Over the last three years, it's been fascinating to watch and be part of the change to first the United Kingdom self-storage sector and now that of Europe. When our fit-out company stumbled across the self-storage industry in 1998, there were approximately 130 facilities in Europe, with the majority in the United Kingdom. The marketplace had taken 10 years to get to this lowly level. It was one of the best-kept secrets in the United Kingdom--the sector was serviced by only two fit-out contractors.
To us, it was like a breath of fresh air compared to our traditional business: building storage systems for an industry in which we had more than 1,000 competitors. We know all about competition and marketing--we thrive on it and live for it. We liked this new "mama and papa" industry so much we even decided to open our own self-storage warehouse. Not only was it a good investment, but it was a great experience that enabled us to give the best advice to our prospects. It is with this experience in mind that I offer a brief overview of the sales and marketing for this new pioneer marketplace.
American vs. European Markets
One of the largest contrasts between the American and European self-storage marketplace is customer awareness of the product. In the United States, self-storage is a well-known industry. (Los Angeles has more facilities than the whole of Europe, for example.) In Europe, it's as well recognized as "football" (soccer) is in the United States. Lack of product awareness is the biggest factor restraining growth.
We know the product is great. Most simple products always are. Our greatest mission is to raise the profile in the marketplace. An educated consumer base makes a vast difference when it comes to filling a self-storage facility. In the United States, an average-size new opening could expect to fill in the first six to 12 months. In Europe, you're doing OK if you hit the industry benchmark of 1,000 square feet of cumulative fill each month! Effective marketing and advertising are therefore of paramount importance to the European operator as big, early trading losses (during the first 18 to 24 months) are par for the course.
Competitive Marketing vs. Raising Market Awareness
The largest similarity between the two marketplaces--mature and pioneer--is the amount of business generated by a good drive-by location. No matter what anyone says, "location, location and location" are the three most important criteria for site selection, and even more so in Europe. If you've got a good location, 50 percent of your business should be ensured through the right signage and lighting; the other 50 percent is where the hard work and/or expense comes in.
In the United States, marketing efforts are generally focused on a facility's unique selling points, price and discounts, and convenience of location and service. In Europe, marketing is focused on explaining the concept, product and service, and educating the customer. It is, without doubt, the consumer who will become the best salesperson for the industry when he tells his friends about the great new product he's discovered!
Two Competitive Marketplaces
The United States and Europe are both competitive markets, with the difference being who the competitor is. U.S. operators compete against each other, while the European operator competes against lack of awareness. Both situations involve hard work. In most of Europe, having a good drive-by location and taking out a Yellow Pages ad will probably not provide your 1,000-square-foot fill in the early days--the operator needs to be entrepreneurial to guarantee success.
There are probably 20 or 30 cost-effective methods of localized marketing. The secret is discovering or inventing them--and not being too scared to try them all until you find the top 10 for your facility. To some, this may seem like hard work. To an entrepreneur, it's exciting, a challenge and part of navigating the uncharted waters. The point is this: Both the mature and pioneer markets require a lot of effort, but in different ways. It boils down to one marketplace being established and predictable and the other being bloody exciting. I know which one I prefer!
The Technology Revolution
The fax machine, the mobile phone, the Internet--each has changed the business world almost overnight, and life has gotten faster and faster. How did we ever achieve anything before the fax came along? The World Wide Web is the latest revolution and it's here to stay. I love change and progress--the launch of five new storage-related websites over the last 12 months confirms this. So you might be surprised to learn I think the latest revolution is only good for two things:
1. E-mail. It's fantastic. It's like the fax machine all over again but quicker and more convenient. I must send and receive about 50 e-mails a day now. As for the fax, it's going the same way as the telex machine.
2. The World Wide Web. This is great for finding stuff! If you have an idea of what you want but don't know where to get it, the web is the place to turn. I predict it will become the medium the European consumer will use to find storage or self-storage in the new marketplace. The web has arrived right on time to raise the profile, create the marketplace and educate the consumer base. At a fraction of the cost of traditional forms of marketing, it is the new global Yellow Pages in one continually updated edition with no border restrictions. It should account for 10 percent of your sales regardless of whether you're a pioneer. If it doesn't, your prospects are "surfing" right by. One final note: Is your web address painted on the side of your building? It should be.
Your marketing medium and approach will be tantamount to your self-storage success in European markets. Investigate and use it wisely.
In addition to being a director of the Self Storage Association of the United Kingdom and Europe, Andrew Donaldson is the chief executive and founder for Active Supply & Design (CDM) Ltd. of Cheshire, United Kingdom. He is also the founder of The Self Storage Sentinel newsletter, Rent-A-Space Limited (now a multisite operator) and selfstorage.uk.net. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.activesd.co.uk.