Canadian Self-Storage: Developers Realize the Prize

Canadian storage markets are bursting at the seams as skyrocketing consumer demand drives the building of new facilities. Unit rates have steadily increased as Canadian developers discover a mother lode of gold in the industry.

Over the past 10 years, there has been dramatic self-storage growth in nearly every province. The larger more urban areas, of course, have recognized the lions share of this development. But even the Midwestern cities have experienced significant positive changes in their individual storage markets.

The western reaches of British Columbia were the first to embrace the business. Over the past decade, industry growth has been nothing but stellar. During the mid-90s, the average census for market penetration in the greater Vancouver area was approximately 1.7 square feet of storage per capita. The U.S. concept of off-premise rental storage echoed in Canada, but never as strongly as the current market penetration, pushing 3.2 square feet per capita. Across the continent, the greater Montreal metropolitan area has seen incredible growth just within the past five years to almost doubling all expectations.

Ontario and particularly the greater metropolitan Toronto markets have exploded over the past decade. Since 1997, market penetration at 1-square-foot per capita has increased to the present 2.5 square feet per capita. This growth is driven by new site construction or commercial buildings that have been retrofitted as conversions to self-storage.

Investment and development growth is not confined to the cities either. Suburban and rural Canadians, while slow at first, have come to heartily embrace the concept of self-storage. Suburbs that eight to 10 years ago may have had one or two storage facilities now have many new state-of-the-art sites competing for market share.

Farming the New Customer Crop

While initially slower to accept the self-storage concept than their U.S. neighbors, Canadian consumers not only fully grasp the concept but expect facilities to offer the latest amenities and conveniences. To attract this new crop of consumers, older, first-generation properties have to consider major improvements and offer more diverse products. The most common consumer-driven improvements are:

Increased security. Facilities need to install operating software, coded gate and unit alarm systems, and video surveillance for safekeeping the site and ensuring customers safety. Tenants now expect ongoing property protection, and security is a necessary sales tool for competing in the new frontier.

Appearance. Older facilities need sizable investment renewal programs for re-branding and repositioning of existing storage sites. Stores need to upgrade from an old, worn look to a new, fresh one to level the playing field in many markets. Consistency of appearance and presentation designed to compete with competitive new sites is resulting in a constant overall market upgrade.

Design. For many early sites, the original self-storage concept was to use the land short term in a profitable way until a more lucrative use presented itself. As these temporary buildings sprang up, design was not a major concern. In the developers mind, the buildings were not intended for extended use. Who knew, in the beginning, that the self-storage concept would become such a cash cow?

Better Design Leads to Increased Profit

Canadian developers now have their attention on better utilization of the space, building lots and the building envelope. Increasingly, the focus toward better and more cost-effective building design options has resulted in projects that are far more efficient on all levels. These contemporary designs incorporate customer preference and increased functionality.

The newest generation of facility offers many design features such as controlled access openings, automatic corridor lights, HVAC systems that adjust to the customer presence, and loading porticos to protect customers during inclement weather. Increased aisle widths result in less vehicular damage to buildings. The customer-friendly designs result in better return on investment over the long haul of ownership.

Good design also results in more efficient use of the lot and building and yields more rentable square feet of storage space. Design elements such as reducing dead-end corners or constructing efficient corridors that marry two buildings rather than a drive aisle all add up to properties that deliver more rentable square footage than the first-generation product.

Improved Quality

Developers in the Canadian self-storage industry have steadily recognized that higher quality materials, craftsmanship and design add very little extra cost on the front end. A low-maintenance project using superior design and materials actually increases profitability.

Quality panel and door systems result in less maintenance and repair and increase customers sense of security. Higher quality, 16-gauge structural load-bearing steel framing and sturdy 24-gauge paneling coated with highly reflective gloss finish protect the structure from the elements. These materials offer superior flexibility and corrosion-resistance, and provide buildings with maximum trouble-free longevity.

Staff Professionalism

The professionalism of a facilitys staff is absolutely the most critical of any property upgrade. Professional onsite management often is the factor between whether a customer rents with you or heads off into the sunset to the nearest competitor.

Over the past decade, software advancements help site staff to become real multifaceted managers, not simply clerks or caretakers. Employees can be trained to be active participants in the marketing, administration and merchandising of their sites. The advent of professional certification programs further frames this position as a career with real future growth potential.

Richard Leach with Richard Leach and Associates Inc., Brampton, Ontario, is a marketing consultant for Canadian Metal Manufacturing Inc., a manufacturer of turnkey self-storage systems. He may be reached at 905.456.9908.

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