The International Carwash Association’s latest Consumer Research Study,released in April this year, finds that 83 percent of consumers washed at a professional car wash in the past year. This figure is not to be confused with what has become the most reported data point from these studies: consumer preference for professional washing. There has been a steady growth in the percentage of consumers who most often wash at a professional car wash — from 48 percent in 1996 to 77.5 percent currently. The 2016 study was the exception: the 69.2 percent recorded then was a decline from the 71.6 percent reported in the 2013 study.
The study is available for purchase. If the asking price of $950 for a complete package is too rich for your blood, there are lesser packages available for smaller amounts that cover, for example, individual regions or wash formats. In the meantime, the ICA has released snippets of data from the study to whet our appetites.
One intriguing analysis looks at how exterior wash customers as a subgroup compare to consumers who most often wash at a professional car wash as a whole. Here are a few examples: 61 percent of the whole group and 49 percent of the exterior subgroup say washing a vehicle is an important and necessary part of routine maintenance; 23 percent of the whole group and 35 percent of the exterior subgroup say washing a vehicle is discretionary, but I like to do it or have it done for me. The rest only wash when they have extra money and/or time.
A question about wash frequency yielded interesting results. Of the whole group, 26 percent washed a few times a month “or more,” while only 19 percent of the exterior subgroup did so; 24 percent of the whole group washed once a month compared to 29 percent of the exterior subgroup. For washing every couple of months, the numbers are 32 percent and 35 percent in the same order. For every six months or less often, we’re looking at 19 percent and 16 percent.
These numbers surprised me. I would have thought exterior washers, as a group, would be the most frequent washers, especially on a multiple-times-a-month basis. Unlimited wash clubs are associated mostly — though admittedly not exclusively — with the express exterior format. To make financial sense, club members need to wash two or three times per month, depending on the membership pricing.
This study was conducted in 2019 before the advent of the Coronavirus and the accompanying economic impact on the country and the financial circumstances of every American. In a Car Wash the Podcast presentation, Bob Klein, chief strategy officer with Blue Chip Worldwide, the firm that conducted the study, notes the enduring factor new cars have been in car wash success. He points out that those who bought a car in the last three years are the most loyal, frequent, and passionate washers.
Klein also notes that 2019 was a stellar year for new-car sales, 2020 not so much.
According to analysts, new-car sales declined 34 percent in March compared to the same month last year. For April the drop was 47 percent, for May 30 percent, and for June 25 percent. The challenges for wash operators Klein foresees are fewer new cars on the road and less discretionary spending.
Bo Yu, the country manager for Greater China at JATO, the UK-based provider of auto data, sees an upside to all this disruption. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how people choose to travel, he says.
Continued social distancing and the greater emphasis consumers are placing on personal space, he believes, will benefit private car sales.