A brief history of its rise
The self-storage industry actually started, believe it or not, in a previous century (well OK – the 19th), when warehouses were constructed for business customers. The first identifiably contemporary self-storage units opened in 1964 in Odessa, Texas, US, with the name A-1 U-Store-It U-Lock-It U-Carry-the-Key. The above photo is of the actual first unit, now defunct.
Where there’s mess there’s money
Or, as the British say, where there’s muck there’s brass. In the very beginnings of self-storage, the demand came from business owners in the oil industry who needed somewhere to store their plant and machinery, plus smaller tools and work gear for expanding armies of workers. It was mostly seen as a temporary arrangement. Soon though, rapidly growing numbers of new consumers, enjoying the novelty of disposable incomes, started filling all their available spaces and more with objects like old beds and unwanted festival gifts.
Since those early days, the demand for a ‘temporary’ space has simply skyrocketed. In 2017 it has been estimated that the United States alone (which is where you will find 90 per cent of all self-storage worldwide) is home to approximately 54,000 self-storage facilities. Between them, they have an almost unimaginable 2.63 billion square feet of commercial storage.
Demand has been nudged by several factors, beginning historically with the unstoppable stockpiling of durable goods (fridges, beds, non-foods) by American consumers.
US consumer spending on durable goods increased by a factor of very nearly 20 between mid-1967 and mid-2017, filling household spaces almost unthinkingly. Like binge-eating or other habits, it’s so much easier to have more and more goods delivered when they’re just a mouse-click away.
The storage of goods had become a terrible burden for many middle-class families, especially in the west, where with the exception of some European countries, houses and flats generally do not come with basement or attic store spaces.
Uniquely in Europe, UK houses do not have to comply with minimum space requirements. Mental health problems continue to grow even today in these, the smallest new dwellings in Europe (including the old east). A report issued by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (UK) as far back as August 2009, stressed that many new UK houses do not have enough space for their occupants’ basic living needs, which included storage needs towards the bottom of the list.
Four D’s spell Disruption
Change being the one thing that’s constantly guaranteed in life, ‘disruption’ is a good umbrella term to cover the whole range of circumstances self-storers find themselves in. Storage units are a home, temporary perhaps, for the possessions of downsizers, whose children have gone off to university or moved out for good. Then there are the recently divorced, the deceased, and the dislocated. Dislocation covers those suddenly out of work, or between homes.
Storage facility business owners are not to be seen entirely as the grim reaper, however. More happily, business owners use the facilities not only for storage, but also as business venues. Facilities in London house gyms, musicians’ rehearsal spaces, martial artists’ practice rooms, novelists and film crews.
A growing need
As with so many cultural shifts, movements that begin in America are quickly taken up in Britain. The rest of Europe follows at some point later. Britain is host to very nearly half of all Europe’s self-storage sites. According to a survey carried out in August 2017, almost half of retired British people wouldn’t mind downsizing to smaller homes. As populations age in developed nations those numbers will grow, and so too will demand for storage space.
Even now, Britain’s self-storage customers are older than their American counterparts: 65 per cent of them are aged between 40 and 65. At the same time, separated and divorced people are doubly likely to be self-storage customers as are singles, underscoring the industry’s role as a dependable place for people’s possessions through life transitions.
It can only be a matter of time before the rest of Europe catches up with Britain as urbanisation, rising property prices and smaller living spaces push homeowners to find places for their belongings. At the moment of writing, Iceland, which has one Europe’s highest urbanisation rates, is behind only Britain and the Netherlands respectively in European rates of per capita self-storage space. Meanwhile, Asia’s rapid urbanisation and growth in e-commerce are driving self-storage demand in boom cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
Far from being a fad, self-storage is a growing factor of life and is here to stay.