Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Self-Storage: Exploiting People’s Weaknesses

The basis of many businesses is exploiting people’s weaknesses: think of cigarettes or donuts. Stingy Investor drew attention to an article about the successful industry of self-storage. This is yet another business that owes its success to our weaknesses.

Many of us are pack-rats by nature. We save things that make no sense to save. I’m sure that there are those who use self-storage for reasons that make sense, but there are a great many who waste time and money storing useless junk they can’t bring themselves to throw away.

I frequently re-examine the contents of my home to decide whether I’m storing things pointlessly. If I didn’t do this I probably would already have joined the ranks of people who have overflowing homes and a self-storage unit or two.

Let me try to anticipate some objections. No, I don’t think that self-storage businesses should be prevented from operating. Yes, on some level, every business exploits our weaknesses – like the need for food and shelter. It’s just that some products and services have less redeeming value than others. How bad a particular industry is on this scale can be subjective.

If you have a strong emotional reaction to the thought of having to get rid of say 10% of your stuff, you may have a problem. If you are thinking you need a self-storage unit, try examining whether you have an emotional need to keep a pile of useless stuff before spending your hard-earned money.


  1. Funny you and I would write about the same subject on the same day? Mine is of course much more silly... hmmm.... Self Storage could well be a save only solution too (i.e. you put stuff there and it never comes back), I could start a business like that and call it, GARBAGE COLLECTION!

  2. @Big Cajun Man: Perhaps we should start a cut-rate self-storage place that is cheaper because we don't offer retrieval. We'd have to locate it very close to a dump.

  3. You are both onto something. As I look at the junk in my house, I realize that a lot of it is hard to get rid of because it is 1) perfectly good and/or 2) cost good money.

    It would be easier to deposit it in a secure facility that would then dispose of it if I didn't come back in a year to pick it up.

    In the book "Walden" by Henry David Thorough, he talks about how instead of holding an auction when someone dies and the estate settles, they should hold a bonfire. He was a wise man with a good idea.

  4. @Gene: Thoreau was definitely on to something there. When my father died he had a massive amount of useless papers and other stuff. I went through it all carefully and kept maybe 1/500th of it. Stuff is mostly worthless.

  5. I agree that people who keep things in self storage because they have run out of room at home are in error. However it would be interesting to see the stats on how many do this vs use self storage because they are leaving town for a year or two, moving or simply inherited things and are waiting for time to go through it.

    Sometimes self storage can save you money.

  6. @Dd: I agree that there can be times when self-storage makes sense. However, my guess on the percentage of people using self-storage to hang on to useless junk is about 90%.

  7. Are self storage operators akin to a heroin pusher or are they just capitalizing on a situation that the "victim" created themselves? Can't fault them for that.

    You're right, of course. Case in point: my 53 year old mother kept a storage unit in Minnesota (for $100 a month and only half full) stuffed with items she left behind in 2004 when she moved to California. When she passed away this past April, guess who had to drive out to clean out the unit? It was stuffed with clothes she kept thinking she would fit into one day and magazines going back to 1992!

    The irony is that it also contained two trunks full of items from my childhood like baby books and keepsakes. So guess who lugged them back to California and stuck them in storage? I don't own a home and my apartment is barely big enough for me and my cat, let alone that stuff. Now *I* am moving cross country and - shock and awe! - keeping the storage unit here in California at least until I figure out if I want to stay in DC. I'd rather pay the $50 a month and sort it out later rather than lug all that stuff with me to my new home only to discover I hate DC and have to lug it back to CA. But I am in Dd's people who "use self storage because they are leaving town for a year or two, moving or simply inherited things and are waiting for time to go through it" camp. I donated most of my mom's estate or gave things away on Craigslist, even managed to clean out her storage in one day. I fit what I could in the car and drove home. I stuffed most of her "non urgent" paperwork into bags and plan to hang onto it for a year or so and once I know it is safe to destroy, I will certainly do so. Being nostalgic for her credit card statements won't bring her back, it's only stuff and I had to remember that when I was cleaning out her storage and came across dirty stuffed toys of mine that I do not need.

    I do try to make a conscious effort to purge and recently unloaded quite a bit on Craigslist (at 50% or less than I paid for it) but agree that many of us have a sickness that tells us clinging to some of this crap will somehow make us feel better.

    Getting rid of it makes me feel so much better.

  8. @Jr Deputy Accountant: Elements of your story are all too common. We hang on to things because we haven't got the time to go through them properly to decide what we should keep.

    I find I'm often not in the right mood to make good decisions about getting rid of stuff. If I start getting too nostalgic, I end up deciding to keep everything. I also find that I can handle only so much of going through old things at one time.

  9. The demand for self storage is increasing day by day. The most important thing which should be considered is safety. I do agree with you that at some point self storage exploits our weaknesses.

  10. I can see those who do overflow more than one self storage unit may be abusing it. But I think that there are more people in need of legitimate storage rather than just hoarding useless junk. For instance, a couple of years ago I was moving from New Jersey to California because of my job. The move was slow going because the new place needed some fixing up. But I still decided to move things over in shifts rather than do it all in one load so I rented a public storage unit in Santa Monica to temporarily hold my belongings until the renovations were completed. Great post, although storage facilities have only helped me, I can see how they may take advantage of some people and vice versa.

  11. I think the idea here is to be effective in utilization of space. Yes, it's true that some people may keep so-called worthless things, but there are yet many others who plan to house their collections (wine, comics, art, etc) in a self-storage unit. At the end of the day, one man's garbage is another man's treasure. It's not unlike a vault, but with the services the company can provide, like security and proper handling, a properly maintained storage unit can be too valuable to the lay person who just doesn't have that kind of space in their residence.

    1. @Mark: I think you're describing a tiny minority of cases. If you can't fit all your stuff in your home, the odds are overwhelming that you have a problem with clinging to worthless junk.