Car washes: another recession victim?


Have you been to a car wash lately? If you're like many Americans, you may have decided having a spiffy car is just one of the things you're going to let go of in tight economic times. After a decade of growth in high end services, some car washes are slowing down with the economy. The Sacramento Business Journal reported that area washes saw business decline 15%.

Car washes used to be thought of as recession proof--resistant to any economic cycles, analyst Robert Roman wrote in Carwash and Detailing Magazine. Now that may be changing. Luxury services might be fine because they are serving the affluent, Roman says. Discounters live on tight margins, but may gain cash-strapped customers. The middle of the road car washes are what worry Roman. In the May AutoLaundry News, car wash executive Chris Wade advises car wash owners to start upgrading to high end products to survive these times.

During the decade of the dot com and real estate booms, fancy car washing services exploded. Car washing is now a $23 billion industry. They changed their name to "detailing" and cost up to $150. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of time-strapped Americans who have been washing down their cars at home declined by 20 percent, according to a 2005 survey by the International Carwash Association. Only 38% of car owners said they most often lathered up their cars at home, down from 48% in 1996. I bet that number has climbed back up again.