Thoughts From the Road

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Thoughts From the Road

By Jim Chiswell

By the time you read this, most of you will have escaped winter's cold grip. Being headquartered in Buffalo, we are forced to bear the brunt of annual winter-weather jokes. I guess with having suffered more than 96 inches of total snowfall in December alone, we have it coming.

Reflecting on this year's record-setting Buffalo snow, and that in other parts of the Northeast, has reminded me of a critical lesson: When you build a self-storage facility in these climatic zones, you must consider where the plows will push the snow. These designated outlets will determine whether you'll be able to keep your facility open for customers during inclement weather.

The placement of your trash dumpster presents a similar design consideration. You must take into account the route the garbage truck will take each time it comes. Paving will need to be reinforced in the area of the dumpster. Most communities require that the dumpster is separately fenced. I have even heard of an instance where a building commissioner required the pad for the dumpster be fully curbed on all sides and equipped with an oil/containment drier trap to capture liquids draining out of the dumpster.

Oh well--sometimes we will do anything to get our projects approved. I encourage you to consider these things as you work on the design and building layout of your facility.

Let Them Communicate

The technology of communication continues to expand. Whether it be more advanced telephone systems or the world-shrinking Internet, our collective ability to talk and send messages to each other has never been greater. Yet I see many managers across the country being cut off from the advantages and opportunities these two developments provide.

First, having a 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz portable telephone managers can take with them anywhere on the property avoids the disadvantage of missed calls. This also means avoiding missed opportunities to encourage a prospective customer to make an appointment. Owners explain they are reluctant to free managers from the office phone because of a suspicion that they will instead spend all day in their apartments or outside sunbathing. My response to their concern is a simple one: If you have a manager who is doing that, he will do it with or without a portable. At least with a quality portable, he will still be answering the phone when it rings.

The same is true about giving Internet access to managers. I understand an owner's concern about possible goofing off on the Internet or the possible downloading of less-than-desirable images from the web. However, an owner can install blocking and monitoring software that will track employee wanderings on the Internet. Yes, it smacks of George Orwell's "Big Brother," but it provides a compromise for both sides. I urge every owner to consider getting a quality portable phone for his managers, and to step out in faith by offering employees Internet access.

Census Data Provides New Insights

The release of the 2000 Census data will have a very telling effect on more than just the number of congressional seats in each state. Nationwide growth of 13.2 percent masks the real trends that are unmistakable at the regional and community levels. Every state increased its population. Nevada recorded the largest percentage of growth at a staggering 66.3 percent, and West Virginia the smallest at just 0.8 percent. Washington, D.C., had the distinction of being the only political jurisdiction to suffer a net population loss of 5.7 percent.

These figures confirmed a decade-long trend of a population shift from the North and Midwest to the South and West. What happened in your county? Your neighborhood? The facts, figures and trends will continue to be announced throughout the year. I urge you to make it your business to dig into this information to better understand the new demographic reality Census 2000 will reveal.

The Montgomery Ward Lesson

The year-end demise of Montgomery Ward in 2000 should serve as a lesson to every one of us in self-storage. It is not enough in today's marketplace to have started your business in 1872. It's not enough that you have 250 stores, 10 major distribution centers and more than 30,000 employees. None of these factors are sufficient if you lose touch with your current and prospective customer base. And that has been the mistake of Wards' management for many years. The company's product selection, store appearance and even marketing style have been out of step with other retailers like Wal-Mart, which are, conversely, doing very well.

Have you been listening to your customers? Do you honestly feel you are meeting their needs? Have you kept your facility looking clean and sharp? Are you watching industry trends within your market? It is not enough to just show up each day and open your door. The final chapter in the Montgomery Ward book should be an admonition to never stop looking for new ways to satisfy your existing and prospective customers.

What's Your Charity?

Do you have a favorite charity you support with activities at your facility? This might be offering a "Toys for Tots" drop-off center, or providing discounted or no-cost space to the Boy Scouts paper drive or the Girl Scouts cookie sale. Involvement in charitable activities can produce countless benefits. It gives your facility the positive, word-of-mouth praise that can result in additional rentals. Not only that, it creates an instant marketing campaign for your facility.

You could easily provide brochures/ discounts to the participants in the charity event. This enables your managers to participate directly in the community with prospective customers in a non-sales setting. If you have not adopted one or more community charities for your corporate participation, I urge you to discuss it with your manager. Everyone wins when your facility gets involved in charitable activities.

Jim Chiswell is president of Chiswell & Associates. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence, expert testimony and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. In addition to contributing regularly to Inside Self-Storage, Mr. Chiswell is a frequent speaker at Inside Self-Storage Expos and various association meetings. He can be reached at 716.634.2428; e-mail jchiswell@adelphia.net; www.selfstorageconsulting.com.

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