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Style and Substance: Designing Space for 3 Popular Self-Storage Profit Centers

Many of today’s self-storage businesses offer a variety of add-on products and services; but simply providing them isn’t enough. To be successful, you must craft these niches to have style as well as substance. Here’s how to design ancillary space for retail sales, wine storage and vehicle storage.

Once upon a time, self-storage operators were content to sell a few boxes or locks each month to augment their revenue. Little thought was given to displaying or selling these items. It was simply a “bonus” when a customer made a purchase. Offices were small, and the frills were kept to a minimum. The notion of implementing multiple profit centers was rare. Few operators considered adding space for other types of storage such as vehicle, wine or records, let alone a business center or a large retail store brimming with products.

Well, times have certainly changed. In its evolution toward becoming a retail-style business, self-storage now provides so much more than space. Renting units will always be a priority, but operators have recognized that providing complementary products and services can entice new customers and generate additional income.

“Driving ancillary revenue is a solid way to diversify one's ability to improve financial performance at a storage property, particularly one that's considered stable, where revenue growth tends to only come from increased rates,” says Scott McLaughlin, executive vice president of Sentry Self Storage Management, which owns or manages 23 facilities in five states. “Certain profit centers do more than add conveniences to a storage property. Some, for example, drive new traffic to the location, who in turn may end up needing the location's primary self-storage services at some point.”

Yet, it isn’t enough to simply provide these fresh amenities. Your offerings must be well-designed to have style as well as substance. Consider the following advice for three of the most popular profit centers in this industry—retail sales, wine storage and vehicle storage.

Remarkable Retail Space

One of the best profit centers for self-storage is a retail store that provides moving and packing supplies. You’ll supply needed products to your new and existing tenants, but the service can also attract buyers who aren’t renters.

“The majority of storage clientele are not professional movers. There are bound to be items forgotten or needed during the course of move-in or move-out,” says David Meinecke, vice president of Jordan Architects, an architectural firm specializing in self-storage design. “One of the most common arguments against self-storage we hear from jurisdictions is there’s no retail sales-tax generation. While packing and movie supplies won’t break any sales-tax records, it does help address this argument.”

If you’re building a new site or expanding the office of an existing one, consider how you can make the space more attractive. This might include brightly colored walls, big windows and soft lighting. “We like to have high ceilings in the office and retail area with lots of glass to filter in natural light,” Meinecke says.

You can also toss out old ideas on how a self-storage office should look. Many operators are experimenting with a minimalist approach that includes customer-service podiums or high-top tables and chairs. This creates an open concept and leaves more room for product displays. Meinecke suggests creating at least 12 feet of open space from the entry. “A tight, crammed area is the antithesis of a retail-minded approach,” he says.

But just because there’s more space doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be displaying more product. When it comes to retail, the key is to keep it orderly. “Remember that people are coming in to buy not only self-storage, but space and freedom from whatever cluttered environment they’re coming from. Offering a clean, open, uncluttered office will remind them of what they are looking for,” says David Allan, vice president of development and acquisition for Apple Self Storage, which operates 31 facilities in Canada.

Some customers want to touch retail items, so creating areas that are conducive to this is a must, McLaughlin says. “Wall-slat material and free-standing displays are a good way to maximize what can be put on display for customers. Sometimes they're not sure what all they need to ensure their packing experience is thorough and safely done until they see it.”

While your instinct might be to showcase every possible product, it’s better to be selective about the items you stock and showcase. “Don’t go overboard with inventory. Understand what people usually buy and don’t try to fit as much product in your office as possible. It’ll just look cluttered and unwelcoming,” Allan says. “Stock what turns over rapidly and, if it isn’t selling, get rid of it! Don’t keep it there just to keep the shelves full.”

Consider using signage to make an impact. “The architecture at the office is used to frame the entry and present a clean, retail-oriented environment. Color and signage are two crucial elements in this approach,” Meinecke says. “Creative signage gives a personal signature that can help warm up the office atmosphere. Bright and inviting colors appeal greatly to customers and gives the facility a high-end feel.”

Facilities with smaller offices can still make a great impression with their retail space. In addition to using slat walls and smaller, organized product fixtures, consider an alternative spot. “Transform a unit near the office into a retail-display area where you can take customers to not only visualize the size of their potential unit, but they can also see how boxes can and should be stacked,” McLaughlin says.

An Appealing Wine Area

To excel with wine storage, you need the right demographic, plus specific operating and security measures. For example, the service requires quality equipment that’ll guarantee the proper climate, generally 55 degrees and a relative humidity of about 65 percent. The storage area must have a properly insulated perimeter to prevent air movement and condensation, and a system to monitor temperature and moisture.

Tri-Village Self Storage in Columbus, Ohio, relies on redundant HVAC systems and airlocks to maintain this balance for its 3,000-square-foot wine-storage area. “With an airlock, you eliminate temperature and humidity swings during loading time,” says Joseph P. Beatty Jr., vice president of real estate for the company, which operates five additional locations in Ohio.

The Tri-Village wine-storage area boasts 167 units in varying sizes that can accommodate eight cases up to 350. It’s on the cellar level and requires fingerprint recognition to enter. The wine-storage system is in a high-gloss white finish, showing off the cleanliness of the area, says Beatty, who advises operators opt for luxury vinyl-tile flooring over ceramic or concrete to minimize shattered bottles when dropped. An acoustic-tile ceiling system and piped-in music add to the area’s appeal.

The facility also features a wine-tasting club room with two big-screen TVs, and a stereo with surround-sound speakers and Bluetooth capability. “There are three comfortable seating areas, ample counter and cabinet space, and two wine coolers to keep the wines brought up for the party at the right temperature,” Beatty says. “Silverware, wine glasses and china are available for use. Complimentary coffee and water are available.”

Keeping the wine-storage area and tasting room separate is preferred. “If not, you’re defeating the purpose of creating a stable temperature, as the cheapest way to heat any area is inviting people into it.” Another important factor is redundancy and auditability. “If you have priceless items stored, you should be able to look back and see if there have been any variations in conditions, as well as track who has accessed the area,” Beatty adds.

Vital Space for Vehicles

Vehicle storage comes in many forms. The most basic is simple parking on vacant land, which might be paved or left as dirt or gravel. “This is a simple way to generate income on land where you expect to build future phases of your self-storage facility,” says Steve Hajewski, marketing manager for self-storage building manufacturer Trachte Building Systems. “This is suitable for nearly any vehicle type, depending on the size of the space and driveways that you wish to offer.”

Those who want to deliver a higher level of service—and charge more rent—can consider canopy or three-sided storage. The final option is fully enclosed units with upgraded amenities, which can fetch a pretty price.

“These units need a door tall enough for the vehicle types that you’re targeting,” Hajewski says. “Roll-up doors up to 12 feet tall can fit most ‘travel trailer’ campers, which are towed by a bumper-mounted hitch, and some smaller RVs. Larger motorhomes require a 14-foot-tall door, while fifth-wheel trailers need units ranging from 12 to 20 feet wide and 30 to 50 feet long.”

It isn’t just the storage area you need to consider. These big toys impact a host of other design elements. Hajewski offers this advice:

  • The entry keypad should be positioned so the tail end of the vehicle isn’t hanging into the street as the driver attempts to enter his access code.
  • Drive aisles need enough room to accommodate large vehicles and trailers, especially around corners.
  • Install bollards on all building corners in traffic areas, and use them to protect your gate and keypads, door jambs, etc. Bollards should be 6- or 8-inch in diameter, sunk 3 to 4 feet underground, and set and filled with concrete.
  • If you’re building a new site, determine if you’ll need power or cameras in remote areas of the property. “It’s easier to install underground conduit for future phases as you wrap up grading,” Hajewski says.

If you have the space and inclination to enhance your vehicle-storage area, consider providing power by adding an isolated 20-amp circuit in each unit. “If they blow their circuit, they only affect themselves, and if they are abusing it, you can control it directly,” says Hajewski, adding that large campers and RVs are designed to run on 30- or 50-amp service. “You want to be clear that you’re not running a campground, just providing enough power to run a battery charger and some accessories.”

Other design elements to consider include a wash bay or dump station. “If you plan to add this, consider the location of the typical connections on a camper to allow enough space,” Hajewski advises. “The black and grey water tanks on a travel trailer normally empty from the driver’s side, rear of the trailer.”

Business Basics

If you’re looking to add one of these profit centers to your storage business, first research your market to ensure it’s needed. Seek other operators who’ve already paved the way for ideas and advice. “Visit their stores. Ask questions. Share your plans, and don’t be shy to ask where they see problems and opportunity,” says Steve Levack, owner of Stow-It Self Storage, which operates two facilities in Ontario, Canada.

Keep in mind that your new offering will likely increase staff workload, so discuss your plans with your team. “It’s important to get the feedback of those in the store as to how changes will affect their day, movements of the customer and perception of the operation in the community,” Levack says.

“If a profit center creates a burden on your unit-leasing staff, then make sure you can staff appropriately to accommodate,” McLaughlin says. “The last thing you want is a good idea for generating some additional revenue that ends up costing you customers within your primary business by way of longer wait times for service or calls that go unanswered because an associate was busy with a profit center customer.”

Renting units will always be your bread and butter, but it never hurts to add some jelly on top. “By diversifying, you give customers more reason to come to your site,” Levack says. “This allows you to build those relationships so that when storage is needed, the customer naturally comes to you.”

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