How the Self-Storage Boom Snuck Up on Us

Last year, when my grandmother was moved from Central Illinois to my parents’ house in Indiana for hospice care, I wanted to help in the transition somehow. As it turned out, she had some belongings that would need to be stored for a short time while everyone was dealing with her eventual passing, so I was tasked with finding a storage locker.

The job seemed simple enough, but locating available self-storage proved a grueling days-long affair. I had never rented storage before, and I failed to realize that, nationally, self-storage is 90 percent full. There were plenty of nearby businesses to choose from, but it seemed that everyone else had the same need as me. It hadn’t occurred to me that those giant buildings I mentally blocked out on my morning commute had formed themselves into an American necessity. There are more than 50,000 of them all over the country, and they make up a 38 billion-dollar industry. That’s more than three times Hollywood’s gross box office revenue in 2017.

Last year marked a new record for investment in self-storage, with just under 4 billion dollars spent on the construction of new facilities (that’s double the amount spent in 2016). At this point, we have more than 7 square feet of rentable storage space for every person in the U.S. We’re also unique in our culture of storage, taking up 90 percent of the global market as of 2013.

The data hits you square in the face like a stack of old comic books. Are we so profanely materialistic, or is nomadic city-living and short-term necessity propping up a temporary industry?

Professor Valerie Folkes is an expert in consumer psychology at University of Southern California, and she says the changing demographics in U.S. consumers could play a role. Delayed marriage — and homeownership — in younger people leads to longer independence and fluidity in living situations, according to Folkes. Since millennials are still acquiring stuff during this period, they may need somewhere to put it in the case of a sudden move or unexpected circumstance.

Younger people might be utilizing storage for specific needs, but it appears that the majority of its consumers skew older. According to the Self-Storage Association, 68 percent of facilities are in suburban and rural areas and 65 percent of renters already have a garage. The crux of the industry’s success may just be that, as Folkes says, “Self-storage relieves consumers from having to make hard decisions about disposal.” Renting a storage unit can effectively delay the stress of arbitration when it comes to never-worn clothing or years-old keepsakes. Disposal can be painful because we place more value on items we own than those we don’t. “Part of that is because an object becomes an extension of our own image and identity once we own it,” Folkes says. Throwing that away can be, at least fleetingly, distressing.

America’s relationship with our possessions is not new, though, at least according to The Saturday Evening Post. In 1950, the article “Tales of the Moving Vans” tells about the original moving and self-storage company, Bekins:

Sentiment clings to objects which have become symbols of old joys and griefs. The possessive instinct, which takes in collectors and hobbyists, just clings. The man who won’t let his wife throw away an old magazine and fills attic and basement with stuff that “might come in handy,” sometimes cannot part with his hoardings even when the moving van backs up.

The company, founded in 1891, used the apt slogan “Corridors Where Dreams Are Stored.” Bekins, while serving the Silent Generation, understood their attachment to items — such as the clothing of a son or husband who didn’t return from the war — but it was perceived as a virtue that grows with age, as the 1950 article put it: “The young never have been sentimental about things. They have few things and haven’t had them long; it takes years of association before a thing becomes part of you.”

If sentimental attachment to ones possessions drives the construction of storage facilities, then the modern consumer is perhaps doubly so. For some dense cities, this poses a problem. In places like New York and San Francisco, the rise of storage buildings has been met with resistance from city officials and community groups. While the enterprise of owning such an operation can be extremely lucrative — and 74 percent of self-storage facilities are owned by small-time entrepreneurs — it adds very few jobs to a community and gobbles up precious real estate that could be used for housing and businesses. On top of that, the boxy, windowless buildings decrease walkability and can scarcely be considered an aesthetic addition to a neighborhood. Some city councils have carved out zones that ban the development of storage buildings, to popular approval from constituents.

Although business is booming, around 155,000 rental units are abandoned each year. Tenants either can’t pay or won’t pay, allowing their possessions to go to auction. Professor Folkes isn’t surprised that people often abandon their possessions after some time apart. They may adjust to life just fine without their grandmother’s tchotchke collection, but it’s the initial decision of disposal that is so difficult.

Whether ubiquitous self-storage is an impending lifestyle or a fleeting idiosyncrasy isn’t clear. Will we wake up in 40 or 50 years and think, why in heaven’s name did we build all of these things? Given the rise of trendy minimalist living in a sharing economy, the storage industry’s boom comes at an unexpected time. Only time will tell if it’s a new reality or a last gasp.

Instead of constructing new buildings, some storage companies will likely be looking at existing, underutilized places to set up shop. With the “retail apocalypse” underway, a shopping mall could be the perfect spot. That’s right, you could soon be taking your stuff — and your money — right back where you got it.