Coronavirus Set to Transform $12.3B Auto Detailing Industry
Vehicles are filthy.
Americans spend the equivalent of more than seven 40-hour weeks per year behind the wheel of their cars, according to the AAA Foundation for Public Safety. We eat while we’re driving. We breathe, cough and sneeze directly into the steering wheel and the dashboard. And spread our germs across all the control surfaces.
As a result, the National Center for Biotechnology Innovation found that car interiors are typically contaminated by massive numbers of germs. The typical steering wheel in a shared fleet vehicle is four times more contaminated than the average public toilet seat. Drink wells, dashboards, window switches, gear shifters, locks and door handles also functioned as mobile petri dishes, according to NCBI’s research.
And thanks to the coronavirus, employers are waking up to the fact that this presents a clear and present danger to employee health.
Businesses that operate commercial vehicles and fleets are rapidly gearing up to address the danger posed by the potential transmission of not only the coronavirus, but other potentially harmful pathogens as well.
“Today’s heightened germ awareness is turning the car wash and auto detailing industry on its head,” says Jonathan Munsell, CEO and Board Chairman of Tampa-based ProntoWash Management. “We’re already seeing a huge surge in demand for vehicle interior cleaning services by businesses to ensure the safety of their employees,” says Munsell, who oversees more than 25 ProntoWash operations in high-end malls, office complexes, and airports across the U.S. As the immediate past president of the International Detailers Association, Munsell has his finger on the pulse of the industry.
In the past, the bulk of the $12.3 billion industry had focused on vehicle exteriors. But the fight against the coronavirus has created a supernova explosion of demand for vehicle interior cleaning and sanitation.
“Food and meal delivery services, medical transport, and fleets where several drivers use the same vehicle are just a few. Some of this demand surge may even be government-mandated,” Munsell says.
The U.S. government is already leaning on employers to get a handle on the problem. Just this March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a formal recommendation that all employers develop a detailed infectious disease prevention and response program.
How filthy are vehicles? Very filthy.
Source: National Center for Biotechnology Innovation[I]
Regional and national transportation companies of all types have a need to ensure their vehicle interiors are regularly cleaned and sanitized, for the protection of their drivers, passengers, and even users of cargo that could potentially carry viruses picked up from within the vehicle.
The average rideshare vehicle has 219 times more germs than a taxi, according to a study by insurance company Netquote. Germ hotspots in rideshare vehicles include window buttons, seatbelts and door handles.
Rental car fleets are also havens for germs, with over 2 million colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch in many control areas. Netquote’s researchers found that rental cars were filthier than public toilet seats, by far, as well.
Rental car companies are fighting back: Budget Rent-A-Car has already released a statement saying they are “enhancing the techniques used to clean each car after each rental.” So have Penske truck rental, Dollar car rental, Hertz and Cumberland, using nearly identical language.
Car dealers are taking vehicle sanitation very seriously, too. The National Auto Dealers Association is guiding their member dealers in the effort to step up cleaning and sanitation procedures. This is vital as used cars are prepped for the lot, and new car models are sanitized between test drives.
Much of this business is going to be outsourced — and the mobile detailers who can scale up to meet the demands of larger, more widely-distributed fleets will have the advantage.
“There’s never been a better time to invest in this industry,” says Munsell. “Especially with the explosion in demand for fleet cleaning and sanitization services, in both the government and private sectors.”
Car Detailers are Responding to the Demand
Individual car detailing business operators are responding to today’s heightened awareness by pivoting to car sanitation services. This has been a key differentiator for them compared to static touchless car wash businesses.
And detailers are typically mobile: They can operate out of a truck or van — and move to the vehicle. They can rapidly clean and sanitize a truck cabin between loads or during a mandatory break, when the truck is otherwise idle. This goes a long way to minimize vehicle downtime, fleet managers say.
“In our industry, only mobile has the opportunity to meet the demand of government agencies and companies with fleets to disinfect vehicle interiors,” Munsell says.
But managers of regional and national fleets have a problem: The car detailing market is extremely fragmented. There are no detailing firms with a national footprint, capable of scaling up to meet the needs of businesses with fleets of vehicles operating across several states or coast-to-coast.
For businesses with fleets of vehicles on the road, or even those who just want to provide a service and protect a few employees and staff. Self-service car washes don’t work. They’re static and they take employees away from their core duties.
Destination tunnel washes don’t work, because the business would waste too much time and effort just moving vehicles back and forth. That would tie up trucks and drivers for hours. General cleaning services don’t have the expertise or carry all the cleaners needed for all the various surfaces in the car. Inexperienced cleaners who don’t specialize in vehicles can accidentally damage interior leather, vinyl, cloth or the myriad other surfaces that exist in today’s commercial and private vehicles. Generalists just don’t have the expertise. Only a mobile service can come to the point of need while both trucks and drivers are idle, minimizing downtime for both — and minimizing costs to the company at the same time.
And so fleet managers are turning to mobile services to deal with vehicle cleaning and sanitation. For example, MedSpeed, an Elmhurst, Illinois-based medical courier service a fleet of 1,400 vehicles, prefers mobile detailing and cleaning services over brick and mortar vendors because it reduces potential driver exposure, while reducing vehicle downtime.
Fleet Operators are Trying to Catch Up
Thus far, fleet managers have been scrambling to come up with ad hoc procedures to protect their drivers.
For example, almost all of them are encouraging drivers to wash their hands several times a day carry disinfectant hand wipes to wipe down their vehicle interiors after every use. But that’s just the bare minimum, Munsell says, pointing out that these techniques by themselves are no substitute for modern technologies and cleaning compounds.
“Just wiping some surfaces down kills some germs, but it doesn’t actually clean,” Munsell says. “It still leaves behind the foundation that attracts germs. Daily operator wipe downs are an important supplemental procedure. But to really protect drivers, you need to use non-aerosol surfactants and emulsifiers. Those remove not just germs, but also the foundation of dirt and grime that attracts and retains germ colonies.”
Munsell believes that ProntoWash is on the precipice of an opportunity — and is in the midst of a large capital raise to fund an aggressive expansion to serve larger fleets.
The secret sauce: An on-demand app platform that will enable customers to summon a detailer anywhere in the country. It could be during a mandatory rest stop, or while awaiting freight loading or unloading. “The vast majority of detailers now have no such platform,” Munsell observes. “The typical model is the customer goes to the detailer site, and waits while the service is performed. If they do mobile services, it’s not scalable beyond a few crews. Our app gives us the ability to easily distribute orders among locations and handle potentially hundreds or thousands of engagements every day.”
ProntoWash’s proprietary, private-label cleaning products provide another competitive moat for the company. The process is waterless — ProntoWash uses an exclusive, 100% bio-degradable cleaning solution that at once cleans and disinfects surfaces throughout the vehicle.
The car washing and detailing industry has been historically very profitable. Margins, defined as earnings before taxes and interest, have been expanding lately, from 15.8% in 2019 to 18% in 2019, according to research from IBISWorld. Growth over the last five years has averaged 4 percent on the strength of improving employment and growth in real wages, which have in turn generated an increase in household disposable income.
The coronavirus is causing a sharp contraction that will negatively affect smaller B2C operations at lower price points. But ProntoWash may not be severely affected: Demand for B2B services in fleet operations is expanding rapidly, says Munsell. And his consumer customers are typically much more upscale than typical detailer clients.
“Our least expensive exterior-only service is $25, and the most expensive is over $500,” Our average service is around $60-$75,” Munsell explains. “This is actually important during a time like this because our customer demographic is upper-middle-class to affluent. These people are unlikely to be affected by a few weeks or even months without a paycheck.”
A new business model
Potential target markets include:
· federal, state and local governments — all of whom have a need for the regular cleaning and disinfecting of anywhere from a dozen to tens of thousands of vehicles.
· Large parking structure operators
· Office complexes
· Car dealers
· Rental car companies
· Commercial truck rental companies
· Shopping malls
· Entertainment venues
· Trucking companies
· Food distributors
· Delivery services
· Cab companies
· Rideshare vehicle owners
“As a business, you need someone to come to you,” says Munsell. “That’s where mobile services come into play. Our model is to have a hub or destination at convenient locations like malls, shopping centers, office complexes, and airports and each of those fixed operations is supplemented by several mobile vehicles to handle not only the B2B jobs, but can also adequately accommodate residential locations, as well.”
While the core activities of the business will focus on meeting fleet operators’ needs at scale, Munsell expects there to be plenty of opportunities to meet the needs of higher-end consumers as well — leveraging their on-demand mobile app to serve professional clients where they live and work.
About the author:
Jason Van Steenwyk has been writing professionally about business, investing and personal finance since 1999. He first learned the trade as a staff reporter with Mutual Funds Magazine, part of the FORTUNE Group of magazines at Time, Inc.
In addition to his work for Mutual Funds, Jason has published feature articles in many business and financial consumer and trade publications, including Wealth and Retirement Planner, Registered Representative, Annuity Selling Guide, Bankrate.com, Senior Market Advisor, RealEstate.com, NerdWallet and many more. He has ghostwritten hundreds of newsletters for financial advisors, real estate professionals and insurance brokers and many other businesses.
Born in Santa Monica, California, Jason was raised mostly on the windward side of Oahu, a suburban and rural area of the Hawaiian Islands. Jason is a full-time freelance writer and editor, and Iraq War veteran. An avid guitarist and fiddle player, he lives in Orlando, Florida with his beautiful wife, Andrea, their cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.
[i] Stephenson, Rachel E et al. “Elucidation of bacteria found in car interiors and strategies to reduce the presence of potential pathogens.” Biofouling vol. 30,3 (2014): 337–46. doi:10.1080/08927014.2013.873418