Through the keyhole: Self-storage units aren’t just for stashing junk

They're cheap and convenient, if not spacious – no wonder we're using self-storage units for more than just junk. Nick Harding uncovers a mini-boom in box rooms

Saturday 13 August 2011 00:00 BST

Habitat, Oddbins, Jane Norman, Thorntons, TJ Hughes. It's a depressing roll call of the recession – a list of dead or dying retail institutions gasping their last or disappeared for good from the British landscape. But hard economic times breed their own unique success stories.

A stroll down the average UK high street, with its profusion of charity shops, Cash Converters, and Poundland stores not only illustrates the parlous state of UK retail, it also confirms that in hard times the austerity industry cashes in. In among these anomalies is another business which has shown itself to be surprisingly resilient to the worst effects of the economic downturn: self storage.

After two decades of boom, those ubiquitous out-of-town space-saving centres have continued to show consistent growth through the worst of the downturn and are now even helping the economy in an unforeseen way. As businesses downscale and cut back, self storage facilities are becoming the base of choice for a new generation of lean, low-level pop-up entrepreneurs, attracted by flexibility, cheap rents and the convenience of a no-ties agreement. From mini-gyms to music academies and recycling centres, self storage units, with their adaptable functionality, are increasingly the blank canvasses on to which new businesses are painted.

Last month, the industry body, the Self Storage Association, reported a 5 per cent annual shift away from domestic customers towards business customers. Although small, it is a significant indicator.

Rodney Walker, the association's CEO, explains: "We're seeing a change in the proportion of business customers to private customers. This is part of the recessionary effect. If you are starting a business in today's landscape it makes sense to use a facility that is flexible and cheap. For start-ups, self storage has always been a potentially more cost-effective way of getting established."

In the UK, the self storage business has enjoyed investment for two decades and the garage-style lock-ups of old, epitomised by Arthur Daley in Minder, have now been replaced by clean, lit, secure units on staffed sites run by multi-national companies like Big Yellow and Shurgard. The UK now has as many self storage facilities as it does McDonald's restaurants – around 1,200, and the total self storage floor space in the UK adds up to 40 million sq ft.

In America, where the industry first started (offering servicemen storage space after the Second World War) self storage is integral to the way Americans organise their lives. The nation has over 2.3 billion sq ft of it. In the UK, domestic customers account for 65 per cent of all self storage use and the rise has been fuelled by a number of social phenomena.

Firstly, British houses are shrinking. According to statistics, new-builds have been steadily getting smaller over the past 30 years and many are unable to provide the storage space needed to accommodate owners' needs. The property crash and recession have meant that fewer people are moving and instead are converting spaces in their homes formerly used for storage. Spare rooms have become offices and attics have become bedrooms. And because we are ostensibly a nation of hoarders, the junk accumulated in them increasingly ends up in a unit on a nearby site.

Other factors, such as the rise in divorce rates, an increase in the number of people living alone and lower incomes during the recession, have driven more people to downsize or live in flats – which in turn means that increasingly we are looking for places to store our stuff.

Like the US, self storage is now becoming less of a temporary solution and more of a permanent satellite for many households. The average customer uses a unit for five years and friendships are built between people with neighbouring units.

One storage facility owner in Bristol reports that a customer uses her unit as a living room, complete with sofa, and invites her friends in for coffee. Others have reported clients using their units for illicit sexual liaisons. In an industry built on the proposition of flexibility and adaptation, it's perhaps no wonder then that self storage is undergoing an unanticipated evolution.

The cage fighters

Catherine and Philip Edge (aged 33 & 27) run Gods of War Mixed Martial Arts gym from Safestore in Reading

"Philip is a professional fighter and he teaches martial arts. At the beginning of 2009 we were renting space in a commercial gym. We had a team of fighters we were training but we discovered that the facilities in commercial gyms are not set up for the discipline Philip teaches – mixed martial arts (MMA). For that you need specific mats and we also wanted to have our own cage as, at competition level, MMA takes place in a cage. The overheads of starting a new business in our own premises would have been huge, around £3,000 a month, which we couldn't have afforded.

So in September 2009 we moved into an 880sq ft storage unit. Within six months we'd built up enough clients to rent the unit next door. We took down the partition wall and made it into a single unit. As the business grew, we rented more space. We now have 300 students registered with us and 70 to 80 active members at any one time. We recently moved again, to a bigger unit on the same site. It has the bonus of being near the manager's office, which has a shower our members can use.

The type of people we get here don't expect the spa-type treatment with robes and fluffy towels. Within the gym we have constructed a 15ft training cage, which is rare to find in martial arts gyms, let alone self storage facilities. We also have weights, cardio-vascular equipment, lockers and a studio area. It can get loud, especially when the music is on and there is a busy class, but our peak times are in the evening when the rest of the site is quiet so we don't disturb anyone.

The units around us are used by people storing household items. I was never interested in expensive, commercial gyms and a lot of our customers use us for the same reason. The setting doesn't matter to them; it's a novelty to begin with and when people come for the first time they often call and say they are lost on a self storage facility. It is a surprise when we explain we are actually in the site.

It may seem strange to have a gym in self storage but the advantages are obvious. We can create our own space and as the business grows and the cashflow increases we can add additional room. There are no business rates, there are no water or electricity bills. Everything is included in the one price so it is much easier to budget."

The charity start-up

Roy Wright is media director of Limbcare, a charity which helps amputees and distributes used prosthetic limbs from Access Self Storage in Addlestone, Surrey

"In 1998, I was working as a demolition engineer and was run over by a 36 ton crane. I was left with horrendous leg injuries and spent most of the following 11 years in casts, having a succession of operations to try and piece my shattered limb back together.

In 2009, I had just had my final operation. Life had almost returned to normal. I was riding a bike again, working, walking with the kids and swimming. On 5 July, I went into a supermarket to buy a chicken for Sunday dinner, leaned into the freezer and the floor under me gave way. The freezer had been leaking and the water had slowly made a hollow which I fell into. I suffered internal bleeding which led to gangrene. On 5 August, my leg was amputated. I was heartbroken. I had been through so many operations, I had bone inserted in the leg from both live and dead donors, it had a fortune of titanium implanted into it and I had just put a tattoo of my partner Jill on it.

When I woke from the amputation, I pulled back the blankets, saw the space where my leg had been and didn't want to talk to anyone. I was in a very dark place. I was referred to the amputee rehabilitation centre at Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton where I met a man named Ray Edwards. He was a quadruple amputee and he took me aside and said: 'You think it's bad but it's not the end of the world. Look at me, I have no arms or legs and I manage fine'. He made me realise that there was life after amputation. In 2010, we set up Limbcare together. We visit amputees in hospital, run a 24-hour support line and send used prosthetic limbs to Africa. An amputee will have several limbs throughout their life. Children grow out of false limbs as often as they outgrow shoes and adults need new ones regularly because stumps change over time. Each limb costs between £6,000 and £20,000 and when they are no longer needed they are incinerated. I always hated waste when I worked on the building sites and that hasn't changed. We now collect unwanted limbs from 43 rehabilitation centres across the UK and send them to an organisation in Tanzania. We have over 500 waiting to be shipped out and each one tells a tragic story. The self storage facility is ideal because access is easy. The company generously let us use it rent free and it is on the ground floor, so we don't have to climb stairs and push trolleys around."

The rock academy

Musician Paul Bowe, aged 30, runs the Stockport Music Academy from Safestore in Stockport

"If you walked past my unit, you wouldn't have a clue that inside there is a fully functioning music academy, complete with recording studio. It looks totally anonymous, like a run-down mill, but I now have 1,500sq ft of business space and employ six people.

When I walk through the door each morning, I walk into this amazing place which reeks of music. It is my dream job. The atmosphere is great and the people who come here to learn music stay for a long time. I've watched so many young people develop.

This morning I had a lesson with a lad who couldn't play a note when he came, but is now with a band and gigging. It was always my dream to pass on my enthusiasm and passion for music and the academy has allowed me to do that. I have been playing guitar for 20 years and got into teaching eight years ago. I was in bands, touring, since I was 16, which was great fun but there was no money in it.

I was doing private lessons before but needed to develop a business and had looked at scores of sites. They were just too expensive. Then one day I walked past the self storage site and saw a sign which advertised them for small business use. I walked in and the rates they were offering were so low I realised I could make it work financially. The first six months were free, which meant I could start the business and not have to worry as it became established. Because we are based in a self storage facility the cost savings are massive. My insurance is cheap because the site is secure, I don't pay rates and I could turn the amps on all day and still pay the same price for electricity.

At the beginning when I moved in, it was just a blank space which meant I could adapt it to meet my requirements. I got in specialists who sound-proofed the space and improved the acoustics with wood, polystyrene and filler and I had a recording studio built. Around 150 to 200 people use the academy.

There are four guitar tutors, drum teachers and vocal coaches. The drummer from the Verve teaches here on a Sunday and cast members from Hollyoaks come in and use the studio. We have a partnership with Stockport Council to teach music to children from low-income families. Music lessons are expensive and in a recession are low on the list of priorities, but because of our low overheads we can give children from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to do something they wouldn't normally be able to do."

The eco-fashion designers

Trish Richards and Brad Cheng run the fashion brand Wear Chemistry from Shurgard self storage facility in Kennington, London

"A few years ago, my partner Brad and I took a travel sabbatical and used a storage unit to store our stuff while we were away. We had always had the idea to start up an environmentally aware fashion brand, but given the retail climate had to be realistic. We could not have afforded to sign a long lease on a shop. We realised there were businesses being run out of the storage facility we used and when we returned in 2010 it made a lot of sense to base our business there.

We launched Wear Chemistry last year. It is a casual clothing brand and the idea is to make casual choices in sustainable fashion more appealing for consumers. We are moving away from the hippy stereotype of baggy, tie-dyed, hemp, scratchy tops. We see ourselves more as akin to brands such as Superdry, Bench or Diesel. There should be a credible eco-streetwear alternative. At the moment there are a lot of interesting things happening at the high-end of fashion in eco terms, but casualwear seems to have been neglected. That's the gap we are trying to fill.

All of our garments come from Turkey via a Fairwear-accredited factory, so the environmental DNA stretches right back down the production chain. The fabric we use is made from bamboo which is blended with 30 per cent organic cotton. We also stock a tunic dress which is made from 100 per cent eucalyptus. Unlike cotton, bamboo and eucalyptus give a normal yield from average rainfall so our materials are sustainable. The farms our fabrics come from are dedicated textile farms so there is no pressure on local animal populations and the process by which the plants we use are broken down also meets the global organic standard for textile production.

We sell mainly online and in markets in London and festivals and are planning a pop-up shop. Our unit is 100sq ft, which is great for our needs and the moment. We can expand as and when we are ready to. We have our sale stock in the unit and our point of sale materials. We can go and package all our orders there. It is all done in the same space. All distribution is handled from there, too, as the Post Office is just next door."

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