2009-11-04 / Front Page

Consumerism drives opening of more self-storage facilities

By Richard Foster
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Competition is stiff in the self-storage market with the opening of several new facilities this year in the county, including Space Mart Self Storage on Commonwealth Centre Parkway where John Poss is facility manager. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Competition is stiff in the self-storage market with the opening of several new facilities this year in the county, including Space Mart Self Storage on Commonwealth Centre Parkway where John Poss is facility manager. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer While many businesses are faltering in these tough economic times, at least one industry is continuing a slow but steady growth in Chesterfield County: self-storage facilities.

In the last two years, as the economy worsened, the number of self-storage businesses in Chesterfield grew from 31 to 35 facilities, a healthy 13 percent growth rate, according to Timothy J. Dietz, vice president of communications and government relations for the Alexandria-based National Self Storage Association. Nationally, the industry’s growth has remained more or less flat in the same period.

There are about 1,060 self-storage facilities across Virginia; Henrico and Hanover counties have about 30 and 25 self-storage facilities respectively.

“I would consider [Chesterfield] a very saturated market right here. I probably have four or five competitors within 10 miles,” says John Poss, facility manager for Space Mart Self Storage, which opened this year at 5300 Commonwealth Centre Parkway. That being said, “it’s a very healthy [business] environment” in the county, Poss says. The economic downturn “hasn’t hurt us. We haven’t felt a lot of the crunch that retail and some of the other industries have felt.” (Space Mart has nine locations in Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)

Some of that could be due to the recent mortgage and housing crisis. “With some of the way the housing market’s going, we have some tenants who are downsizing from a three-bedroom home to a one-bedroom apartment,” Poss says, and at least temporarily, they need somewhere to store their extra belongings.

Dietz says the self-storage industry is “relatively recession-resistant, but not recession-proof.” While he agrees that there seems to be an increased demand for storage recently, he says that self-storage is also related to the customer’s disposable income, and if potential customers can store their belongings at a friend’s or relative’s home, they may choose that instead when they are in dire economic straits.

However, the self-storage busi- ness has also become more specialized, and now offers more technological bells and whistles in order to draw a variety of customers.

“This industry started 40 years ago with barbed wire and a field, and now you have a standalone industry that is very sophisticated and in many ways is an American phenomenon,” says Dietz, noting that there are about 52,000 self-storage facilities in the United States but only about 10,000 in the rest of the world.

“The industry has matured over the years,” agrees Diane Piegza, spokesperson for Sovran Self Storage, which opened one of its Uncle Bob’s Self Storage facilities at 3830 North Bailey Bridge Road in Midlothian last month. Sovran operates 383 storage properties in 24 states.

Following an industry trend to appear more acceptable to residential neighbors, the new Uncle Bob’s in Midlothian looks more like an extended-stay hotel or an office park rather than the garage-like facilities of old. Among the packages it offers are storage spaces with the company’s own Dri-guard Plus climatecontrol and dehumidification process, which combats mold, mildew and corrosion.

The vast majority of business at the Uncle Bob’s chain is residential, “empty nesters who are maybe downsizing and don’t want to get rid of their stuff,” or people who need temporary or longer-term storage while they’re in between residences, Piegza says. Many choose the Dri-guard system (not to mention the facility’s individual door alarms) to safeguard artwork, fine furniture, family heirlooms or electronics.

At Space Mart Self Storage, customers can get climate-controlled facilities and coded 24- hour secure access to their belongings, which are protected by motion-controlled cameras, Poss says. Space Mart also offers free use of a 15-foot moving truck, as well as storage facilities with indoor access, reducing bugs, pollen and other pollutants that could dirty one’s belongings.

Storage units tend to range from the size of walk-in closets to rooms large enough to hold all the belongings in a four-bedroom home.

Like Uncle Bob’s, Space Mart’s customers are also mostly residential customers, however, commercial businesses are also a growing clientele for the self-storage industry. In recent years insurance companies, federal laws and industry regulations have called for stricter auditing and record-keeping procedures. Therefore Poss makes sales calls to local businesses such as medical and legal offices, offering secure record storage on Space Mart’s high-security third floor, accessible by an elevator with individual code entries, which tracks entrances and exits.

“That’s another thing that’s changed in the world of storage, my role as a facility manager,” Poss says. “It helps to go out there and market your facility.” For instance, as the Christmas shopping season nears, Poss is visiting with retail stores, offering his storage facilities for inventory overruns.

Nationally, Dietz says, about 70 to 85 percent of self-storage customers are residential. And those figures agree with the local business.

At Uncle Bob’s, “Probably 30 percent of our customers are commercial, and they range from record and document storage to landscapers and fencing companies and small contractors who keep their equipment in storage, rather than Joe the Plumber … keeping his stuff in the garage so that he and his wife can’t get their cars in, he rents a storage space,” Piegza says.

Space Mart hosts some Internet-based home businesses that use the storage space as warehouses to cut down on the overhead of office space, Poss says.

If nothing else, Chesterfield County offers plenty in the way of storage for residential and commercial customers, says Dietz. “You have a fair amount” for a suburban county, he adds.

Offering roughly 1.3 million square feet of storage space, the county’s self-storage facilities offer 4.63 square feet of storage per county citizen.

That’s not too far away from the national average. “Every man, woman and child in the country could have about 7 feet of storage space,” Dietz says. “If we could get under those roofs when it was raining, we’d all be dry.”

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