Interview: how Wash World disrupted the industry
In Scandinavia, Wash World is a household name for car owners. The successful Danish market leader runs more than 300 car wash branches. Last summer, the company touched down in Germany with their low-priced unlimited wash concept. There, too, the ambitions are big. “We’re fast, we’re cheap and we’re gonna beat everybody else.”
Anyone who wants to wash their car in Denmark will sooner or later encounter Wash World. Their green-gray-black colored wash halls can be found around all major cities and along major arterial roads. The concept is simple: sign up via their website with your license plate and bank number, after which you choose a single wash or go for a friendly priced flat-fee subscription. This allows you to wash as often as you want at all Wash World locations around the country. The subscription can be canceled at any time.
What makes all the Wash World locations truly unique, is that there is no staff present. The whole process of entering, washing, drying and paying forgoes automatic. It’s being monitored at Wash World’s modern and modest headquarters in Søborg near Copenhagen, where the control room is overseeing the more than 330 branches, using nearly 4,000 sensors and cameras.
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This year, the Danish company started looking southbound as well. Last summer, Wash World opened its first location in Germany, near Hamburg. It won’t stop there, promises CEO Lars Hecht. His predecessor Martin Olesen, who will soon leave the company gladly joins the interview too. “It wasn’t always the plan to extend to Germany but it seems the next logical step,” he says. “Given the size of the German market it was interesting for us.”
After thorough market research, Wash World decided to start in nearby Schleswig-Holstein, in Rendsburg. Olesen: “It is practically close to Denmark. But the demographics also helped, looking at income and the number of cars. Rendsburg was the first city where a suitable location came up. But we also have car washes planned in Flensburg and Husum.”
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Wash World kept their business operation -as unrolled in Scandinavia- largely intact for Germany. Even the websites are identical. “We actually did perform a market survey and then basically did the opposite,” says a smiling Olesen. “We used the exact same concept as we have in Denmark and the other Nordic countries. We did adjust our prices to the German market but it’s still very competitively priced, which is of course our basic USP.”
Initial reactions from German customers are generally positive. Olesen says visitors do have to get used to the lack of a coin machine and the whole flat-fee concept. “We actually had to assure new customers that they could wash as much as they wanted for that price.”
There were some initial concerns though. Especially about the language barrier. These turned out to be justified, as Wash World has since adjusted their German help desk. “Our people here (in the office) didn’t speak German well enough and many German customers couldn’t cope with English. So we decided to outsource the help desk to Germany where they get assistance by native speakers.”
The introduction phase in Rendsburg has recently been extended, which means staff will be on site a while longer to assist new customers. “When we started in Norway, we saw the same thing,” says Olesen. “You have to explain to customers how the Wash World concept works. In Germany, people are not used to unmanned car washes, let alone the whole principle of license plate reading and unlimited washing. These things are more common in Scandinavian countries.”
Despite the German car wash market being very dense and competitive, Wash World is confident their formula will succeed. “We are hard to beat when it comes to pricing”, says a confident Olesen.
From gym to washing
Wash World’s history actually goes back further than 10 years and started between dumbbells, punch bags and treadmills, in a gym. Danish business couple Henrik and Sophie Bensimon Rossing introduced unlimited workouts for a fixed price in Copenhagen, back in 2005. The fitness concept proved to be a huge success and their brand Fitness World eventually became the market leader in Denmark.
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After Bensimon Rossing sold the chain to a Norwegian investment fund and became billionaires in the process, they decided to put part of this new capital into a car wash concept based on the same principle: Wash World. Even the corporate colors remained largely the same.
What did Wash World underestimate at the time, when they copied the gym concept for the car wash industry? Olesen: “That’s a good question. I would say we underestimated the complexity of the technical solutions. Getting the washing machines to talk to our backend and to link it up to license plate readers, the gates and what not. Nobody is offering this technology in a turnkey solution, so we ended up developing a lot ourselves together with our suppliers.”
We are basically an IT company that washes cars.
Just how important the software and technology are, becomes apparent a little later when we visit the office floors. In the software engineering studio, three screens are hanging above a single computer. The ladies who man the main control room even have six screens at their disposal. A green light indicates whether they are approachable or not. A huge LCD-display on the wall shows only two car washes currently out of operation. “We are basically an IT company that washes cars,” laughs Lars Hecht. “What we have here, does not exist anywhere else. That’s the whole point. It’s home built and it interacts and interfaces with each other.”
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Hecht calls the whole system ‘a beast’. The bottleneck lies not so much in the rollovers or jet washes as in the interface that holds everything together. The remote diagnostics needs to work flawlessly. Because once a machine stops, it makes no money. “If a door stays open somewhere in northern Sweden at -20, we want to know right away. Otherwise it will cost us money. The wash hall has to be shut down and reheated. That’s why all our new locations will have at least two rollovers. It’s vital that the production continues.”
In 2020, Wash World decided to start offering self-wash boxes, partly in light of the demand for them in neighboring Sweden and Norway. “Basically it started by offering high pressure cleaning for rims,” says Olesen. “This slowly developed into offering self-service wash boxes. At the time this was very rare for Danish customers; they were not used to it. We basically introduced the self wash box to Denmark. Now we are more or less the market leader.”
In Sweden and Norway it’s a very different story. “Wash boxes are big business in Norway,” Hecht knows. “Many people wash their cars with a jet wash. That has to do with the vastness of the country in combination with the small population.”
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Moreover, customer expectations are different in every country, we learn. “The Swedes don’t have much concern about drying their car. The Norwegians want to wash their cars with the roof boxes on. Here in Denmark, it’s all about price.”
Upgraded customer service
In the past, it could be difficult to reach the company if there was a breakdown due to the sites being unmanned. Wash World says they have listened. Customer communication has since improved and users will now find multiple phone numbers at the locations, making sure it’s immediately clear where the customer is situated. “Someone calling us from inside the wash hall gets of course first priority,” says Olesen.
Of Wash World’s staff of 70 people, around 30 work at the help desk, many part-time.
In addition, technicians drive around all day to fix any malfunctions while a cleaning team keeps things tidy at the sites. All have long opening tours.
For disputes over damages, Wash World has now engaged an outside partner to assess and handle accuracy. “If we were to judge them, we would basically be biased”, says Olesen. “So it seemed like a good idea to let these complaints be judged by an external company. They also deal with insurance. Of course we try to keep our machines clean and in top condition but we are aware that sometimes things can go wrong.”
“I don’t think we have more or less complaints than other companies in the business,” says Hecht. “But it’s likely people will test us more, because we don’t have staff on location. Be aware though, we have more sensors and cameras present than any of our competitors.”
No conveyor washing
Wash World currently does not exploit express tunnels. Changes are slim this will chance anytime soon, according to both CEOs. “We have considered it”, Olesen admits. “But the basis of our business is unmanned sites and it’s very difficult to run an unmanned car wash tunnel. Besides, it’s a totally different customer experience.”
“Personally I don’t think Denmark has the market to justify tunnel washing,” Lars Hecht adds. “We are unmanned, we are cheap, we are fast and we beat everybody else.”
The American Wash World
Wash World has nothing to do with the American brand of the same name. Based in Wisconsin, Wash World Inc builds car wash machines.”We did ask them if they wanted to sell their website domain name to us,” reveals Olesen. “But they weren’t really into it. Until we decide to enter the American market, I don’t think there will be a problem.”