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Coming to your corner carwash: Artoo-Detoo, new-car perfume

Atlantic City has been teeming this week with people who are all excited about the carwash business. The what?

Don't laugh.

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It's a $2.75 billion industry (including gasoline sales) in this country. And those in it anticipate a lot of growth. With people hanging onto their cars for an average of 7.2 years nowadays, nearly twice as long as the 3.7 years people were keeping their cars in 1979, owners have more incentive to protect their investment by keeping it clean.

''And with the average new car price at $13,000 now, up from $8,200 five years ago, the consumer doesn't have the confidence to work on his own car,'' Judson Smith, of Car Care Corporation in Phoenix, told some of his colleagues in the business Tuesday.

''We're expecting 10 percent annual growth in sales volume over the next five years,'' says R. R. (Gus) Trantham, executive director of the International Carwash Association/National Car Council.

The ICA has been meeting here this week, and so the main floor of the somewhat staid and classicizing Convention Hall, on the Boardwalk, has been awhirl. Equipmentmakers have set up brushes that swirl and twirl - huge blue brushes and pink-and-blue striped brushes and brushes in shades that would set a decorator's teeth on edge. Then there are ''brushless'' carwash units that flap and flail about with determined madness.

Gleaming steel industrial vacuums, a veritable platoonful of Artoo-Detoos, are on display. And don't forget auto fragrances - one of the ''extras'' carwash operators are eager to be able to offer their customers. Along with lemon and cherry and pina colada scents, many fragrance outfits market one called ''new car.''

Asked for a sample of this one, Kelly Crutchfield of Fresh and Lively Inc., of Claremore, Okla., shakes the bottle with the panache of a perfume salesman at Saks, dabs some of the fragrance on his palm, and sticks it under the inquiring reporter's nose. ''We try for a sort of fruity leather smell,'' he explains.

The ICA conventioneers came here for answers to nitty-gritty questions, such as ''How do you get interior upholstery dry in a hurry?'' and ''How do we get car dealers to pay more promptly for the work we do for them?'' (Answer: ''Get to know the girl in the dealer's office and make sure she gets lots of free carwashes.'')

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The conventioneers were also here to learn about marketing, better management techniques, and maximizing their returns by providing higher-value services - by upgrading the occasional carwash customer to someone who will pay $140 for a fancy wax job.

On one hand, the operators are confident that they're in a growth field. On the other hand, carwashes are expensive to build - up to $2 million. Rising land values make it hard to locate them anywhere but on suburban outskirts. And it can be hard to find people trained to perform some of those services. But the key to success, those within the industry say, is ''professionalizing'' their operations and diversifying up the scale into more expensive services.

Hence Car Care's Mr. Smith was exhorting his colleagues into what's known as ''auto detailing'' - the deep cleaning of cars, from steam-cleaning engines to shampooing trunk interiors to ''pin-striping'' cars. Car Care's retail operations, called ''Detail Plus Car Appearance Centers'' gross over $30,000 per month, Mr. Smith says, as against $2,000 to $2,500 monthly in the industry as a whole. Among the factors in his success: aggressive marketing (beginning with demographic research before a shop is opened), cleanliness, and distinctive signing and labeling (using special ''wet look'' paint that always looks fresh), plus making sure the customers understand what they are getting.

''The average detailing customer comes in expecting to pay $50, but within 10 minutes in our place, he's impressed with the technology we have, and the cleanliness of the place, and then boom, he's up to $120 to $130,'' Mr. Smith told an ICA session, with a snap of his fingers.

A typical basic carwash, meanwhile, is running about $4.50, according to ICA officials.

''One of the things we do when we're finished with a car,'' Smith says, is to put a big plastic cover on it, so when the customer gets it back, it's like unwrapping a gift.'' It's an instant gratification, he suggests, unlike what you get when, say, you have your transmission worked on. What Car Care is aiming for , he says, is a nationally recognized standard of high-quality detail work, ''almost similar to what you get at McDonald's.''

That is exactly what the carwash industry has not had. Despite the expense of building a new carwash, ''It's still a tender-loving-care kind of business,'' says Mr. Trantham, with a lot of mom-and-pop operations. A 10-unit chain qualifies as a biggie.

Says Bruce Milen of Jax Kar Wash Inc., a nine-unit chain in suburban Detroit, ''If I had carwashes in New Jersey or Florida or someplace, I couldn't be there to watch things. I wouldn't want to lose control.''

With such small operations, it's been hard to establish brand-name recognition, but that's changing. ''I advertise on TV, radio, in magazines - in Monthly Detroit - newspapers, and I do direct mail. Many operators are becoming more sophisticated in this area.''

''We're very concerned with improving the image of the carwash industry,'' says John (Turk) Thacher Jr., president of Sherman Industries Inc. of Palmyra, N.J., one of the major equipmentmakers, and president of Whistle Clean Car Washes, Sherman's retail operations. ''We're trying to improve the quality of the experience - remove the anxieties of going to a carwash. Are you afraid to use the ladies' room at your carwash? Are you afraid your car is going to be damaged by the equipment there?'' he asks, only slightly rhetorically.

''Many people having to take their cars in to be worked on (for mechanical problems) have a confrontation with the service people there - they expect the work won't be done right, or there will be some kind of problem. And that carries over to the carwash. But we're trying to make a carwash a pleasant place to be.''

In fact, one feature of the convention was photographs of entries into the Car Wash Beautiful contest. The grand-prize winner was the Marina South Car Wash in Redondo Beach, Calif., with a wood-paneled waiting room, adorned with chic wooden paddle fans, plus a rock-lined pond encircled with ferns and filled with outsize exotic goldfish.

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