Checklist for Successful Auto Detailing



In the many articles that have been written about the auto detailing business the indisputable fact is that auto detailing presents a great potential. However, many in the business are finding failure before they start.


For successful auto detailers, the reasons are obvious and simple. But it is also evident that we have not done a good job of communicating these reasons to the newcomers in the business and even many old timers.


Reasons for Lack of Success


To make it simple, the following is a checklist of all the possible reasons operators are experiencing problems rather than successes:


  • No market information about the auto detail business.
  • Do not understand the difference between wholesale auto detailing and retail auto detailing.
  • Perceive auto detailing as something anyone can do.
  • Hire “typical” detailers as employees.
  • Use yesterday’s technology.
  • Incorrect merchandising
  • Lack of point-of-purchase sales materials.
  • Lack of properly trained sales personnel.


There are other reasons that could be cited, but in general if an operator can understand these points and make the necessary adjustments; it is possible to enjoy the phenomenal profits the business offers.


Lack of Information


Many operators do not take the time to obtain the necessary market information before making a decision to enter the auto detail business. Often their decision is based simply on the fact that “everyone seems to be doing it” or “the motorists want it, so I’ll do it”.


Have you ever asked why is everyone doing it? Or, why does the customer want it? In fact, how can you explain the wide variations in how operators across the country are offering the services?


On the customer side, what is he asking for? Detailing? Waxing? Shampooing? Most often the operator doesn’t know what the customer wants because the customer himself does not know.


How so?


Industry statistics indicate that more than 80% of the motoring public does not know what auto detailing is. And that more than 90% have never purchased this service. So how can they really articulate what it is they want?


But even though the customer has never purchased the service, and isn’t able to verbalize what it is, they still are desirous of cosmetic car care services beyond what they receive at a car wash.


While this subject could be further expanded upon, it should suffice for purposes of this article to indicate that many operators have made a decision to enter the detail business without sufficient knowledge about the market.


Wholesale Vs Retail Detailing


Too many operators have entered the auto detail business without awareness that there is a difference between wholesale and retail auto detailing and exactly what the difference is. Or, if the difference is really important.


Yes, there is a difference. A night and day difference between these forms of detailing.


Wholesale detailing as it has been for several years is that form of detailing done by a private contractor for an auto dealer. In general, all the detailer must do is pick up the cars, detail them, and return them in good order for an agreed upon set price, somewhere between $45.00 and $75.00 for a passenger car.


The dealer, in most cases, does not care where the work is done, who the employees are or what they look like. As a result, detailing of this type is done most of the time in garages, warehouses, lean-tos, or any other low rent place that would facilitate 2 or 3 cars.


As a result, facilities are poor to begin with, not maintained, and employee background, appearance, and work habits are not a concern. In general this is a very unhealthy atmosphere to operate a professional business from.


On the other hand, retail auto detailing, like any other successful retail business, dictates that there be a professional looking facility that is maintained and operated with clean cut, well trained employees.


Consideration must be given to appearance, signing, merchandising, service, pricing and good salesmanship.


In summary, the wholesale business while requiring a clean car, does not emphasize the “sizzle” that goes along with the clean car, that is, the look of professionalism, competence, and capability. The retail business does!


A Detailer as a Manager


With all due respect to the skill and talents of a detailer, experience has shown that very few, if any, have the necessary skills to be the manager of a professional retail business. Note: I did not say “detail” business, but “retail” business! This emphasizes the point: you must hire a “business manager,” not a detailer, to run the business.


If any one reason has caused more operators to experience less than satisfactory results in the auto detail business, it is hiring the wrong manager. And, in this case, it has been a “detailer.”


Not only do most detailers not have the necessary management skills, but coming from an unstructured wholesale detail environment they find it hard to comfortably fit into the discipline of a retail operation.


This is not to say that you couldn’t hire an experienced detailer as a line person or shop supervisor, but means he probably does not possess the skills required for management.


Typical Detailers as Employees


As an operator of professional detail centers for several years, I can say from experience that the “typical detailer” usually will not fit into a professional operation.


Like the manager, they come from an unstructured wholesale shop environment where no one has demanded clean-cut appearance, personal discipline, structured work procedures, and so on.


They come with bad habits and, worst of all, their own conceptions of how detailing should be done. Generally, they resist any attempt at changing.


Have you ever wondered why some restaurants, supermarkets, fast food franchises, etc., do not hire anyone with prior experience? It’s because they find it easiest to train an unexperienced person than untrain an experienced one.


Yesterday’s Technology


What is yesterday’s technology and why is it bad?


The typical detail technology used by most shops, wholesale and retail alike, is simple: squeeze and spray bottles; sponges; a portable shop vacuum; brushes; towels or rags; buckets; a couple of electric buffers; a hose; and maybe a pressure washer.


If an effort is made to organize this into any system, it is futile at best since there is not enough equipment to create a truly organized shop.


A professional detail center on the other hand is operated on the principal of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” The typical shop operates more on the principle of “it’s wherever you can find it.”


If you plan to make money in the detail business you must be organized for volume and the maximization of labor. With the technology described above, it is very difficult to do. Not impossible, but difficult.


For example, at a recent regional meeting I spoke with an operator who had just completed his first month in the retail detail business. Gross sales $15,000. His labor was over 60%. Why? Yesterday’s technology and poor management systems.


In addition to the inefficiency of yesterday’s technology it also does nothing to convey a feeling of confidence and respect in the eyes of the customer.


Remember, the bucket and squeeze bottle technology is for the auto dealer who pays $50.00 or $60.00 per car. Not for the retail customer who pays $150.00-$200.00 per car.


Incorrect Merchandising


Whether you operate with modern technology or yesterday’s technology, if the merchandising is not correct there will be no financial success.


Of course, choosing the correct merchandising plan relates back to having proper marketing information. Without the information, how can you decide what to sell and at what price?


Many operators simply do what the other guy does. Why?  Who says he is correct? Maybe he is priced too high. Or too low. Maybe price has nothing to do with it. Possibly the customer doesn’t understand the services.


To determine the proper merchandising approach for a given area requires a look at the demographics of the area, evaluation of what other successful shops are doing, and interviews with friends, customers, etc.


To develop a service and price menu without this information will lead to failure.


Lack of Point Of Purchase Materials


Even with a professional facility, good management, good employees, and proper merchandising you can still fail if you don’t have attractive point-of-purchase materials to inform and educate the customer about what detail services are and why they are needed periodically. These point-of-purchase materials are painted signs, backlit signs, displays, brochures and flyers.


All these point-of-purchase materials must be unified, coordinated with a master theme, and, of course, developed only after obtaining marketing information about your potential customers.


Lack of a Properly Trained Salesperson


Sales, that is what it’s all about. Remember, nearly 90% of your customers have never purchased detail services and have no or only a vague idea of what they are. Furthermore they really don’t know what their vehicle needs.


Even with everything else in place, if you don’t have a person on site in charge of sales who can knowledgeably explain to the customer what he should purchase, you could be loosing well over 50% of your potential revenues.


Case in point. I took over the operation of a store whose sales had dropped from $15,000.00 per month to under $6,000.00 per month.


While spending 3 weeks getting the equipment operable again, cleaning up, and retraining employees, was able to generate over $12,000.00 in sales, a 50% increase with no advertising and no promotion, only good on site salesmanship.



Can you see how many details work together to make a successful auto detailing business? It's not any one thing, but a whole network of things.



We have found that those who really examine their operations and keep track of what's happening, how they are doing it, and what the results are, they'll be the ones seeing revenue growth. 


Detail Plus offers consulting and training, so if you are interested, reach out to us and we'll follow up.