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Operating Self-Storage in a Crisis: Overcoming Challenges During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Operating Self-Storage in a Crisis: Overcoming Challenges During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Self-storage operators who are keeping their sites open during the coronavirus pandemic are facing many business challenges. Follow these strategies from an industry expert and veteran to better navigate the crisis.

Over my many years in the self-storage industry, I’ve faced floods, fires, earthquakes, power outages, tornadoes, lightning strikes, hurricanes and even a tsunami, all of which impacted facilities I managed. Based on those experiences, I know we should all have a plan for emergencies. However, it’s also critical to have strategies in place that allow us to maintain operation during times of crisis, such as this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

At the time of this writing, there isn’t a federal stay-in-place order, but nearly every U.S. state has enacted one and declared a state of emergency. As research for this article, I called self-storage facilities in COVID-19 hot spots. All 10 sites I contacted were open for business, even in Detroit, New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. I also learned that some operators in New Mexico have been warned by local police that they can’t open.

Self-storage is still considered an “essential business” in many areas, and operators must address a variety of business issues. If you plan to stay open during this crisis, consider the following guidance to overcome common challenges.

Establish a Continuity Plan

If you don’t already have one, you need to create a business-continuity plan to ensure your company can function at a high level even in the worst scenario. It should outline steps you’re taking now and obstacles you need to overcome. Below are important questions to answer:

  • Are you able to keep the business open with your current staff? As an industry, we’ve hired many older people, who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Can you operate with fewer employees?
  • Can a customer rent a unit at your property without ever interacting with an employee? As an industry, we’ve been trying to become more reliant on technology. Customers should be able to rent directly from your website or a kiosk without ever entering your management office.
  • How can you streamline the move-in process? For example, if a customer purchases a lock during the online rental process, you could simply leave it inside the space for him.

To successfully function during this crisis, you need to have a continuity plan in place and work to resolve any issues that prevent you from minimizing interaction with customers.

Keep It Clean!

There are several things you should be diligent about during this coronavirus outbreak. One of the most important is cleaning. If your office is open to customers, sanitize the countertops, point-of-sale keypads and bathrooms after each person leaves. Also, clean the following several times daily:

  • Gate keypads
  • Doorknobs
  • Kiosks
  • Pushcarts and dollies
  • Elevator buttons (inside and out)
  • Water-cooler and refrigerator handles
  • Coffee machines
  • Office pens
  • Keyboards or tablets
  • Stair railings

Also, offer hand sanitizer in areas where customers may touch surfaces such as carts, keypads, kiosks, etc.

Embrace Communication, Caution and Compassion

Everyone is facing this health crisis together, so be transparent about what your business is going through. Customers can empathize with your situation if you communicate with them properly. For instance, let tenants know the variety of ways they can make a payment without having to come into the office, which will help protect them as well as your staff.

Now’s the time to practice leniency, so consider forgiving late fees. Auctions, whether online or in-person, should be delayed for the next 90 days. Cancel any upcoming rate increases for at least the next 60 days. This may require you to turn off the rate-management function in your management software. It might sound crazy, but these are unprecedented times!

Be Flexible With Staff

With the country slowly moving toward total lockdown, you’ll need to be flexible with your employees. Some may have to leave unexpectedly if their child’s daycare or school closes. Try to be as understanding as possible when something comes up and have a contingency plan in case you suddenly become short-staffed.

These are challenging times, and we all need to do our part to endure them. Think about what you can do to help your self-storage business, customers and staff in the weeks and months to come. Following these simple operational strategies in this coronavirus crisis can relieve some stress and provide guidance on how to react.

Carol Mixon is the owner of SkilCheck Services Inc., which provides self-storage auditing, mystery shopping, development and operations consultation, and sales training. She’s managed more than 30 storage locations in the West and is a frequent speaker at industry tradeshows. She’s also written more than 100 articles for various publications and has served on state and national self-storage association boards. For more information, call 800.374.7545; e-mail [email protected]; visit

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