These are certainly wonderful times for the self-storage business. In my 30 years in the industry, I have never seen better in terms of rates, occupancies, and the overall demand and supply relationship with supply outpacing demand in most of our markets and locations. Obviously, as you look at public company results, we are not alone in that assessment and the rising tide is floating all boats.
The changes in the industry over time have been well documented and written about, with long rows of single-story buildings and resident managers in the rear view mirror. Today’s industry has come so very far with technology, security, and multistory buildings of three stories. Now, with rising land costs, we see four- to six-story buildings as a permanent part of the industry future in mature metro markets.
These changes have been parallel with a completely changed landscape in marketing, with Internet and mobile search dominating the method in which customers find self-storage space in markets.
However, as much as the business has changed, there are some aspects that have changed little, if at all, in my experience. The customer need for storage is basically the same as it has been since industry inception. Be it household formation, death, divorce, job promotion or loss, these have been constants over the last three decades. Regardless of the reason, many, if not most, of our customers are going through some sort of dislocation—positive or negative—in which their need for storage arises.
This basic truth highlights one thing that has changed very little over time: the importance of the store manager or store management team in the sales and service process in the customer experience. In most retail businesses, the front-line employee is not nearly as important to the transaction or buying decision as in self-storage. This, in my view, is due largely to the fact that most retail transactions involve decisions in which the customer is very knowledgeable of the product. Whether buying clothing, shoes, or going to a restaurant, customer preference and knowledge is well formed, and advise from the service provider is either not needed or a very low priority.
However, with self-storage, the customer has either never used it or has used it very infrequently. It is the low customer knowledge coupled with the dislocation that is causing the need to make an empathetic, friendly, and knowledgeable employee critical to the customer. This remains just as important today as it has been over these last decades.
This highlights the continuing need to hire the right people, and then train, support, and compensate them well. All too often in the industry we seem to fall far short of the mark in this regard. With the pressures of rates of return and investor expectations, the most common shortcut is to remove or reduce pay and benefits, training, while increasing the scope of the district manager’s responsibilities, therefore reducing store level support.
We see all too frequently that operators acknowledge the importance of the front-line employees, but the actions taken tend to remove rather than increase the investment in these people. These employees are the most important one we have at West Coast and in the industry, which is why we view it as critical to innovate and invest in their continued training and satisfaction.
While we certainly don’t have all the answers, we work to continue to improve pay and benefits, training, and employee satisfaction. Moreover, we have internal company metrics to measure our performance in all of these areas. We believe the energy and effort expended in this area yields a well-trained and motivated team that’s eager to help, anticipate, and solve customer problems as well as sell the right solutions. We urge all operators to not lose sight of this and continue to increase investments in your front-line team in spite of the rapid industry change and pressure surrounding all aspects of the business.
This is a great business and it solves a real consumer need. We are proud to be a part of the industry and the wonderful changes that have happened over the years by so many committed professionals and companies. Along with you, we are committed to continue to improve this industry in the years to come.