Giuseppe Sperduto, President of Assolavaggisti: “The sector has restarted but very slowly”
The combined challenge for the car wash sector comes from the economic consequences of the epidemic on top of pre-existing problems, especially competition from informal operators that is further increasing the pressure on the sector
Interview with GIUSEPPE SPERDUTO, President of Assolavaggisti
The crisis caused by the corona virus pandemic has had a strong impact on all sectors of the economy and the car wash field is no exception. The widely acknowledged possibility of keeping businesses open during the lock-down enabled companies in the sector to continue operations, albeit with great difficulty, as shown by the number of employees laid off with unemployment schemes and the difficulties encountered in reactivating a sector heavily dependent on vehicle-based mobility.
What impact did the Covid-19 pandemic have on the car wash sector? How have companies in the sector helped provide essential vehicle cleaning and sanitisation services? How are companies handling the restart? Giuseppe Sperduto, President of Assolavaggisti and Vice-President of the Faib (Independent Italian Service Station Federation), outlines the role played by sector operators in this period, highlighting a cross-section of a field faced by the combined challenge of the economic consequences of the corona virus and pre-existing problems, especially low-cost competition from informal car wash operators that is further increasing the pressure on the sector.
The National Association of Italian Car Wash Operators “has always been determined to assist car wash companies, supporting them in practical terms as we have always done – especially in this context of economic crisis,” said Sperduto. “We have always provided essential services and we absolutely had to remain open. Around 80% of our vehicle washing network is located in service stations, while car wash centres installed on private land represent about 20-30%. We sought to coordinate this very important sector, against this background, especially at times like the ones we recently experienced and will continue to do so because of Covid,” added Sperduto, recalling that until the Decree issued on 26 April, operators were obliged not to provide their services, despite the essential nature of the sector, because of a misunderstanding by the authorities.
Companies in the sector are in fact registered with Chambers of Commerce under code 45.20 and – lust like all vehicle maintenance activities – they should have been able to remain open. “Initially, despite the need for this service, the police intervened and even fined customers using car wash services and, at times, even authorised operators of such centres,” said Sperduto, noting that – faced by such a situation – the Association was obliged to write to the authorities and services were only able to resume as of 26 April. “We were forced to keep our centres closed when they would have been much more useful in carrying disinfection and cleaning tasks, training employees and adopting suitable protective equipment against any kind of risk”, Sperduto pointed out, emphasising the important role of car wash services over and above mere commercial aspects.
“In the wake of this misunderstanding, we sought to enhance awareness among all our members over the entire Italian network,” the President of Assolavaggisti added. Sperduto mentioned that the situation over the last few months emerged differently depending on geographical areas, whereby the intensity of the virus, for example in the regions of southern Italy and Latium, was “utterly unlike” that in Lombardy, Piedmont and other parts of Northern Italy. “We always encouraged and emphasised conduct that would be useful by following guidelines and good practices even if they had no legislative value. The only item of applicable legislation was the Decree dated 26 April. Assolavaggisti Confesercenti has always been committed to assisting car wash companies in practical terms, as we have always done, especially in this period of economic crisis.”
The cross-section of the current situation, with the gradual return to normal, highlights a sector affected both not only by the crisis caused by the pandemic but also by pre-existing problems. “We got going again but very slowly”, said Sperduto, who mentioned persistent economic difficulties and even a certain hesitancy in the sector as regards playing its role. “Customers use these services when they see that operators work wearing appropriate masks and other protective products but unfortunately there are also certain customers who, especially in relation to economic difficulties, turn to informal car wash facilities that often involve forms of worker exploitation and/or do not apply regulations and safety procedures correctly,” the President of Assolavaggisti pointed out. “What was sadly a phenomenon that developed in large urban centres and the South of Italy is now also and increasingly spreading throughout other northern regions. The low costs that these centres offer are unjustified and impossible to apply for operators who follow the rules, dispose of slurry and use certified products and approved equipment,” Sperduto went on. “There are very proper constraints that prevent us providing customers with services at an equal price,” added Sperduto, stating that the Association has repeatedly asked the authorities to control such informal centres and subject them to mandatory authorisation. “Investing in a depuration system that performs its task precisely and correctly costs tens of thousands of euros. All our centres operating legally and correctly are continually challenged by small outfits which – if they open up next door to you – cause you to go bankrupt,” said the President of Assolavaggisti.
In this context “people who have invested and are in step with the times have repayments to make, leases and rents to pay, and simply do not know how to react. They continue to experience increasing difficulties while watching a portion of this economic reality that continues to thrive on the backs of everyone else,” said Sperduto. “The sector certainly needs to be supported, even if only for the contribution it could make to cleaning. True vehicle wash centres as defined by our Association do not merely wash the bodywork but above all wash and clean vehicle interiors. Today, people at large tend increasingly not to use public transport but prefer private cars in order to limit contacts. We have always been more concerned about the interior of vehicles than the exterior, especially at this particular time,” he added. “We would like institutions to ensure: fairness and equity for all. There are rules and they must be the same for everyone,” Sperduto remarked.
Another problem encountered by companies in the sector was access to the lay-off benefit system for employees: “We had to struggle from the very start to obtain such unemployment lay-offs because in terms of regulations we were obliged to remain open. The requests we made in this regard were eventually heard and we managed to gain access to the lay-off system.” Just like other sectors, car wash centres also have to deal with drastic falls in daily revenues; Sperduto suggests that average operations for one year fell by about 50% compared to pre-Covid levels and that it will be “difficult” to keep companies going.