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The Scottish Self-Storage Industry: Lessons to Be Learned From a New Operator

The Scottish self-storage market is young but burgeoning. One of its newest operators, Storage Vault, provides an overview of the local industry plus five lessons it learned during its first year in business.

February 8, 2017

7 Min Read
The Scottish Self-Storage Industry: Lessons to Be Learned From a New Operator

By Fraser Sutherland 

In 2013, people in Scotland didn’t know much about self-storage, and what they did know wasn’t exactly accurate. According to a survey conducted by the Self Storage Association (SSA), less than a third of Scots knew much about the product. The same number said they thought it would be overly expensive. Unbelievably, more than 60 percent thought a facility’s staff would have free, unrestricted access to their stored belongings.

Just three years later, among a flurry of commercial activity, the industry has finally started to gain traction. In its last survey, the SSA reported that almost half of all Scots are now aware of self-storage. That’s a dramatic improvement.

However, despite the countrywide progress, particular cities are racing ahead of others. In Glasgow—the country’s largest city—there’s just 0.74 square feet of storage per person. Compare that with the capital of Edinburgh, where there’s 0.97 square feet of storage per person. So, while general awareness and uptake are rising, the provision of storage services is still sporadic and inconsistent. 

Awareness and Marketing

Working in a young industry poses significant challenges and demands for self-storage operators, particularly when it comes to marketing. By necessity, a lot of the work is built around education and making our audience aware of what we offer. For example, hardly any business owners think about using a self-storage facility to hold excess stock. Even fewer consider using a storage unit in lieu of actual commercial premises. When people find out we have businesses wholly operated from our facility, their response is always the same: “Are you allowed to do that?”

In a market like ours, it’s not enough to make the public aware of your existence. It’s not just a matter of buying billboard space or running a paid search campaign and hoping people are already looking for your service—they aren’t. Instead, we dedicate a lot of time to attending conventions, writing blog posts, talking to existing customers and so on. It’s all about educating our audience and bringing them up to speed with what the modern industry is all about. We know success in the Scottish market means clearing away the fog around self-storage and showing people what’s actually available. 

Occupancy and Rental Rates

Another key concern in Scotland is facility occupancy, which has swung between extremes over the past few years. In 2013, average occupancy was 58 percent, falling to 54 percent the next year and then spiking to 73 percent in 2015. Compared to London (75 percent) and Yorkshire (73 percent), Scotland is performing relatively well, though it remains to be seen how the domestic market will fare over the next few years.

Occupancy is an incredibly complex metric influenced by a range of factors including competition, demand and store maturity. That makes it difficult to pin down specific causes for the country’s fluctuating rates. The historic disparity between Scottish occupancy and that of areas farther south is probably a combination of core influences, including the relative youth of the market, rapidly increasing competition and low, albeit improving, industry awareness.

The maturation of the Scottish industry is mirrored in the average rental rates. While Scotland is still a long way off the stratospheric prices of London (£29.28 per square foot), we’ve seen steady improvement over the past three years. In 2013, the Scottish average sat at £15.59, amongst the lowest in the United Kingdom. By 2015, that figure had risen to £18.29, exceeded by only London and regions in the south of England. 

Lessons Learned

We founded Storage Vault in 2015 with the goal of tapping into this burgeoning market. Drawing on a wealth of experience in commercial property, our team hit the ground running, opening our first facility within the year. With our first year behind us, we recently sat down to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned. We thought it would be helpful to pass them on to other companies eyeing up the Scottish market.

If you build it, they might not come. Especially in newer markets like ours, you can’t rely on there being a pre-existing demand that can support new business. A quick look at the search engine analytics shows what we’re dealing with: In Glasgow, a city of 600,000, approximately 300 people search for “self-storage” every month. Compare that with a similar sized city in the U.S.—say Las Vegas, population 620,000—and the number of people searching for self-storage is five times larger. If we want to acquire new customers, we’ve to go out and find them.

The market is different in each city. Our company is relatively new. We opened our first facility in Glasgow earlier this year and have three additional sites nearing completion. With our countrywide expansion aspirations, we quickly learned you can’t treat a country (even a very small one like Scotland) as one big market.

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The difference between the two largest cities—Glasgow and Edinburgh—is immense. For example, the supply per person in Edinburgh is double that in Glasgow, and that has a huge impact on the general awareness of our service. During our market research, we spoke to hundreds of people in both cities, and the difference was palpable. The awareness in Edinburgh was just that bit wider, and that means the demand is that bit greater.

Competition is increasing. As a new market, self-storage in Scotland lags behind the rest of the U.K. However, with more businesses entering every year and established ones ramping up their marketing, we predict that’s about to change—and fast. During my morning commute, I drive past three other facilities. Five years ago, I think I would have seen one. It’s not just anecdotal either. The statistics back it up.

Two years ago, there was 444,000 square feet of storage space available in Glasgow. Fast forward two years and that figure has jumped to almost 700,000 square feet total space. As the industry matures, it’ll be interesting to see whether demand or supply pulls ahead.

If you don’t innovate, you get left behind. Self-storage isn’t a complicated industry. You build a secure facility, allow customers to store their belongings and charge them for the service. With such a basic premise, it can be difficult to distinguish yourself from competitors. The companies that don’t innovate—the ones that keep selling the same old service the same old way—are at risk of being left behind. We’ve seen it happen in established markets, and I doubt the Scottish market is any different.

Finding new ways to sell our service is key to our long-term growth strategy. For example, we were one of the first Scottish storage companies to introduce a door-to-door moving and storage service. We haven’t really changed our core product, but we’re able to market it toward a very different audience.

People still buy from people. Space is space is space, right? A storage unit from us is exactly the same as a storage unit from one of the big chains, isn’t it? Well, no. There’s a lot more to a self-storage facility than just the empty space on sale. Security, access, location and cost all play a part in a customer’s buying decision.

There’s another factor that influences a customer’s buying decision, something we think is far more important than anything else: the people. From the receptionist on the front desk to the support staff behind the scenes, it’s a facility’s employees that really make a sale. Slick branding and good offers will get you so far, but it’s how your staff deals with customers that will nudge you over the line. 

The Future

The Scottish self-storage market is an exciting place to work. It’s finding its feet and evolving every single day. New businesses sit alongside established industry stalwarts, competing for a rapidly expanding customer base. It feels like the great leveler. Smaller facilities with excellent service are more than holding their own against international chains with colossal marketing budgets, and that’s nothing but a good thing.

At Storage Vault, we genuinely can’t wait to see what comes next. We hope to be there at the front of the industry, leading the way and bringing self-storage to a new market. 

Fraser Sutherland is the marketing manager of Storage Vault, Scotland’s newest self-storage operator. Since opening its first facility in Paisley, the company has quickly expanded, opening two new sites in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It draws on 15 years of experience in commercial property to deliver a safe, secure and easy self-storage service. For more information, e-mail [email protected], visit www.storagevault.com.

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