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Car Wash Industry: Economics Still Attractive Despite Slow Start to 2024

R.J. Hottovy
Jun 28, 2024
Car Wash Industry: Economics Still Attractive Despite Slow Start to 2024

In recent weeks, we’ve analyzed auto dealers and convenience stores, so we thought we’d extend the conversation by taking a look at the car wash industry. The car wash industry in the United States has been one of the fastest growing retail categories coming out of the pandemic due to the increasing number of vehicles on the road, an increase in average vehicle age, a shift to a membership-based model for many operators, as well as advancements in car wash technology that have made services more efficient and automated. This shift is evidenced by the fact that around 80% of car washes are now done at professional locations, compared to 48% in 1994 according to the International Car Wash Association.

According to car wash trade groups, there are approximately 65,000 car wash locations across the nation. Mister Car Wash is the largest car wash chain in the U.S., operates more than 480 locations across 21 states. However, the category remains highly fragmented, with nearly three-fourths of industry operators having less than 2 locations. This has naturally set the stage for industry consolidation the past several years, with larger companies acquiring smaller operators to expand their footprints. We see the overall growth and consolidation of the category in a visitation trendline of a custom grouping of nearly 60 of the largest car wash chains in the U.S., where total visits have increased by roughly seven times since 2017.

We also see consolidation show up share of visit numbers from 2019-2023, which we show below. Mister Car Wash has remained the largest player in the category with respect to share of visits the past several years by growing both its unit counts (from 322 at the end of 2019 to 482 as of March) and visits per location (up more than 8% over the same time period). There has been movement among the chains ranked number 2 through 6 the past several years, but the group has generally included Quick Quack Car Wash, Take 5 Car Wash, Tommy’s Express Car Wash, and Zips Car Wash. However, the most notable observation from share of visit trends is the tremendous growth in visit share among smaller chains the past several years.

Car washes have been an attractive investment for private equity the past several years, helping to fuel some of the growth of smaller chains. Individual car wash locations generate an estimated $1.5M in annual sales according to industry trade groups–which is slightly ahead of the average unit sales of a quick-service restaurant chain of $1.4 million–while offering lower labor requirements and more predictable results due to the increasing popularity of membership models. In many respects, the growth of the car wash category mirrors the growth we’ve seen across the fitness category the past several years.

Despite the strong industry growth the past several years, Q1 2024 trends were impacted by a number of factors according to Mister Car Wash’s management team, including increased competition and a lower-income customer cohort that's been under more pressure (inclement weather in January across much of the country also likely played a role). Placer data confirms that Q1 2024 was in fact the weakest quarter from a category visit per location standpoint in several years. However, we’ve seen a rebound in Q2 2024 trends so far, with quarter-to-date visitation trends pacing just behind the year ago period with just a few days left in the quarter.

We mentioned that a membership-based approach has helped to drive visitation growth for the category and led to more predictable results, and we see that when we look at visitor loyalty data for Mister Car Wash. According to the company’s most recent annual report, it increased overall Unlimited Car Wash (UWC) monthly subscription penetration to 71% of total wash sales in 2023, up from 68% the year prior. When we look at visits from “casual” (1 visit per month) versus “loyal” (2+ visits per month) customers, we’ve seen a meaningful shift toward more loyal customers the past several years, particularly during peak visitation months in the summer.

Despite a slower start to 2023 due to aforementioned factors, the U.S. car wash industry appears well positioned for continued growth and consolidation due to the continued aging of the auto fleet, population migration trends, the continued shift toward membership-based revenue models, attractive unit economics, and new technological advances.

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R.J. Hottovy

Head of Analytical Research,

R.J. Hottovy, CFA has covered the restaurant, retail, and e-commerce sectors for 20 years as an equity analyst and strategist for Morningstar, William Blair & Co., and Deutsche Bank. R.J. also brings a wealth of experience with early-stage investments as a committee member for the IrishAngels / Vitalize venture capital group. Over the past three years, he advised over 50 food service companies on more than $200 million in early-stage capital raises and M&A transactions.

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