By RK Kliebenstein
The self-storage construction boom is on, and new facilities are popping up everywhere. There is increasing awareness in owners of older facilities that it is tough to contend with these modern, amenity-packed competitors. Here are some tools for planning a facility facelift and meeting the market challenge, also known as "repositioning."
Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan
Have you formulated a strategic plan? The first step is to identify the problem or, for the sake of semantics, let's call it a "challenge." Have you done a true survey of your competition? I am sure, like any good owner or manager, you are visiting your competition at least once every six months. (It is a good idea to take pictures so you can compare each visit to your last one.) What do you notice has changed? Has the office been painted? Is there new furniture? What about the collateral material--has it changed? Are there new brochures or business cards? Is this competitor responding to market conditions with rate increases or decreases?
What about the "new kids on the block"? Is this challenge one that you are facing head-on, or is your head buried in the sand under a layer of denial? If your competitor is a "B"-grade facility, you may have been spared--this time. But what about the location? Most new stores tend to be located in higher traffic areas with better demography. Is the new store between you and your customer base? What does your ZIP-code analysis tell you? Where are your customers coming from? Has traffic slowed down? Review your traffic reports from last year and see what the numbers tell you. Is phone traffic up or down? Is site-visit traffic up, or are things pretty much the same? How do these factors compare with occupancy levels and rate increases? How much new square footage is in the market? What does last year's square foot per capita look like compared with this year's? What about previous years?
Is climate control new to your market? Do you have climate-controlled spaces? Should you add them? Do you have room to construct a new building or are you considering the retrofit of an existing building? What are the rental-rate premiums for climate-controlled space? What is the "pay back" period for the improvement? Will your new climate-controlled space increase your value, or is this a hold against the competition?
What about amenities? Do you have individual door alarms? Are they wireless, or are you anticipating a costly upgrade? What about your surveillance cameras? Do they show colorful, crisp and clean images? Are the monitors in plain view of the customer, displayed in a high-tech environment, or is this a monitor stuck on top of a desk? Cameras are as much a marketing tool as they are a security measure, and if you are not highlighting this feature, you are leaving a marketing opportunity on the table. Do you have wireless intercoms so your tenants can call the office? Is there music being filtered through the hallways?
Take a picture of your facility as you drive up or, better yet, have a friend videotape it. How do things look? Is the signage crisp and clean? Is the landscape fresh and healthy? What is your curb appeal like? What message are you sending the customer when he drives up? Is the first impression "Wow"? Are things spotless? Are you attracting a tenant who is storing junk, or are you going after the tenant who stores valuable personal or business items in an environment similar to his own home?
How about that security gate? Do you still have the barrier arm with a manual gate that overlocks at night? Why not replace it with an access-controlled, state-of-the-art security gate?
What about your driveways? Is there a clean sealcoat on the asphalt, or are there holes in the parking lot?
How well are your buildings marked and your doors numbered? You know where building 3 is and how to find unit 7624, but do your tenants?
What about your staff? Do they meet the challenge of new competition? Is your rental manager armed with the latest facts (not assumptions)? I cannot tell you how many managers feed a line of "hooey" to their owner, pretending to know what is going on with the competition. Are their uniforms crisp, clean and neat? Are their shirts tucked in? Do your rental consultants stand when the prospect enters the door? Are they smiling? Is there a spark in their sales pitch, or are they simply order takers? Is the inventory up to date? When was the last time the manager walked the store to find surprise vacates?
What about your facility's lighting? Is the office bright, clean and cheerful? Are the hallways brightly lit and "clean as a whistle"? How about outside lighting? When was the last time a light-bulb survey was done to see how many were burnt out? Is the lighting adequate? Should additional lights be added at the doorways? If it is too dark to read in the halls and doorways, they are probably underlit. Outside, the lighting should be adequate for you to read a license plate without having to get a flashlight. Ambient light will shine on the reflective surfaces of most license plates.
What about your rental agreement? Is it up to date? Do you have a large-print version? If you live in an area of multiple languages, do you have a translated copy? Does the rental agreement reflect current lien laws and late-charge legislation? What about vehicles? Do you have a rider to your lease to perfect lien on a motor vehicle?
What about your golf cart? When was the last time it was washed and waxed? Is it safe? Are the seats clean and without tears or stains? Is your maintenance unit a vision of neat, orderly business, or is it a scene from the old television show Sanford and Son?
If you are not satisfied with the answers to the questions posed above, you have to ask yourself, "What am I doing to meet the challenge?" Is there enough time in the day to read the newspaper, but not enough to read the lease agreement or sweep the sidewalk and wash the windows? Is there enough time to watch TV, but not enough to wash the roll-up doors or paint the bollards? Has a member of your staff ever said, "They do not pay me enough to..."? Is that your excuse for letting the competitors get ahead of you?
Maybe it is time to get back to basics. If you do not have time to properly assess the condition of your property and that of your competitors, maybe you need outside help. And if you have the time to make the lists, do you also have time to execute the plan?
PLAN A: Get Professional Help
If you owned a small airplane, would you let it deteriorate? Would you maintain it yourself? Who would conduct the annual inspections? Ask these same questions about your self-storage facility, and if the answer is "outside help," there are several consulting firms that can conduct management and technology reviews of your facility. When selecting a consultant, ask him to fax you a copy of his facility checklist. Make sure he has a repositioning plan. Find out how long he plans to spend identifying problem areas. Ask yourself whether the price of the service accurately reflects the work to be done at your particular facility, or if the consultant is using a "one size fits all" approach.
PLAN B: What Are You Going to Do With the Information?
Do you have time to analyze the data the consultant provides? Can you then execute a plan of action, or do you need some training wheels to keep you on the path? Many consultants will offer to report their findings, but will they prepare a plan to fix the problems? If the scope of your consultant's work involved only the construction of a "to do" list, what is your next step? The consultant should be able to take his findings to the next level and prepare a timeline, budget, and marketing and integration plan. There should be redundant bids for major line items. Deferred maintenance may have been significant and you may want a structural check-up. Find out if your consultant performs this service as well.
PLAN C: The Execution
So you have a plan written--now what? Do you have the time and energy to supervise the work and integrate the changes into your organization? Are there specific timeframes for completion of the tasks, or are these just lists to line the birdcage? Once the improvements are made, has your Yellow Pages ad been updated to reflect the money you just spent? Has the website been brought up to date? What about fliers and brochures? How are you going to market your "new" facility? What about a grand reopening? Is your consultant planning these events for you or actually conducting them?
So Much to Do, So Little Time
If you took the time to make the necessary lists or even to recognize you are letting things fall by the wayside, then you are probably proactive enough to already be working on improvements. If you think you are untouchable by the demands of the market, you had better hope your competitors, too, are so confident they do not think they need to concern themselves with curb appeal, customer service or you, the competition. Take this advice to heart. Sometimes we can't see the forest for all the trees.
RK Kliebenstein is the president of Coast-To-Coast Storage of Boca Raton, Fla., which performs technology audits, market studies and repositioning plans for self-storage operators. For more information, call 877.622.5508.