On The Wash Front

Detailers Selling Chemicals - A Potentially Fun and Profitable Venture

By Prentice St. Clair

12/01/20

One of the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic has been that companies and individuals are finding creative ways to make money. For example, my two college-enrolled daughters found relatively high-paying summer jobs making virus testing swabs, after their initial summer job-hunting plans were stymied by the shutdown in California. 

I lost about half my income because of restrictions on travel and the in-person training activities that I typically perform several times a year. Moreover, in the early months of the California shutdown, I was not able to provide interior detailing services or even get into customer vehicles. But I did find some income replacement in assisting large companies in producing the documentation required by many California county health departments in order for those companies to re-open for business. This documentation was very complex and the companies that I worked for either didn’t have the time or didn’t fully understand the requirements that needed to be in place should a county health inspector walk in.

These are just a couple of examples of how people have adjusted. In last month’s column, I talked about the opportunity afforded by adding additional services to your detailing menu. There are relatively easy add-ons like headlight restoration, ceramic coating application, and fabric protection, as well as more complicated add-ons like windshield chip repair, wheel repair, leather repair, and bumper repair. These services are typically in high-demand and command prices that can be even better than traditional detailing services.

This month, I’d like to examine the relatively new phenomenon of detailers that look for added income by selling detailing chemicals. It seems these days that everybody is dabbling in this area. I also sell some items, but this is mostly limited to sales associated with training or consulting clients that are looking for specific product recommendations for greater efficiency and effectiveness in their detail operations.

Now, I am by no means an expert on chemical manufacturing. But I have been around the industry long enough to have some understanding of both the chemical manufacturing side, as well as the operator side of the business. The goal of this article is to offer some insight and some nuggets to think about, should the reader be considering jumping into chemical sales in his or her shop.

LEVELS OF INVOLVEMENT

I have witnessed several configurations of combinations of detailing operation and chemical sales across the country. For ease of discussion, I have condensed those configurations into a few common categories, that include the following, which are listed in order of level of commitment:
• Sales to detail customers
• Sales to non-detail customers (do-it-yourselfers and other local detailers)
• Full-on distributorship part- to full-time
• Online sales
• Creating a line of detailing chemicals

Often, detail operators with a shop will start by selling to their customers and get a taste of the benefits of selling chemicals, later increasing their level of commitment to the higher levels on the list. Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved with each of these opportunities.

Chemical Sales to Detail Customers

A common question from a delighted customer upon pick-up is, “The car looks great now, how do I keep it looking this way at home?”. This leads to the detail operator perhaps seeing the opportunity to sell a quart or pint of shampoo and maybe a spray-and-wipe protectant (with or without the companion equipment to use the products).

This level of commitment does not require much space. It could be a few cases of a select few chemicals, or perhaps a single cabinet. If you have a lobby, a simple display case with the products would do. Even a display case that doubles as inventory storage can work.

Sales to Non-Customers

Perhaps the detailer has some extra space in the lobby that could be used for larger retail displays and storage. The detailer may think that there is a market for sales of pints or quarts to do-it-yourselfers and even other local detailers. To make this worth the effort, it will require marketing to the local community. One effective way to do this is to host a do-it-yourself clinic at the shop open to the local community or targeted to a specific motoring club.

Product sales could become a distraction from the detailing operation, with product customers randomly showing up while the operator is in the back working on a car. On the other hand, if the operator is mostly a manager working in the front office anyway, product sales might not be a big deal to incorporate in the day.

One advantage of having retail sales is that shipping of products used in the shop and the retail products can be combined to reduce overall freight costs, especially if the detailer is working mostly with one chemical manufacturer.

Distributorship

The detail operator might realize that the local region does not have representation for his or her favorite chemical manufacturer. In this case, there may be an opportunity to establish a distributorship. Typically, this will require signing a contract with one or more detail chemical manufacturers that includes a requirement for a minimum regular order, typically monthly or quarterly. There will probably also be territorial concerns, but if the company is not represented in your area, this could be a great opportunity.

Now, running a distributorship is essentially a separate business to a detail operation and will require extensive retail showroom space and warehouse space. Making a distributorship a profitable enterprise will require extensive sales efforts in the community to all the end users that might need the products you supply. Nonetheless, many distributors that I have spoken with over the years really enjoy their business, especially the relationships they have with their customers.

The true benefit of a detail operator becoming a detail chemical distributor is that the detailer truly knows how to use the products and can educate his or her customers. It is frustrating to deal with a chemical sales representative who has no experience actually using the chemical in a real-world operation!

Detail Chemical Manufacturing

Some detailers develop a desire to create their own line of detailing chemicals, perhaps because they want to jump on the apparent bandwagon of success and notoriety that has been achieved by other chemical manufacturers recently. Or perhaps the detailer wants to create their own formulation because they are dissatisfied with the products available to them or they are looking for a specific result.

Regardless of the reason, the impassioned detailer-turned wannabe chemical manufacturer will soon find that developing a single chemical can be a long, arduous process that can involve a significant investment of money and time. It begins with locating a company that has an in-house chemist to develop the product(s), typically based on an existing product or combination of products. Then there is the cycle of chemical prototype production, testing, and revising, that can go on for several iterations.

During this cycle, there are several ancillary considerations, like choosing chemical color and scent, as well as packaging, which involves the design and finding compatible bottles and tops. It can be a year or more before the final version of the product is produced — and it’s still not done.

Once settled on that “final” version of the chemical product, a chemical manufacturing company is contracted to mix, bottle, and label the chemical in bulk. Assuming the raw materials can be sourced, and if the developer is smart, she or he will have only a limited initial batch produced so that it can be fully tested before producing large amounts of the new product.

With this initial small batch, the developer can go into a beta testing phase to make sure the product works as intended. There are always unintended results or surprise outcomes that can only be discovered through repeated use of the new product. One advantage that the operator-developer has is that he or she can use the new product in the shop over the course of say, a year, and work out all the bugs.

So, let’s say you finally land on an excellent product or line of products. Now, you’ve got to start moving inventory to recoup that initial investment. This means hiring sales staff or spending a lot of time “making the rounds” in the detail industry to create interest in your product. I’ve seen more than a few detailers with their “miracle” product end up disappearing a few short years after launching their product because they just couldn’t get a hold of a market for the chemical. At the same time, there are a number of great examples of incredible success of a former detailer who now runs a large detail chemical supply company.

DISTRIBUTORSHIP VERSUS MANUFACTURING

It may become obvious from the above paragraphs that becoming a detail chemical manufacturer is a long and arduous process. If one has the desire to sell detail chemicals as a major operation, it certainly makes a lot of sense to work with an established and recognized detail chemical manufacturer that has a high-quality line of chemicals. Typically, such a company will also have an extensive distributor support system that includes marketing materials and training.

SUMMARY

Selling detailing chemicals as a detail operator can be a fun, exciting, and profitable venture. There are distinct levels of commitment to chemical sales, and the detailer has to decide what he or she can afford, in both time and effort.

 

Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or prentice@detailinprogress.com.



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