“We are seeing consistent top-line growth over the past 18 months—car wash counts (cars washed) and average ticket (average money spent by the consumer per wash) have both been trending upward,” said Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Carwash Association. “This is in line with the general improvements in the economy. An interesting sub-component that we are keeping our eyes on is that gasoline sales have had unusually strong margins from Q4 2014 into Q1 2015, which may lead to a bump in capital expenditures (equipment investments) in that segment over the next 6-12 months.”
Wulf noted that the ingredients for maintaining a successful car wash have remained consistent over the years: quality, convenience and speed.
“The best operators are finding new ways to deliver on all three. I would say that the very best operators are also finding ways to differentiate themselves from their competition, particularly though enhancing the customer experience,” Wulf said.
Car wash success from year to year also depends on weather, which can vary greatly depending on region.
Leo Vercollone, president of VERC Enterprises, operates six car washes—five in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire. Two of his car washes are full tunnel car washes spanning 125-feet, while four are automatic touchless car washes.
“We’re in Boston, which has seen record snow this year since early January,” Vercollone said. “So, we haven’t been washing cars because there’s just too much snow and no one can even get out and drive. We hope business picks up when the snow starts to thaw, but then the roads will be sloppy, which doesn’t encourage washing.”
Winter is typically the season that brings cars to the car wash. But too much snow has the opposite effect. “It hasn’t been a good winter for car wash,” Vercollone said.
VERC Enterprises operates more than 23 convenience stores, but Vercollone noted the car washes are a major focus of the company too. “You can’t do car wash in a nonchalant way. We look at our car washes as a business, not a side business,” he said.
Car washes keep evolving to meet new challenges. For example, there are smaller cars today than in the past.
“Touchless is equipped to handle the universal car—so what happens when cars are really small, square or big? There are parts that might not get washed as well,” Vercollone said.
In fact, car wash operators are facing the challenge of managing sensitive equipment, keeping up with maintenance while making sure different types and sizes of cars with various types of paint are getting a quality wash.
“We have people who work on these challenges full time,” Vercollone said.
This past year, VERC Enterprises upgraded two of its car washes with new equipment.
“We’re always tweaking,” said Vercollone. “We’re adding different specials, new packages, new types of waxes and undercarriage sprays, etc. New stuff is always coming out and we need to stay on top of it.”