When self-storage owner Henry Oxnard began the design for a new facility, he took his employees' concerns to heart. "It started with the reluctance of our female employees to take inside units," explains Oxnard, who offers a free unit to all employees. "That evolved into thinking of our women customers," says Oxnard, owner of the Drive-Up Self Storage in Houston.
Oxnard says the majority of self-storage facilities, including his own, are not designed for women, even though women are often the final decision-makers when it comes to renting storage units. "Landscaping is minimal. There's very tight parking, narrow aisles, long corridors and hard-to-lift doors," he cites as examples of features adverse to female customers. Oxnard turned to his wife and female employees for ideas on how to build a more female-friendly storage facility. "What evolved was a different approach," he says. Oxnard collaborated with David Boothe, president of Landmark Interest Corp., to come up with an innovative design. "Between the two of us, we refined my ideas and made it work," Oxnard says.
The first decision was to eliminate corridors, something the women in Oxnard's company considered unsafe. Instead, Oxnard opted for climate-controlled, drive-up units and a covered drive-thru area (Oxnard owns the patent for the drive-up concept). The duo then turned their attention to the parking surrounding the units. Spacious parking was essential to allow for easy access and flow. Next came the landscaping. Lush grass, colorful flowers and towering trees were planted to give the landscape a fresh, springtime look.
The office-supply area and front office were also expanded, giving them more of a retail appearance. "All those things you hear about wasted space--landscaping is wasted space, large aprons in front of the office is wasted space--that's not really what I see," Oxnard says. "There's an economic value to 'wasted space'--that is you get more customers faster and they're happy. We're very happy we did it."
Drive-Up Self Storage opened in March and was 70 percent occupied by early summer. Oxnard plans to use the same design for another drive-up storage slated to open next year.
While there has been an increase in female renters, Oxnard says it's not as dramatic as he imagined it would be. "Men also like the design," he says with a chuckle. "It's easy to drive into. It's easy to park and back up, and pull into the site with a trailer. The accessibility and the ease of use have been a big thing. When customers walk in, they mention how beautiful the facility is and they feel comfortable."
User-friendly, attractive facilities seem to be the future in self-storage design. One of the reasons is city planning and zoning boards don't like the stacked, cramped look that has dominated the self-storage industry for years. "Now a lot of us are building really good-looking facilities. We're evolving," Oxnard says. "We will evolve further into a full retail business. We'll have large parking lots and landscaping. We're going to have hours like a retail store."
Like Oxnard, more Landmark clients are requesting imaginative designs that include covered driveways, extensive landscaping and high-tech security systems. "A lot of people think price sales. It doesn't. It's amenities," Boothe says.
Not only is the self-storage design changing, so is its place in the community. Operators have discovered getting involved in the neighborhood is good for business. When Oxnard learned a local schoolteacher was battling cancer, he offered her a rent-free unit to store donated items for a rummage fund-raiser. Oxnard's generosity helped him make his mark in the area. "We got known very quickly. It was very good publicity for us. It helped us a great deal and it helped the lady a great deal," he says.
Drive-Up Self Storage also has an electronic reader board where nonprofit organizations can display information free of charge. "If you operate a local business, a mom-and-pop operation, you need to be known as nice people and be nice to people," Oxnard says.