By Shaun Ferguson
I received a funny e-mail the other day that a university had supposedly sent out to professors to help them better identify with the incoming freshman class. After the initial humor wore off, I got to thinking about what the e-mail implied about this next generation of potential self-storage users. Here is a portion of the message:
The freshman class of the year 2000 was born in 1982/83:
1. They really don't get the phrase "like a broken record" because they have never owned a record player.
2. They have always had a microwave oven in the kitchen.
3. They don't know who Nixon was, and few remember Reagan.
4. They have always had cable TV and video games.
5. They have never seen a 12 oz. Coca-Cola in a glass bottle, nor turned one in for candy money.
6. Fast food has always come in cardboard containers.
7. They don't know who was in the Rat Pack, or even the Brat Pack, for that matter.
8. They have always made popcorn in the microwave ....
The list went on, and I began to feel old, although I had only just graduated high school in 1983 (I can hear some of you groaning now). After reading the list, I began thinking about the customers at my facility, and realized that much of my clientele is my age or older, that I really did not have many younger tenants. Granted, all of our properties are indoor, climate-controlled facilities that have higher rates than regular outside storage; yet, even allowing for the limiting factor of higher prices, I realized that we have a disproportionately older market to which we cater. So began my investigation into who next year's customers will be.
A Bit of History
It became clear to me we needed a better understanding of the psychology of storage users. Many of my older clients' parents were born in the 1920s, during a time of prosperity for the United States, a time much like today. When the Depression hit, it affected everyone, and it soon became imperative that families held onto all of their possessions, as they did not know if they could replace them in the future. "Hoarding" is a harsh word, but it is in essence what became a major psychological force during those times. They became accumulators. They kept everything, and the adage "waste not, want not" became doctrine.
Roosevelt's New Deal helped bring America out of its worst times ever, but the disciplines learned during that time remained. Survivors of the Depression taught the baby boomers, those born after World War II, the value of a penny saved and an old table kept. The boomers could recall their parents' stories of the times of destitution and set out to make sure it never happened to them. They continued to be accumulators, as were their parents, but for different reasons. Materialism, defined by Webster's as "the tendency to be more concerned with material than spiritual or intellectual values," became the defining characteristic of the boomers, and they became the first generation of self-storage users.
Older people looked upon the boomers' children, dubbed "Generation X" (born 1965 through 1977), as "slackers," and predicted they would become the first generation in American history to not exceed the prosperity of its parents. GenXers heard stories of the difficulties previous generations experienced, but had a hard time relating to them as they watched their parents move into bigger and bigger houses, buy more expensive cars, and live their lives in excess. Seeing their parents suffer from alcohol/drug abuse and dying of stress-related strokes and heart attacks years before their time, many GenXer's rejected the materialism that defined their parents.
Generation Y, born in the late '70s and early '80s, and influenced by the GenXers' abandonment of materialism, found a need for instant gratification. They have been growing up in a time when as much as 60 percent of all marriages end in divorce and single-parent families have begun to outnumber the traditional two-parent family unit1, leading to the feeling that all things, including spouses, are disposable. If it doesn't suit your needs right now, get a new one, whether it's a job, spouse, furnishings, etc. This complete 180-degree turn in ideology from just two generations earlier has produced the "Disposable Generation," and the self-storage industry's next customers.
The 'Disposable Generation' and Self-Storage
Herein lies the problem facing owners and managers of storage facilities in the next few years to come: a generation of potential renters that typically has less disposable income, places less value on material belongings than its predecessors, and does not possess the "hoarding" instinct that is the mainstay of our industry. In developing future marketing strategies, storage facility owners and managers must begin looking at this next generation's world perspective and figure out what will motivate them to choose our storage facilities rather than mom and dad's garage or the curb out front to store their belongings. The following are a few observations and ideas I have been working with in developing future marketing campaigns:
- Saying that many of these young people are familiar with storage facilities would be a safe conclusion, given the number of divorces so many of their parents went through. Nevertheless, we cannot take that for granted in terms of facility loyalty. Coca-Cola and Levi jeans, once the bastions of customer loyalty in their industries, have closed production plants and downsized employees due, in part, to a shift from brand loyalty to fad and price-induced spurts of popularity among competitors. If they do choose to use self-storage at all for their belongings, we will have to actively be apart of their decision-making process through well-planned sales presentations, both on the phone and on site, as well as market our companies in ways relevant to their world, i.e., the Internet. (See below.)
- Look at your managers. If a younger person with black fingernail polish, eyebrow piercings or tattoos comes into your office, is your manager going to be able to relate to him, or will he be nervous and unsure of himself? This next generation is more worldly and harder to shock, due in part to greater exposure from the Internet and extreme television programming. It may be time to move past hiring older, retired couples to manage a facility because it keeps payrolls lower, and consider hiring younger professionals who are better able to relate to this next generation of renters, and your company's current customers. With so many self-storage facilities to choose from, this next generation of renters has no problem dismissing a facility solely on an emotional response to how we treated them.
- During the Super Bowl, every other commercial was for www.this.com or www.that.com. Hopefully, the point was not lost on storage-facility owners and managers. You have to have a presence on the web and you have to advertise that presence. Now, that doesn't mean spending $2 million to air a commercial during the Super Bowl; instead, include your web address in your Yellow Pages ad, on your business cards and letterhead--anything your company puts its name on. Your website does not have to be a huge, interactive, multimedia page. A well-thought home page should include pictures of your facility, a list of features and benefits, and contact information, such as your telephone and fax numbers, physical address and e-mail address. Also, be sure to include driving instructions and/or maps, and your hours of operation.
If your company does not have Internet access, consider getting it soon; the next generations of renters are learning to use the web in elementary school and will soon be turning to the Internet before they turn to the phone book. AOL and other servers are a low-cost addition to your budget and even provide space for you to create a home page at no extra charge. Some sites cater to the self-storage industry and will put your facility on the web for free. If you really want to be effective with your Internet presence, register your own web domain (www.your store's name.com).
We have some interesting times ahead of us as an industry. The U.S. Census shows the "Disposable Generation" to be one of the smallest generations in terms of population in many years2. That, coupled with their increased need for instant gratification and less desire to "hoard" belongings as their parents did, should have us all considering what approaches will effectively tap into this market. So, how much does your company know about who your next customers will be, and is it prepared to meet their changing needs?
Shaun Ferguson is the manager of ClimaStor II, a climate-controlled facility in Shreveport, La. For more information, call (318) 686-7867.