Identifying and Building Your Market

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Demand for self-storage is not always predictable. For instance, here in Atlanta, along the Chattahoochee River, most of the homes suffered flood damage when Hurricane Ivan dumped heavy rains on Georgia. Floods are expected in the spring, not the fall, so homeowners were caught unprepared.

My house had been razed following the 1990 flood, so it was largely unaffected; but around us, neighbors have moved out, placing their furniture in storage until they renovate or demolish their homes and rebuild. Even homes not on the river are being torn down and replaced with larger ones, as our neighborhood—and its convenient location—has become a magnet for affluent families. I now wonder if I should invest in home improvement or sell to a builder buying up houses to be replaced with “McMansions.” In either case, I’ll need storage for my home furnishings.

I saw this happen in the case of my recently widowed neighbor, who placed an order for a condominium that would not be ready for at least six months. The buyer of her home wanted immediate ownership so he could take down the house and rebuild. So she placed most of her furniture in storage while renting an apartment. Even now that she has moved into the condo, she retains one storage unit to hold possessions her daughter will claim later. Condo and apartment owners are a dependable source of trade for storage facilities, and in our particular area, large condominium projects are springing up like mushrooms.

Foreseeable Storage

Most people have trouble letting go of their possessions, which is good for storage owners. Although an event like a flood cannot be predicted, in most cases, a demand for storage can be foreseen. Anywhere condos and apartments are being built, storage prospects will be present. Most of the time, self-storage is an event-driven business.

Any life-changing incident, such as divorce, members of the military being called to active duty, students going to college, strongly suggests a need for self-storage. Since 9/11, thousands of military families have been uprooted and required to seek other living accommodations, needing storage at military embarkation points. At the start and end of college semesters, students tend to place their school-year items in storage. In the event of divorce, one partner may place his possessions in storage until relocation to another residence.

Holidays also promote storage needs. Some people decorate lavishly for holidays but need a place to stash all those decorations when they are out of season. In Tallahassee, Fla., one decorator puts up 15 Christmas trees in her home each year and also keeps holiday decorations for her clients. She maintains an excellent relationship with her storage owner, who loves having what appears to be a permanent customer.

Many businesses are required to keep records for several years, and aside from space requirements, it is often a good idea to keep confidential files off site. Lawyer’s offices represent a perfect example of storage need, as their case files may accrue into thousands of folders that must be kept in the event they are later needed. This situation also holds true for accountants, doctors and many other professions.

Old age and death create a need for storage. Older couples who downsize their living quarters may not want to get rid of family antiques, records and art, yet their children or grandchildren may not to be ready to place them in their own homes. In one unusual case, three siblings who lost their parents took down the old family house and saved all the nonstandard lumber. They divided it into three equal piles and stored it. The facility owner believed it would probably remain there indefinitely.

In another case, a woman inherited a family home in Vermont but lived in California. She couldn’t leave her job, but also could not bear to lose the home, which had great sentimental value. She placed the home’s contents in storage and rented the house until she could claim it. Life events such as these create an endless list of occasions that warrant self-storage. A savvy storage owner recognizes these needs and is prepared to address them.

Passive Marketing

Marketing can be broken into two types: passive and active. The primary method of passive marketing is the Yellow Pages. Phone companies have identified our industry as highly competitive. They sell storage owners larger and larger ads in an ever increasing number of directories. But the fact is, as a property fills up, its Yellow Pages advertising becomes less effective. For this reason, many owners are decreasing the sizes of their ads.

Your Yellow Pages ad should state the location and advantages of your property and include a clear, accurate map. Don’t waste time trying to fool potential customers into thinking you have a better location than you do. If you claim to be on a popular intersection, you must actually be there, not two miles up the street.

The Internet offers the newest form of passive marketing. It is gaining popularity and rapidly replacing phone books as the preferred method of finding storage. Young people in transition of any kind are very familiar with the workings of the web and are quick to recognize a quality site and begin a dialogue with a property. Pictures of a facility and detailed pricing and availability are easily discovered. Many self-storage owners are using the Internet to great advantage for new rentals. A website can quickly reveal the benefits of climate control, location and services.

There are other passive ways to market your property, such as direct mail, newspapers and fliers. These should be used selectively, as they are often expensive and yield low results. An exception to this rule is newspaper ads in small towns. A small-town newspaper with relatively low circulation has a readership that pours over every inch of print. All local news and advertising becomes an item of discussion over the dinner table, at the barber shop and at the local diner.

Direct mail can be effective within a ZIP code, but it must be followed up at least monthly with reminders of services offered. One-shot direct mail is a complete waste of money. To be effective, mailings should offer some type of coupon or savings on rent.

Active Marketing

Active marketing involves a self-storage owner or manager directly contacting potential customers and engaging in activities that draw attention to a facility. Getting noticed is one of the best forms of marketing. For example, balloons, clowns and offers of refreshments or gifts can get a new property started on the right foot. Curb appeal and attractive landscaping are another must, along with a quality office and a clean, neat appearance. Owners who allow their property to get run down and dirty are sure to suffer declining occupancy.

Signage, which can change from week to week or every few minutes, is a good way to attract prospects. One property uses a flashing sign with the time and temperature along with a storage message. Two weeks before last Thanksgiving, it offered a free turkey to anyone renting a 10-by-15 unit. One car screeched its brakes and immediately turned into the property. The owner did not have turkeys on site, but made a deal with a local grocer to honor an $18 coupon. The grocer liked the idea, as it meant customers would likely do other shopping at the store. He sold the coupons to the facility for $15 each, realizing some of them would not be redeemed. The results of the promotion were a good relationship with the grocer and 22 rented units in a 10-day period.

Active marketing to local businesses, apartment complexes and real estate offices is a must, as they often don’t realize they need extra storage space. I recently drove by the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company and noticed it had boxes piled against some of the nicest windows of the building. I suggested to my facility manager that he contact the company’s purchasing agent. On the first call, he was rebuffed as presenting an unnecessary service. But on his second visit, an assistant buyer agreed to talk with him. The company rented three large spaces to start, then rented three more to store financial records.

Apartment managers are always a great source of leads, as their renters are often in need of storage. The key to contacting this group is to be brief and friendly, and offer a small gift. Eventually, you’ll also offer some kind of return via a coupon or business card. For example, if a potential customer presents you with a coupon or business card as proof of referral, present the complex manager with an additional incentive.

Another good resource for active marketing is moving companies. Many don’t have warehouse space and are looking to store boxes or crates on a short-term basis. Work out a deal: Offer to distribute a company’s business cards to storage customers in exchange for its storage business and referrals.

The most important thing to remember about active marketing is it must be continuous. Once you initiate a program, be consistent. Follow through with contacts, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate positive response. It takes time to build relationships. Since this form of marketing is relatively inexpensive and can be done by the manager, it should be ongoing even after a property has high occupancies. Circumstances change and competition comes on the scene, but a good marketing program will ensure you survive in spite of setbacks.

Dan Curtis is president of Atlanta-based Storage Consulting & Marketing, which provides feasibility and marketing studies to potential self-storage owners. Mr. Curtis is a frequent contributor to Inside Self-Storage as well as a speaker at numerous industry conferences. For more information, call 404.427.9559.

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