By Rob Kaminski
“You’ve just got to find me cheaper boxes, Rob!” He was an old friend and a solid self-storage operator who always dealt with the ups and downs of his business with a confident calm. Today, however, he seemed near panic. “What’s going on?” I asked him over the phone. “Well, the wife and I were at Walmart and there they were—moving boxes! And you wouldn’t believe their prices! Why, they’re going to kill my retail business!” he almost moaned.
Today, it seems like everybody has decided to try selling packaging materials. Walmart, Home Depot, office-supply stores, heck, even pharmacy chains are dabbling in packaging. And hardware stores stock the same disk locks that was once reserved for self-storage businesses.
The bad news is most of them can afford to peg prices below those of the average self-storage business. The good news is storage operators can still outsell them. In fact, the industry has been doing it for quite a while now. The proof is retail vendors are experiencing increased sales to their customers, despite these new players. Here’s how you can outfox those big-box stores.
(With Apologies to Al Gore) A Convenient Truth
Self-storage operations have one advantage over big-box stores: a pre-qualified customer base. The other stores exist because they carry just about anything a customer could want. So the people walking in have the most diverse needs you can imagine. Your walk-ins are there to store or move stuff. Period.
Whether they intend to rent a unit, a truck or both, that’s their primary transaction. Of course, if it’s a unit, they’ll need a lock and you’ve got the right kind. They could waste gas shopping to save a couple of bucks, but if your price seems reasonable, you’re a lot more convenient. If their stuff needs to be packed, they’ll need packaging materials. Again, you’ve got exactly what they need right there and you’re more convenient.
But what about those big-box prices? Won’t your renters recall them? Maybe. Most likely not. People tend to have a rough idea of the cost of frequently bought items. Locks and packaging materials don’t fall into that category. Even if they recall Walmart’s price range, if your prices are close enough, you’re still more expedient. After all, if price were everything, there would be no convenience stores.
(With Apologies to David) Targeting Goliath
Once my phone friend realized he was worrying too much about losing customers to the big-box stores, I asked if he’d like to have them lose customers to him. Although Walmart may prominently display packaging materials or put them in an ad from time to time, compared to its other products, they are slow-movers. The same goes for Home Depot and all the other chains. The net result is few people who aren’t going to rent storage or a truck think of these stores when they need packaging.
Instead, they think they can get empties from supermarkets and such. But today, stores bale empty boxes for recycling. So imagine if each time they’ve passed your site, they saw fence banners and other signage trumpeting "We Sell Boxes." Or if when they Googled "boxes," "moving supplies" or "packaging materials," your location appeared at or near the top. Or if your past renters told them about you. Then you’d be taking business way from the big-box stores. Sweet.
The idea is to become your community’s big-box store. Here are a few steps you can take to make this happen.
- Outdoor signage: Ask your box supplier about fence banners, flags, pennants or anything that will catch the eyes of passing traffic. Bigger is better.
- Yellow Page ads: Though it’s not used as much today, if you’re paying for a Yellow Pages ad, look into simple additional listings under “moving supplies,” “moving boxes,” “boxes,” “packaging,” etc.
- Search engine optimization: Your Web-design company can explain how your website can be adjusted to attract more people looking for packaging supplies.
- Pay-per-click advertising: Though more expensive, in the right locale, this might be a traffic builder for you. Again, get guidance from the experts before making the investment.
- Mailers: If you’re regularly mailing to customers, include discount coupons for packaging that they can used or passed on to friends. A bit more ambitious? Send out packaging coupons to past customers.
- Community public relations: Churches often distribute food to the needy during holidays. Offer to supply boxes. Seek out other charities and fundraisers to help. That way you’ll connect with groups of people.
- Customer service: Big-box stores often can’t provide the kind of expert packing advice you can. Your supplier can give you in-store signage and employee-training materials to keep your staff at the top of their game.
- More customer service: Let your customers know about your full refund for unused boxes. It encourages them to buy more “just in case.” And make it your practice to help them get their purchase into their car.
Remember, shopping for packing and moving supplies where they rent a unit is a real convenience for your customers. Keep your prices competitive, and use your excellent sales skills to solve their packing needs.
When my friend and I last spoke about those big-box stores, he joked, “Who do you mean? Me?”
Rob Kaminski is vice president of Supply Side USA, a national distributor of packaging, moving and storage supplies for more than 50 years. He has helped self-storage owners improve their retail sales for more than 25 years. He has written numerous articles on the topic and speaks at industry tradeshows. For more information, call 800.305.6110; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.supplysideusa.com.