How important is a clean and inviting appearance to the success of a self-storage facility?
A new academic study of the psychological effects of filth finds that disgust quickly translates into unethical, selfish behavior, while cleanliness really does lead to godliness—at least in our interactions with others.
Karen Winterich, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues at Arizona State University and Rice University ran 600 male and female participants through three randomized experiments designed to gross them out.
In one, they were asked to evaluate such consumer products as antidiarrheal medicines, diapers, feminine pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products. In a second, they were instructed to write essays about their most disgusting memory. And in a third, they were subjected to a screening of actor Ewan McGregor’s stomach-turning toilet-diving scene from the gritty 1996 film “Trainspotting.”
Once the participants were sufficiently disgusted, they were given tests to measure their willingness to lie, cheat and steal for financial gain. It turns out disgust makes us much more willing to bend the rules in our favor.
“The evolutionary aspect of disgust goes back to self-protection as a survival mechanism against rotten or poisonous food. When you feel that, your physical and psychological reaction is to withdraw,” Winterich said. “Even though disgust may not have that same life-threatening consequence anymore, it’s still all about protecting the self. And when we protect the self, we care less about social norms and the consequences for other people.”
What’s the antidote? The researchers found that when they asked their disgusted test subjects to evaluate such cleansing products as disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes, their disgust-induced selfishness magically dissolved.
“The cleansing aspect kind of wipes out this physical need to withdraw because it’s clean,” Winterich said. “Usually, we’re not really aware of just how disgusted we might feel and how it impacted our behavior. But because emotion doesn’t last that long, once we encounter the cleanliness, the disgust goes away without us even realizing it.”
Would tenants store their stuff at your facility?
Bill Cohen is CEO of New York City, NY-based Andover Properties, which operates the Storage King USA self-storage brand. Cohen doesn’t need an academic study to convince him of the value of cleanliness.
“It’s like walking into a restaurant: Would you eat there if it’s dirty?” he said. “Cleanliness is very cogent to running any kind of business, except maybe garbage collection.”
Each of his managers is required to complete daily, weekly and monthly cleaning checklists toward one goal: “As an owner, when I walk in, I want to feel that this is a place I would store in.”
He’s equally aware of his clientele.
“Statistically, 65 percent of our customers are women, who tend to be more concerned about cleanliness than men,” Cohen said.
Andy Kelly, founder and principal of Sierra Self Storage Consulting in Tucson, AZ, agrees.
“For women, it’s night and day,” he said. “If she doesn’t feel safe, it’s not neat and clean, and she’s looking to store $10,000 worth of furniture in this place, she’ll walk right out the door.”
A turn-off for workers
An unkempt facility also can take a heavy toll on employees.
“It de-incentivizes employees to do a good job because they are dealing with either an owner or management company that doesn’t care about them or their customers,” Cohen said. “I think it detracts from morale when employees have to use bathroom facilities that are not well-kept or their office is shabby. It’s just a downer.”
For Kelly, there’s no clearer sign that something’s wrong at a storage facility.
“If I see dirty bathrooms in what had been a tight-run ship, that’s usually the start of a downward spiral,” he said. “If I see that when I walk in, I’ll say, ‘OK, let’s count the cash drawer,’ and if that balances, I’ll look into the petty cash. It’s generally a massive sign that you’ve got a problem.”
Sometimes it points to discord between the owner and manager, sometimes between the manager and the maintenance crew, and sometimes both. But if customer appeal is slipping inside and out, it’s also going to make it more difficult to compete for high-quality managers in today’s market.
“[Occupancy] rates are starting to skyrocket, so if you’re not going to pay them well, your competitor is going to,” Kelly said. “The facilities that have great curb appeal are going to attract the best people.”