes service elements of the standard interior and exterior detail. With these three simple packages — interior, exterior, and “both” — I believe you can conquer the detailing world. These packages are the ones you advertise, put on the drive-up signs, and talk about with the drive-up customers. They are the packages that apply to the vast majority of customers.

There will also be other detailing services that you can offer, but they are on a separate menu and brought out only if the customer asks or the vehicle needs special attention. For example, you can offer deodorization service, or paint perfection (polishing and buffing), or overspray removal, or oxidation removal. But all of these services are highly specialized and come with a specific price that is above and beyond the “standard” detailing.


Once you have decided to offer full-service detailing at your car wash, you will need to commit to properly equipping and training the detailing technicians in the specific services that you plan to offer. Those services can be grouped into a menu that makes sense to you and to the potential customer. There are many styles of detailing menus out there, and the type that you choose will be based on your operational capabilities and the most common needs of your customers. I recommend a simple menu that is easy to understand and easy to sell.

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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