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Storage Around the World: Pioneers Shape the Industry, Region by Region

While certain aspects of self-storage vary from country to country, many of the challenges faced by operators, developers and investors are surprisingly similar. Here’s an overview of industry growth and operation in non-U.S. regions, and the pioneers who are paving the way for future development.

While certain aspects of self-storage vary from country to country, many of the challenges faced by operators, developers and investors are surprisingly similar. In nearly every region, one of the biggest obstacles to growth is capital to fund projects. Because the industry is so new in many areas and not entirely understood, few lenders are familiar with the product. If they entertain a project, they may view it as a high-risk investment.

In some countries, suitable land for new construction or existing buildings for conversion projects is hard to come by. Even when they’re found, developers often face stringent or non-existent building codes, as well as zoning issues and other trials that drag out the process for months, sometimes years.

Once a facility is built and opens for business, operators must then educate their customers about the benefits of storage. Fortunately, online marketing has become a great tool in this regard, enabling them to spread their message to a wide audience quickly.

Despite all these challenges, pioneers are forging ahead and shaping the industry on a global scale. Here’s a summary of growth and operation around the world.

AFRICA: Finding Funds and Land

Although the self-storage industry in Africa is still young, demand for the service is growing at a rapid pace, particularly in South Africa. Developers and operators are adding to the supply but face a number of obstacles to opening new properties. Chief among these is securing capital to fund new projects and expansions.

Since opening Giba Storage in 2011 in the KwaZulu-Natal province, Chris Harburn and his partners have struggled to find financing to support facility growth. Although the partners own the land, which is on a tract near a gravel-borrow pit, expansion has been slow due to a lack of money. “The banks in South Africa don’t provide funding for storage businesses, so we are just building ourselves using our own cash flow,” Harburn says. “We just keep building as the funds come in.”

Giba Storage began with just 56 units and now has more than 200. The goal is to reach 250 units in phase one, and then add more in phase two. “The market is showing steady growth. We are continually adding new units to our facility and the demand keeps growing steadily,” Harburn says.

Although Giba’s growth is ground-up construction, conversion is also becoming a viable option, as sites that are prime for new development are scarce. “Lately we see some multi-level storage-conversion projects underway, yet the majority is still garage-style new developments,” says Colleen Mansour, chief operating officer for XtraSpace Self Storage, which operates 18 facilities in South Africa.

Although expanding its storage footprint, the company is concentrating on “controlled growth,” with a focus on customer service as the brand’s differentiator. “One thing we have learned is not to lose sight of the fact that the customer wants ease and convenience,” Mansour says. But operators still face educating their would-be customers about the benefits of storage. “Creating awareness of our product offering is still a major issue,” she says.

One factor that has greatly helped the industry spread its message is the increase of the number of operators and facilities. “Self-storage in South Africa has seen significant growth in the last five years, with many new players entering the market,” Mansour says. “We expect this growth to continue over the next five years.”

Newcomer GreenCube Self-Storage has garnered notice, in part because of its earth-friendly characteristics. Opening in the Ottery area of Cape Town, South Africa, last June, the 303-unit facility is the first commercial building in Africa to use insulating concrete formwork in its construction. One of the benefits of this technique is the creation of even building temperatures year-round, helping to reduce the facility’s carbon footprint. GreenCube is also participating in initiatives like Harvest of Hope, an urban agriculture program, and has partnered with tree-planting group Greenpop.

ASIA: Space Challenges

Lack of space for personal and business storage is a driving factor for industry growth in Asia. To put it in perspective, Shanghai is far more populated per kilometer than New York City, says Luigi La Tona, executive director of the Self Storage Association Asia, which launched earlier this year to assist operators and industry suppliers in emerging markets along the Pacific Rim.

“The self-storage industry is still in its relative infancy in Asia compared to other more mature markets such as that of the United States. As such, the growth opportunity is tremendous. In Hong Kong, for example, self-storage companies really only ramped up business in the mid-2000s, and there is great room to grow,” La Tona says.

One of the biggest challenges for Asian operators is educating prospective customers on the fundamentals and value self-storage offers. Finding suitable land or existing properties for conversion is another task. “Education, awareness and land are revolving issues. Education and awareness for end users is always important, but also for governments, as the density, property prices and rising population are a real issue impeding livability in these dense cities,” La Tona says. “Freeing up or converting land for fundamental and important storage space will be important to future growth.”

A big part of that growth process has to do with operators’ ability to adapt to the ways consumers use space. In Japan, for instance, most residential customers rent storage for the usual reasons: during a life event or to reduce clutter. However, 20 percent of customers use storage as “an extra closet for their home,” says Stephen Spohn, president and representative director for Quraz, which is owned by Evergreen Real Estate Partners LLC and operates more than 45 facilities in 10 Japanese cities.

“This customer segment will often access the unit weekly or monthly, and often recycle stored property to and from a home on a seasonal or occasional basis,” Spohn says. “These customers may also often be hobbyists or collectors.”

Another key to attracting tenants is adopting technology. “More facilities are getting into the concept of automation and technology—both at the facility regarding security and entry methods as well as monitoring from one’s tablet, laptop or phone,” La Tona says.

Energy-saving technology is also finding its way into the industry as established facilities convert to long-term money-saving, eco-friendly measures and new facilities adopt them immediately, La Tona says. “These include LED lighting, building-management systems, and temperature-monitoring sensors.”

AUSTRALIA: Moving Up ‘Down Under’

The self-storage market in Australia and New Zealand is growing modestly, according to Sam Kennard, managing director at Kennards Self Storage, which operates more than 70 facilities in the region. “The economy has been patchy, and bank lending for new self-storage development has been tight. In addition, the economics of new development have been prohibitive in many areas making new development unbankable,” he says.

Land cost remains a major impediment to major construction, says Dallas Dogger, managing director of self-storage software vendor Centreforce Technology Group Pty. Ltd. “Good sites remain in short supply, the same for many countries.”

However, more banks are willing to fund good projects, enabling operators to continue to develop new facilities as opportunities arise. “In 2013, we opened six centers, and this year we will open four,” Kennard says.

CANADA: Conservative Growth

While Canada and the United States have a lot in common culturally and economically, their self-storage industries differ. “As a population we require significantly less square feet per person of population than the U.S. customer,” says Robert Madsen, director of the Canadian Self-Storage Association and president of U-Lock Mini Storage in British Columbia. “Also, our customers are fewer and much more fragmented, being that we have the population of California except in a country greater in size than the continental U.S. So despite having similarities and being a strong market, the reality is everything is a little more conservative in how much self-storage they need.”

Although there have been only a handful of newly built storage facilities and a few conversions added to the market in the last few years, Canada is enjoying conservative, positive growth with increases in physical occupancy rates and rental income, according to Madsen. “That said, change in the more developed city and suburban markets is apparent, as leads now come through websites and more modern means as opposed to the heavy past reliance on phone sales, traditional print marketing and Yellow Pages-type listings.”

Operators must also combat property taxes and other costs associated with running a self-storage operation. “We look for economies of scale, but we also continue to find ways to do things better and for good value,” Madsen says. “It’s not uncommon for us to continually look for better credit card transaction rates and other regular recurring expenses. We also continue to look for new innovations and trends in marketing and operations that can benefit our sites.”

EUROPE: Conversion Projects

While many regions of Europe have well-established self-storage markets, the industry is just beginning to percolate in some countries, such as Norway and Russia. The demand for the service is largely driven by the public, who’ve been exposed to self-storage through television and pop culture.

Fabian Emil Sobak, co-founder and owner of OK Minilager, which provides containerized self-storage at 30 facilities in 15 cities in Norway, says reality shows like “Storage Wars” and “Storage Hunters” have increased product awareness in his country. “The Norwegian market is still growing,” Sobak says. “Self-storage has been available in the capital, Oslo, for about 20 years. During the past five years, a number of facilities have been developed in smaller cities as well, which has accelerated the growth. Product awareness is increasing as well.”

Although there’s demand for the product, the cost and lack of available land for new builds has hindered growth. Fortunately, there are a slew of empty buildings ripe for conversion, as many large companies have relocated to the outskirts of the city. “In smaller cities, ground-up development is more common,” Sobak says. It’s these newer developments that have accelerated growth of the Norwegian self-storage market, he adds.

In Russia, the self-storage industry has been growing at a rapid pace since it was introduced in 2010, with most development centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Roughly 10 facilities open in the country each year, according to Shakko Hen, commercial director for Safe Box, which operates one facility in Moscow. “The largest problem for the self-storage industry in Moscow is not the demand, but the supply of suitable warehouses and grounds,” he says. “If there was a good and suitable supply of property in the city, the industry would have already doubled the number of stores it currently has.”

As in many other countries, conversions are the quickest way to enter the market. “Some developing companies convert their existing properties into self-storage facilities,” says Christopher Bond, director of Samosklad Self Storage, which operates three facilities in Moscow. “However, we have noticed that not many of existing properties in Moscow are best suited for a self-storage facility. Building from scratch is very time-consuming and costly, and can take anything up to two years.”

Despite the challenges, there’s still a many opportunities for patient investors, Bond says. “Our company is focused on strengthening its brand and opening 10 to 15 new facilities in the next five years.”

Although the self-storage industry first emerged in France in the 1990s, one operator still likens it to a “young” industry. “Our challenge is that everything is slow—slow economy, slow product-awareness increase, slow decision process from the banks,” says Philippe Peyrot, president of Annexx, which operates 13 locations in the country. “But it’s also our chance as a small company to have a smooth development in front of deep-pocket operators. Because as we say in France, ‘You can’t go faster than the music.’ Today, except in Paris, which is considered more mature, only 20 percent of the French know about the self-storage concept.”

SOUTH AMERICA: Blazing Trails

South America represents another self-storage market that’s beginning to take off, and Brazil is leading the way in terms of growth. U.S.-based operator Metro Storage LLC formed the wholly owned subsidiary Metro Storage International LLC in 2013, along with a self-storage operating platform in Brazil called MetroFit. The company opened its first of seven planned facilities in São Paulo in December 2013.

“We’re excited about this first step in our international expansion,” says Blair Nagel, CEO of Metro Storage. “Brazil provides some exceptional opportunities for growth in self-storage.”

Much like other burgeoning markets, South America is another in which self-storage is largely unknown. “One of the main challenges is consumer awareness, getting consumers used to the idea of self-storage,” said John Scheibe, founder and general manager of Go Self Storage Brazil. As such, taking care of customers with above-par customer service and providing a secure facility is an important aspect for operators, Scheibe says. “This is very important in Brazil, especially in cities where crime, including theft, is significantly higher than in many places across Asia, Europe or the U.S.”

From securing funding to finding suitable sites for construction or conversion, today’s industry pioneers are paving their own path to success. According to La Tona, “Self-storage is doing tremendous business all over the world!”

Reporting by Lindsay Crnkovich, a senior majoring in journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and an intern with Inside Self-Storage (ISS). Writing by ISS Editor Amy Campbell.

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