Chief Operating Officer The William Warren Group, Inc.
As consumer demand for self-storage continues to grow, the industry has rapidly begun to evolve. Once merely rows of metal sheds, present day storage facilities are oftentimes elaborate, state-of-the-art buildings bursting at the seams with specialty services, products, and amenities. What’s more, it’s increasingly apparent that the shift towards more retail-oriented facilities is not a fleeting trend.
According to Gary Sugarman, COO of Santa Monica, Calif.-based The William Warren Group, Inc., this evolution is the direct result of an improved understanding of the self-storage product. “Self-storage is becoming much more part of the fabric of everyday life,” he says. “And the significant increase in familiarity has contributed to change.”
While Sugarman attributes some of the heightened awareness to television shows such as Storage Wars, he believes that strong demand, due in part to a lack of supply, is the main factor. “Demand has grown in a healthy, organic way over time, and familiarity has grown in an exponential way,” says Sugarman. “Familiarity is breeding heightened expectations. This will change the way the industry operates and the way it is perceived.”
Increased Expectations One of the industry’s most dramatic progressions, in Sugarman’s opinion, is the way customers perceive storage. “Expectations have changed,” he says. “They expect more from storage.”
Sugarman states that the increased expectations of storage customers are akin to other industries such as fast food, hotel, and retail. “Those industries are very different now than they were 30 years ago,” he says. “Their offerings have grown, matured to meet consumer desires.”
As an example, hotels and motels within the hospitality industry now provide a plethora of services and amenities in order to remain competitive. On-site fitness centers, swimming pools, and free Wi-Fi are just a few of the commonplace accommodations that were once extravagances found primarily at luxurious hotels. Today, Sugarman says that consumers have come to expect these perks at all hotels—even the economy establishments. “They have become fundamental,” he says. “Customers have the same expectations for storage.”
What does this change mean for the industry? Sugarman believes that storage owners and operators must up their game, so to speak. “Clean and safe will no longer cut it,” he says. “Nowadays, that’s a given. Simply promising a clean, safe, and secure facility is not going to do it anymore. Storage needs to grow in a significant way in that essence.”
In other words, self-storage facilities need to become more of a one-stop-shop for customers. In addition to the basics (clean space and security features), owners and operators should seriously consider what services and/or amenities they can offer to make their facilities more attractive to a broader audience. Although the possibilities are limitless, it’s best to start with a practical approach. For fail-safe success, ask your current tenants for their input and shop the competition for opportunities to provide similar amenities as well as absent products or services. For instance, if you have a large number of business clients as tenants but no self-storage facility within a five-mile radius offers document shredding services, it would be feasible to provide that at your property.
Keep in mind that consumers’ expectations will continue to grow as they become more familiar with self-storage. As a result, “unique” present-day products and services, such as beverage stations with warm cookies, may eventually become conventional. Here’s another hotel example: There was a time when the majority of hotels did not offer free breakfast foods to guests. After some chains began providing free continental breakfasts, it eventually became an industry standard. Several hotel chains now offer free “hot” or “full” breakfasts in an attempt to entice guests. Since you should always be seeking creative ways to gain a competitive edge, it is imperative to stay on top of the latest storage trends.
Communicate Offerings Of course, once services and amenities are in place, owners and operators must effectively communicate those offerings to the public. And Sugarman reminds storage professionals that they need to utilize more modern and progressive forms of marketing. “The Yellow Pages have disappeared from the landscape of marketing,” he says. “Even our original digital marketing efforts, such as banner ads, are now primitive.”
“Marketing will continue to change,” Sugarman adds. “It has shifted from traditional to digital, and social media marketing has become increasingly important.” He also mentions that “lifestyle advertising” (when a company tries to sell you a way of living as opposed to just the product) is now a major focus.
Social Engagement The main aim of lifestyle advertising, or lifestyle marketing, is to create an enthusiastic and loyal consumer-base by establishing the brand as a valuable part of the consumer’s everyday life. To which Sugarman notes, “The most sophisticated operators recognize that their best chance for success is to create distinct and unique brands.”
And Sugarman believes that social engagement is the key to unlocking this success. “Operators need to be engaging in dialogue with customers in a meaningful and thoughtful way through social media,” he says. “Your content becomes conversation, and it should prompt them to think about storage.”
He adds that content posted on social media sites needs to be relevant to the lives of your target audience and not simply a direct advertisement. “Think of the drivers of demand,” Sugarman says, mentioning deaths, births, relocations, careers, educational endeavors, military tours, marriages, and divorces as the leading life events that create storage demand. “These are things that customers are passionate about. They are fundamental to their lives. You need to engage with them and understand them on a deeper level.”
Overall, Sugarman compares social media to “one big cocktail party.” He says, “You will make more contacts if you have interesting things to say.”
Essentially, developing and delivering creative content that enables your brand to enjoy top of mind presence is the goal. “You want to develop interesting content that will hopefully appeal to a class of consumers to become part of their [online] community,” says Sugarman. “Then, tell them how storage can provide solutions.”
However, Sugarman doesn’t hesitate to admit this scale of social engagement is a “fairly complex,” time-consuming, and expensive endeavor. “It requires significant creative contributions,” he says. “Operators really have two choices: They can either make a significant investment in their branding and marking efforts or engage in one of the established third-party management platforms.”
At the end of the day, self-storage owners and operators must realize that the industry will continue to evolve due to customers’ expectations and technological advancements. In fact, nowadays, most customers expect all businesses, including self-storage, to have a broad online presence with sophisticated websites, social media pages, and various communication channels such as live chat. Remember: He who hesitates is lost.
Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.