Despite what “Star Trek” may have led you to believe, space is not the final frontier—at least not for forward-thinking storage operators.
In fact, space, and the selling of it, is only the beginning of this journey. As the storage industry matures, it’s certain to outgrow today’s familiar footprints just like a baby outgrows booties.
The Future of Storage
To help guide self-storage into the future, Boston’s Northeastern University challenged its 2009 architecture grad students to go where few architects have gone before—inside storage facilities. The Storage Facilitator decided to look into the students’ findings to offer storage owners and operators some fresh ideas.
“We went to visit a number of sites, and it was really eye-opening for the students because it’s not a building type we typically talk about in architecture school,” said Amanda Lawrence, the assistant professor of architecture who supervised the thesis project.
Their mission: Chart the history of self-storage, analyze its business models, define best practices, and then think outside the storage unit for innovative ways to add value through partnerships. To read the entire thesis, visit the Northeastern website.
“The studies our students did were about creating hybrid building types that included self-storage and something else,” said George Thrush, director of Northeastern’s architecture school. “The natural habitat for self-storage is very low-cost real estate near highways. If we just talk about the stand-alone self-storage facilities in their native habitat, there’s probably not a lot of reason for them to change, unless there is some other way to make money by attaching them to another business type.”
Fortunately, the industry grew up on hybridization, whether through combining climate- and non-climate-controlled storage units or incorporating makeshift stores to sell boxes and packing supplies. Some storage facilities even are hybrid attachments themselves—to gas stations, bars and other retail businesses.
Storage and Starbucks?
While the students stopped short of redesigning storage facilities in the image of Frank Lloyd Wright or I.M. Pei, they were decidedly bullish on combining facilities with high-traffic locations such as Starbucks stores.
“Hybrid buildings may have greater curb appeal by mixing in ground-floor retail with storage above. That’s how they did parking garages 100 years ago,” Thrush said. “The building looked reasonable as a neighbor because it’s about the right size and architectural quality on the outside, and the fact that it’s all parking didn’t really bother anybody.”
Some budding architects took the opposite approach, focusing on where storage needs are most pressing.
“One student designed a student dormitory that served as your self-storage unit. Because of the transient nature of student life, you could design a building frame that could meet both your living and storage needs,” Lawrence said. “Another student suggested using cargo containers where one end would plug into the building frame and serve as dorm storage.”
They also suggested configuring units to accommodate musicians, painters, sculptors and other creative types, as some facilities do today. “Maybe it can be space where you actually spend a little time beyond just putting something in or taking something out,” Lawrence said.
As for those operators who want to add a dash of Michael Graves to their facilities, Lawrence offers this money-saving suggestion: “The best way to get free architectural labor is to sponsor a competition. Call it ‘Design self-storage for the 21st century.’”
The UPS Option
One retailer that has been actively seeking hybrid opportunities in self-storage is The UPS Store. In addition to teaming up with hotels, convention centers, universities and military installations, the shipping giant’s “Store-Within-a-Store” program has been collaborating with self-storage operators since 1997.
“We worked with some as they were building their facility, and that’s an excellent model,” said Chris Adkins, vice president of franchise development for The UPS Store. “They then own two businesses that we believe are quite complementary of each other.”
While new construction helps ensure that The UPS Store will have the space it needs for mailboxes, printing, packing, shipping and notary services, Adkins said retrofits also are welcome.
“If they have the space, we lower the franchise fee, and if we can use and approve existing furniture and fixtures and get separate exterior signage and interior separation so they look like two different places within the office, it’s not bad,” he said.
Location is the key, of course. Adkins said the ideal hybrid setting is near high-traffic retail areas rather than rural or industrial locales. That said, facilities where tenants such as sales representatives and technicians store and ship their products are a natural fit.
The UPS Store prefers to work with independent storage owners rather than national storage chains, Adkins said.
“We do help drive the traffic,” he said, “but our obligation to the franchise owner is to put them in the position where they can be successful. That depends in part on the revenue that the independent self-storage owner is driving with their own organization. For folks who are in high-traffic, high-visibility areas, especially in smaller markets, it’s a great opportunity to enhance their revenue stream as well as become a UPS Store franchisee.”