The International Carwash Association has been asking a question of U.S. car owners now for nearly 20 years: Do you wash your own ride or leave the bucket behind?
“The needle has moved in the favor of car washes every single time we’ve asked it,” said Eric Wulf, CEO of the Chicago-based organization.
Most recently, about 69 percent said they favored professional car washes to the elbow-grease approach. Consumers were split 50-50 when the association started asking the question in the mid-1990s.
Wulf points to a couple of different factors for the changing attitude. He said there’s been a shift to more of a “do it for me” culture in those years, but credits enhanced technology and better machinery for drawing in more customers. The wash car owners are getting today is a more gentle and efficient wash than that of 10 or 15 years ago, he said.
Gone are plastic bristles clattering against the car, replaced by synthetic or fabric brushes attached to machines that read and adjust to the shape of the vehicles they’re washing.
“All of this has reduced damage significantly and done a better job of cleaning the car,” Wulf said.
Nationally, there are about 80,000 professional car wash locations that bring in $19 billion in retail purchases a year.
In McHenry County, the car wash scene is dotted with more than a dozen options of various scope, not including gas stations with self-service car washes.
Joe Doherty, owner of Fast Eddie’s Car Wash, said he’s taken the approach that the car wash should be a full-service experience.
He said the business – which has locations in Crystal Lake, McHenry and Barrington – tries to differentiate itself by offering things like vacuuming and interior window cleaning.
“We’re sticking with the full service. That’s our motto and we haven’t changed,” Doherty said. “People work hard for their money and we think they don’t need to come in the car wash and work more.”
Like some other area car washes, Fast Eddie’s has started offering monthly passes for the customers who want to keep their vehicles especially clean. The unlimited washes pass sells for $29.95 a month.
“That’s one of the changes we’ve made to help people out and make it more affordable for people,” Doherty said.
Wulf said that across the industry, changing prices and re-packaging deals are ways owners try to differentiate their businesses.
He said the pricing scale has changed from a three-level, “good-better-best” system to one that trends toward add-ons.
Increasingly, consumers get to decide what’s important to them – for a couple extra bucks, they can choose to add on an undercarriage wash or tire shine, or upgrade to name-brand treatments like Rain X.
And then there are rare places like Jetstream Jimmy’s Detailing in Lake in the Hills, which go after a niche of the market that values something different entirely – a hand wash done with professional care.
Owner Char Augustine said that at $20 for a full wash and $15 for exterior only, the hand wash at Jimmy’s can’t offer a price that competes with your average drive-through.
But Augustine said the hand wash tends to be easier on the finish than machines are, and there’s still a market for the personal care.
“If it’s somebody that likes a hand wash, they usually won’t go through the drive-throughs,” Augustine said. “And then the others will go through the drive-thrus in between, and get a good hand wash on occasion.”