A little while back I was a part of a car wash conference where a speaker was posed with this question. During a Q and A section of the event an older man posed one of the best and most direct questions I have ever heard “is self-serve dead?” Of course, the presenter gave his best political answer and in a roundabout way said, “Well no, but.” To this day I constantly think about this older gentleman and his question and if it was really answered correctly. Perhaps it is the question that could be rephrased. To ask the question is self-serve dead, you cannot give a simple yes or no answer, however, if I had to choose one it would be yes. There are areas in which self-serve car washes still do well but they don’t tend to flourish like the once did, and with the ever-rising cost of utilities the self-serve industry is dying a slow death. Consumer demand seems to be a bit higher in Rural areas, but it does not make the money as they once did. Additionally, now they are fighting with reasonably priced unlimited packages in an age where people don’t seem to like to do things themselves anymore. Because of this as well as the cost to build a new self-serve wash, it does not provide a return on investment that makes them attractive. They are relatively low on maintenance, easy to manage and will provide a small supplemental income but will never provide enough money to have as a full-time income. I believe this is why some car wash investors are buying old self-serve washes and knocking them down in favor of an IBA or tunnel which is capable of 10x returns of a self-serve wash.
So, what do you do if you are in this situation? Like this older gentleman asked indirectly “is my business in jeopardy?” The presenter’s answer was, not only is the self-serve industry alive and thriving that he should be reinvesting in his business and upgrading what he has in order to better serve his customers. Although I disagree that it is a thriving business model, I do agree with his answer to reinvest. If you find yourself in this position you will need to change just like business always has in the past. You should look at what it would cost to convert a bay or build on an IBA. I would try and stay away from adding on additional services and instead investing in credit card readers and more modern ways to pay. If you cannot afford to, or do not want to reinvest in your wash, now is probably a likely time to sell if you own a self-serve wash. Whether you’re in this position or not, it is always important to have an exit plan for your business and know your tolerance for risk.