If you want to get a quick read on how the economy is doing, check out your local car wash.
Better yet, glance at the vehicles around you on the freeway or at a parking lot.
Are they dirty?
Budgets may be tightening.
Nice and clean?
Things are picking up.
"It’s the little luxuries of life that go first," said economist Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics in Los Angeles. "Oil changes are necessary. Car washes are not."
And lately, lots of cars are pretty dirty.
At HWB Car Wash in Burbank, business was chugging along fairly well in May after a precipitous drop when the recession hit five years ago.
But the last couple of weeks, said owner Sander Romick, haven’t been so great.
“Today started slow,” Romick said Monday. “And yesterday was a slow Sunday. … We washed fewer cars than last weekend.”
Car washes, Romick said, are the first expenditures that consumers cut back when hard times hit.
People who used to wash their vehicles weekly now show up every three weeks or so, he said.
Those who came in a couple times a month are waiting five or six weeks between washes – sometimes more.
Business is better now than it was during the depths of the recession, but it’s still a good 20% below the good times, said Romick, who serves on the board of the Western Carwash Association.
When unemployment – or the cost of an unavoidable expense like gasoline – ticks up, the car wash business heads down fast.
The high gas prices of the past several weeks have prompted many consumers to wash their vehicles themselves – or leave them dirty.
“I hardly eat out, I rarely get my car washed, I postpone costly repairs until it’s almost too late, all because of these gas prices,” LaDonna Marron Sofranko of Desert Hot Springs wrote on the NBCLA Facebook page.
Car washes are also out of the picture for Sara Johnston of Lake Hughes.
“I traded my Jeep in for a Kia, wash my car myself,” Johnston wrote on the NBCLA Facebook page. “Saving loads with 100 mile commute every day.”
Weather conditions also affect car-washing, of course: hardly anybody bothers when it’s raining. And in Los Angeles, pollen season can make cars look dusty when they aren’t.
But car wash owners say they feel every bump in the economic road. It’s most acute, they say, when the price of gas goes up.
“It’s absolutely correlated,” said Jason Johnson, who owns the Sacramento based Quick Quack chain of car washes. “In the summer of 2008 when we had the big spike, when we went from $2.50 a gallon to $4 in a matter of a couple of months –everybody had record lows.”
Like other car wash owners, Johnson is offering specials to entice customers. Quick Quack, a discount wash that cleans only the outside of the car, is selling unlimited car washes for just $14.99 per month.
Companies like his, which don’t offer full service cleaning, have done well during the recession, as some consumers have traded down from hand-washes and custom fragrances.
Still, he said, the business is hurting.
Banks – eager to lend money to new car washes when the business was booming – now find themselves owning a few that have defaulted on their loans, Johnson said. And owners who are doing well are finding it hard to get financing of any kind.
The industry’s hope, in the end, lies in the little upward ticks that have kept the economy expanding, albeit slowly.
Recent jumps in the sales of new automobiles, for example, may lead to increased car-washing as people try to keep their investments nice and shiny, Thornberg said.
Another spur could come from falling gas prices.
With the cost of a gallon of regular down for the 26th straight day on Monday – and people getting to what car wash owner Romick called the “tipping point,” where they just can’t stand their dirty cars any longer – business may pick back up.
Consider Marron Sofranko of Desert Hot Springs:
Now that prices are going down, she posted, “Maybe I’ll get my car washed.”