The Times reports on the booming self storage industry
November 2009 - Damian Whitworth from The Times reports on the growth of self storage amongst the 21st century urban developers.
Self-storage units: not just anonymous lock-ups
We all crave more room, but how do we get it and what do we do with it? Meet the new generation of self-storage converts, for whom the warehouse units they rent are anything but anonymous lock-ups. For the 21st-century urban dweller, these vast facilities are the place where past lives, present ambitions and future dreams collide
When Jessica Hynes lost her job with a major bank in Canary Wharf last year, she decided it was time for a change of scene. She headed off to the Alps to work as a ski rep and rented out her flat. She boxed up most of her possessions and locked them away at a storage unit in North London.
When she returned in the spring, she moved back into her Bayswater flat, but slept in what had been her boxroom, so the lodger could stay in her bedroom. One morning we go together to Henfield Self Storage near Brent Cross to take a look at her things. “Basically, I have been living out of a suitcase for a year. I have learnt to live with very little. You become unattached to stuff.”
On a recent visit to her sister in Colorado, Hynes calculated her sibling had more than 1,000 items of clothing and waged war on her closets. “I threw out anything with shoulder pads, anything with stripes... She was saying, ‘But I like that.’ She thanked me in the end.”
For all Hynes’s zeal for her new pared-down existence, there are drawbacks. Like not always having the right clothing. She attended a meeting with a headhunter a while ago wearing a leopard-skin jacket that “made me look like a high-class call girl”. She is making this trip to dig out some business suits.
When she unlocks her metal room with a cage roof – the warehouse is full of similar units – a lifetime is stacked up neatly inside. Aside from boxes of clothes, shoes and diaries, there is her collection of coins from colonial countries, fencing kit, a stack of golf clubs. “I was with a Scottish guy. He was a golfer. Once he went out of the window, so did the golf.”
She holds up a box of Christmas decorations: “I haven’t had a Christmas tree in ages.” She works her way deeper into the room. “When am I really going to look at pictures of when I was with my ex-husband? I should just chuck them.” She holds up a ball gown, one of several. “I am not going to any balls, I am not playing golf and I am not fencing.”
Hynes entered the world of storage because it made economic sense at this particular moment of her life. One month’s rent from her lodger pays her £640 annual storage fee. But after the recession is over, this well-travelled, dynamic, American-born woman will still be precisely the sort of person who has created an extraordinary boom in self-storage over the past decade. For this is a story about modern urbanites and their quest for more space. And how, once they find it, they discover how difficult it is to live without it.
The self-storage phenomenon began around Army bases in America after the Second World War. Soon the rest of the population caught on, and it has become so integral to the way Americans, that most transient of peoples, organise their lives, that there is now 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the country – enough to accommodate all Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder simultaneously.
Europe has been slower to follow the world’s market leader, but over the past decade Britain has started playing catch-up. Ten years ago, Safestore Self Storage, the market leader here, had 11 UK warehouses. Now it has 93 in Britain, which has 750 of Europe’s 1,200 facilities. Big Yellow Self Storage has 69 outlets.
One simple reason for this growth is that there are more and more of us, and we are living in smaller and smaller homes. In particular in London, where, “The real dynamic is the very small amount of space people have generally, while quite a lot have high disposable incomes,” says Steve Williams, CEO of Safestore. “The only thing they are short of is space and time. The room in Safestore, or any other storage company, becomes their extra room.” The average Safestore rental is 70sq ft (the average garage is 100sq ft). Such a unit costs between £20 and £40 a week, depending on location.
The recession may have reduced spending power, but over the longer term we have been buying more stuff than ever: cheap clothes, furniture, technology. In our leisure time, we indulge in hobbies, adventure sports that had not been dreamt of a generation ago, say, which require – or, at least, we convince ourselves they require – a dizzying array of gear.
Our parents kept their junk in the attic or the cellar, but increasingly these spaces have been converted into loft rooms, basement dens, extra bathrooms. But what to do with the displaced stuff? Even if we are able to cram all our possessions into a spare room, or pile it on top of the wardrobe, we don’t want to. For while we love to shop, we have, paradoxically, fallen out of love with homes full of what we buy. Minimalism is the credo of modern interior designers. And even if we can’t all live in a shrine to John Pawson, we lap up the less-is-more mantras of the de-cluttering gurus. The self-storage firms are thrilled: “De-cluttering has become really big, a real trend, a lifestyle thing. Why have a room in your home full of junk when you can rent one?” says Williams. Plenty of people have found this line persuasive.
For while we want our stuff out of sight, we are unable, or unwilling, to banish it from our lives. “Britain is a nation of hoarders, there’s no two ways about it,” Williams goes on. “Women with their clothes and shoes. Guys with their tools and their gizmos. There’s always that time when you think you’re going to need some grommet or other, so you keep it.” One Safestore customer has three 200sq ft units full of newspapers. Another has a unit full of Winston Churchill memorabilia.
We lead increasingly transitory lives. More of us are moving abroad for a while, as others arrive for indefinite sojourns. Record numbers of students have boosted the demand for short-term storage over the summer.
The way we form and end relationships has also fuelled the boom. People are marrying and cohabiting later, often after they have established independent domestic lives. When two people move in together, the contents of two flats also have to fuse. Storage units are full of furniture that doesn’t fit into the new home but cannot, or will not, be disposed of by the owners. And when relationships end and the booty is split, it will often spend a period in storage while domestic lives are rearranged. The rising divorce rate is good for the storage business.
Out of sight, out of mind
What is striking about users of self-storage facilities is that whatever their original motive, once they have locked their stuff away, they find it very difficult to remove it.
“I do wake up and think, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to get it out,’” says “Belinda”, a 35-year-old media executive who wants to remain anonymous. “In every other area of my life I am super-organised. I file my bank statements. I don’t know how I ended up in this position.”
She put her possessions in storage when she went to America to work for a year. When she returned, she rather liked her clutter-free flat. That was almost six years ago. “I have never even seen the inside of my storage unit.”
She says, drily, that she is holding on “for the future huge house that I am obviously going to live in when I move out of my two-bedroom flat to a family home in Notting Hill. There is some really beautiful furniture in there. So far I have paid thousands of pounds. It’s hideous, really embarrassing. My parents keep asking what has happened to stuff. I lie: ‘I’ve lent it to friends.’ I’m not going to say I have spent £5,500 to keep it in storage. They would just think that is a ridiculous financial arrangement, which of course it is.”
Williams says many of his customers are like that. He likens them to people who keep paying out direct debits for gym memberships even though they no longer go. Ending a storage contract is even harder, “because you need to put a day aside to go in and clear the stuff out. People just never get round to it.” That makes for good business.
Others are in and out of their units all the time. Many storage facilities are open 24 hours a day and have bright reception areas where visitors are greeted by staff under the gaze of CCTV cameras. One Safestore customer goes to a unit most days to play the piano, because his wife can’t stand the sound of it at home.
At another self-storage facility in Acton, West London, I meet the members of Somewhere Else, a fledgling band who are recording an album and plotting a series of gigs from inside their storage unit.
The Acton building contains 543 rooms over 5 floors. A first-time visitor quickly becomes disoriented walking along the network of brightly lit corridors containing identical steel boxes. It feels like a prison for inmates so forgotten their cell doors don’t even have peep holes.
Sam Bardens, his sister Tallulah, Pete Evans and Aaron Brown were dismayed by the cost of renting studio space in which to record their “mixture of dance, prog rock, metal and indie”. They were looking at paying £150 a day outside London for studio time. Instead, they pay £700 a month for 350sq feet here. They spent six months splitting the space into two rooms: a recording studio and a lounge, complete with curtained walls, a sofa, coffee maker, fridge and Xbox. They had help installing air conditioning and soundproofing. When the heavy door closes, it is like being in a tomb.
A hip-hop group and a jazz funk outfit have similar set-ups on the same corridor. “It’s like a little community,” says Evans. “I spend more time here than at home. I haven’t seen my mum for two and a half months. My social life is all here. Friends know where to find us.”
“It’s been an interesting journey – I never thought I would be spending so much time in one of these units,” says Sam, whose late father, Pete Bardens, was keyboard player with the prog-rock group Camel. One day Sam hopes to be touring with the band. “We’ll spend months in a small, stinking bus, much less luxurious than this. But I don’t think we are ever going to leave this place.”
Thirty-one per cent of Safestore’s customers are businesses, occupying 56 per cent of the space rented. For Matt Shorter, a 21st-century rag and bone man, the boundaries between his business and his life seem a little blurred.
Shorter set up Ecojunk, a house and office clearance company. He charges a little more than the average refuse collection company, but claims to lead the way in responsible rubbish disposable. During a morning with him, sifting through a couple of his units in Islington, North London, it is apparent that it is very hard for him to classify any object, however useless it might seem to anyone else, as trash. “Just because one person doesn’t want it, doesn’t mean it is rubbish. Eighty per cent of the stuff that is passed to us is reusable.”
His units are bulging with the detritus of people’s lives. Garden chairs, paintings, ancient air conditioning units, used fire extinguishers, stacks of data cartridges, old laptops, teetering towers of books, piles of envelopes. “People throw out perfectly good stuff,” he says.
He has a guy who comes in to pick through old computers for parts. Someone else does the same with hi-fi equipment. Power cables are sold for their scrap metal content at £1,000 a tonne. Old office phones sell surprisingly well, apparently, on eBay.
How much does he manage to recycle? He frowns. “We are on about 55 per cent. Even we throw too much away. You need a lot of time to find homes for stuff.”
He is “quite green, but I’m not obsessive about it”. Really? I wonder what his home is like. Is he a hoarder? “Absolutely not. My place is not quite minimalist but I have a harsh policy: if something is going to come in, something has got to leave. I live with my girlfriend and she is very good about it. Some people are fussy about things being new. A lot of our stuff is recycled. She wanted an exercise machine and a week later we cleared out a rock star’s house and he decided he only needed one exercise machine.”
Of course, he does have the advantage of renting 1,000sq ft of storage space. His battle to sort his units, even as he brings more junk in, must require enormous discipline, if just to avoid going insane. “It’s very easy for a day to disappear in a storage unit.”
New self-storage customers include casualties of the recession who are downsizing, or those deciding not to move to a bigger home right now. The state of the economy has slowed Safestore’s growth – the company has scaled back plans for new stores from between seven and ten a year to between four and six. However, Steve Williams believes that the slowdown in house building will only lead to greater demand for storage space in the long term. And with just one in eighty Britons using self-storage, compared to one in eight Americans, the branded companies such as Safestore and Big Yellow, see huge potential growth. As long as humans continue to accumulate possessions and hanker after more living space, the business model looks sound.
Back at Henfield Self Storage in Brent Cross, Jessica Hynes says that she will clear out her unit one day. When she signed the lease, “I was in ‘get it out’ mode, not ‘sort it out’. At some point I’ll leave London and I will have to deal with it – I am not going to move it across the ocean. It will be the bin or the charity shop.”
Right now, she is enjoying getting reacquainted with items she had forgotten she owned, including a dress she wore as an extra in a film with Kristin Scott Thomas: “The dress was the best thing in it.” She opens a large box of shoes. “Oh, I nearly bought some of these the other day,” she says, examining a pair of black boots. “I never knew I had them.” She reclaims about a dozen pairs of shoes, a small fraction of what is inside the unit, and leaves happy. “I was saying the other day I wish I had a pair of black bootie things – and suddenly I do. It’s very economic.”