California’s Love Affair with Cars Helps Keep Car Wash Industry in Tip Top Shape

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

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(U.S. Census Bureau)

For many Americans, after a house, their car, SUV, or pick-up truck is the second-most expensive item that they will purchase, and maintaining that investment on wheels is paramount. Because many see their cars as an extension of their personality, maintaining an image by keeping their cars clean also matters.

While some may cherish pulling out a hose, wash mitt, and soap to give their “baby” a customized shine, others opt for a more convenient ritual: trips to the local car wash.

According to the 2019 County Business Patterns program, there were 16,976 Car Washes with paid employees in the United States, 6.8% or 1,074 more than in 2015.

These businesses had 163,178 workers (up from 153,970 in 2015) who earned an average annual salary of $21,911 (up from $18,703 in 2015).

California, the state with the largest population and a legendary love of the automobile, not surprisingly ranked first in the number of car washes and car wash employees in 2019 (2,025 and 24,851, respectively).

But Florida added the most car washes — 225 or 21.1% — from 2015 to 2019. The District of Columbia saw the highest percentage increase in the number of car washes, up 30.0%, from 10 to 13 during the same period.

Still, New Hampshire may be among the best for car wash workers. The Granite State had one of the nation’s highest average annual payroll per car wash employee in 2019: $32,407, compared to $21,911 for the nation.

The District of Columbia had the lowest car wash-to-population ratio — one for every 54,288 people — which may make it a prime location for new car wash businesses.

In contrast, Wyoming had one car wash for every 10,335 people.

Car Washes Are Mostly Small Businesses

Like many service businesses, small businesses dominate the car wash industry. Car washes with fewer than five employees made up the biggest share of the industry: 9,048 of the total 16,976 number of establishments.

These small car washes also grew the most in numbers from 2015 to 2019 (up 379 or 4.4%) and paid the most among car washes (an average $30,372).

But car washes with 20 to 49 workers employed the highest share of workers in 2019: 56,621 of the total 163,178 car wash employees.

In addition to these small employer businesses, there may be additional very small businesses with no paid employees. Unfortunately, data on these tiny operations are not published separately in our Nonemployer Statistics (NES).

Data on the 72,135 Other Automotive Repair and Maintenance businesses are available from NES but this industry includes car washes as well as automotive lube shops and other types of automotive repair and maintenance businesses.

Services That Car Washes Provide

California had more car washes than any other state and the highest total car wash sales ($1.6 billion) in 2017, according to the 2017 Economic Census. However, the District of Columbia, which had few car washes for its population, ranked first in average sales ($879,000) per car wash.

Car washes in Indiana reported the highest ratio of car wash sales for each dollar of payroll in 2017 ($4.44 vs. $3.10 for the nation). Employees of car washes in Maine were the most “productive,” generating $94,234 in sales per employee compared to $60,099 for the nation.

Washing and Cleaning Services for Automobiles and Light-Duty Trucks made up the bulk of car wash sales: 84.2% of the $9.7 billion of total sales of car washes in 2017. But that’s not the only service they provided. In 2017, 1,414 car washes nationwide provided Washing and Cleaning Services for Heavy Trucks and Buses, making up 8.1% of industry sales.

Within the broad washing and cleaning category, Automatic Washing and Waxing Services made up nearly $5.0 billion of the $9.7 billion (51.0%) of total car wash sales in 2017. Detailing Services was $1.9 billion (19.2%), and Hand Washing (with or without waxing services) was $777.2 million or 8.0% of total car wash sales.

Who Owns Car Washes?

According to data from the 2018 Annual Business Survey, car washes (like many other small services businesses) were primarily owned by non-Hispanic White men who were not veterans.

These owners also made up the vast majority of sales of car washes.

Car washes were also typically individually owned and operated and were not part of a larger corporation with dozens or hundreds of locations.

According to the 2017 Economic Census Concentration Ratios report, the top 50 companies in the car wash industry only accounted for 20.4% of the industry’s total sales. In comparison, the top 50 Automobile Parts and Accessories Stores (where car owners often buy products to wash their own cars) accounted for 62.2% of the total sales of the industry.

A study by Consumer Reports showed that as owners hang on to cars longer because the price and features included in new motor vehicles continue to rise, businesses like car washes that help them maintain their investment are expected to keep rising.

Data from Census Bureau programs can help entrepreneurs identify areas that are not fully served by existing businesses. Responses to Census business surveys help us enrich those resources.

Category: Economic News, Small Business, California, Automotive News