Car Washes and Payments: Two Industries Evolving Together

Editor’s Note: This blog entry was originally published on May 17, 2018, and updated on November 10, 2020.

History of the Car Wash

The car wash industry started very modestly in Detroit in 1914 where two men opened the first official car wash business. While they called it the “Automated Laundry,” that name was a bit of a misnomer - the process was definitely not automated. An attendant manually pushed cars through a tunnel, where, in an assembly-line fashion, one worker then soaped up the automobile, the next one rinsed it off and a third one dried the car. This was clearly not an efficient or scalable business model.

The first “automated” car wash system opened in Hollywood, California in 1940 utilizing a winch system that moved cars along a conveyor system while workers manually washed and dried the cars.

The year 1946 brought the introduction of a semiautomatic system. This system included a conveyor belt to move the cars, as well as an overhead sprinkler system and an air blower for drying.

All of these technologies led to the first “hands-free” automated car wash in Seattle in 1951, which used machines for every part of the process - moving, washing, and drying the cars.

Growth of the Car Wash Industry

Through the subsequent decades, mechanized systems continued to evolve and the industry grew significantly. The International Carwash Association notes, “in the United States, the percentage of drivers that report most frequently washing their vehicle at a professional car wash has increased from approximately 48% in 1994 to more than 77% in 2019.” They further note that “more than 2 billion cars are washed each year in North America and nearly 1 billion in Europe.”

With this increase in volume, today’s businesses have had to prioritize efficiency and effectiveness. Getting customers through quickly is a key goal, and part of meeting that goal includes paying attention to how customers want to pay.


Infographic showing stats about car washes and payments


Car Wash Payment Options

For many decades, car wash payments were limited to cash. However, as cash is increasingly playing less of a role in everyday commerce, the industry’s adoption of cashless payment options is growing. The most common transition to non-cash payment methods involves accepting credit cards. Many self-service car washes that take credit cards allow the customer to select their options and pay at a car wash pay station, making the process more efficient and eliminating the need for customers to interact with an employee.

Accepting credit cards is a great start, but hardly the end of the list of payment options tech-savvy businesses can offer their customers. The explosive growth of mobile payments, including contactless payments made using near-field communication (NFC) technology, can greatly impact businesses and lure new customers. Mobile wallets, QR codes, and mobile coupons can work together to provide a business the advantage of offering a myriad of convenient payment methods for their customers.

Monthly Car Wash Plan Models

To increase customer retention, many locations offer a monthly car wash pass or car wash subscription. As an example, for a monthly fee, customers could have unlimited car wash access. The customer makes monthly recurring payments, which can be achieved by placing a card on file with the business. This model helps the business have predictable incoming revenue each month.

Integrating Car Wash Payment Systems

A car wash that takes card payments can benefit greatly by integrating payments into its other business systems, providing one central location to conduct all business management tasks and improving end-of-day reconciliations.

With a business management software that includes integrated payments, businesses can also handle marketing tasks, collection of customer data, and more. They can offer mobile coupons and gift cards, and also access performance data and analytics to enable them to make strategic business decisions.

With a tool such as Customer Engagement Suite from Global Payments Integrated, businesses can gain insight into their customer demographics, competitors, social reputation, marketing reach, and more. These insights allow them to better engage their customers and drive return visits.


Car wash retail sales in North America amount to approximately $15 billion. The myriad of customer payment options available today help businesses more easily acquire that revenue, and integrating payment processing functionality into business management software for car washes provides additional revenue options. For ISVs who offer business management software to their clients, integrating payments into your software can help you stand out from your competition. Global Payments Integrated can help - contact us today.