By Nancy Torres
When you think about Latin American self-storage customers, one size doesn’t fit all. Those from outside the area often perceive the region as a whole, when in reality, Latin America encompasses 21 distinct countries spread across the Caribbean as well as Central, North and South America.
While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that shared language equals shared values and behaviors, communication between people of different cultural backgrounds involves much more than overcoming the linguistic barrier. Hidden differences often cause a great deal of misunderstanding and friction.
This article examines some shared characteristics of Latin American self-storage customers and others that are more country-specific. Information was gathered through interviews with facility operators in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Panama. Understanding these similarities and differences can significantly impact a self-storage operator’s success in the region.
Throughout Latin America, the main users of self-storage are males between the ages of 36 and 55. The male-to-female ratio is about 60/40. These customers belong to the middle-upper or upper class, which limits the consumer base to about 40 percent of the population.
Customers live in the metropolitan areas, sometimes for their entire lives. They don’t like to move farther than 15 kilometers away from a large city. Industry statistics show that only 3 percent of self-storage customers live more than 10 kilometers away from their facility.
Most Latin American customers don’t know what self-storage is. In fact, there are about 10 different terms for the product in Spanish alone. But whatever self-storage is called, one thing is true: “Personalismo” (face-to-face interaction) is an important part of establishing and maintaining good customer relations. That said, there’s less openness in providing personal information, which is mainly given on a need-to-know basis.
Finally, in this region, it’s not impolite or unusual for customers to ask for discounts. They like to bargain. They also trust referrals from family and close friends more than any kind of advertising.
The amount of commercial vs. residential storage found in each country will vary. It often depends on how each storage facility came into existence. If it’s part of a moving company, residential tenants will be as high as 90 percent. If it started as part of a warehousing company, commercial tenants will be as high as 80 percent. Facilities that were conceived from the beginning as self-storage generally have a 55/45 commercial/residential mix.
Security is a major issue in Latin America. The sense of life’s unpredictability and the role of “destino” (fate) is imbued in many cultures. But in countries that have experienced or currently suffer from civilian unrest and natural disasters, you’ll notice they not only use the traditional surveillance equipment (CCTV, gates and door alarms) at storage facilities, they also have armed guards. Customers need proof that their belongings are fully protected. This is true in the Andean countries, most of Central America and Mexico.
Especially in South America, where the culture follows a more European model, emphasis is placed on aesthetics as a way to indicate one’s place in society. This extends to venues where customers shop. Therefore, those storage facilities that invest in curb appeal are more successful.
In some countries, such a Chile and Panama, there’s a general emphasis on “being” rather than “doing.” As a self-storage operator, you must consider offering personalized service. For example, you could provide a “bellboy” (for lack of a better term) to pick up and move customer goods for a nominal fee.
Similarly, because of this emphasis on not “doing,” sales of retail products such as boxes, tape, ropes, etc., are minimal in some countries. Some facilities don’t even offer them.
These cultural differences are only a few of the challenges facing self-storage operators who wish to run a business in Latin America. Understanding that the populace views each country as distinct is a critical factor of success.
Nancy Torres is the Latin America business-development director for Janus International, a global manufacturer of self-storage doors and partitioning systems, for which she cultivates business in the region. With eight locations throughout Europe, Mexico and the United States, Janus is slated to open a manufacturing facility in Brazil in 2015. For more information, e-mail [email protected]; visit www.janusintl.com.