The self storage industry first made an impression in the early 1970s, but in the intervening decades it’s remained largely unchanged. The basic platform of providing an individual unit to each customer in a facility overseen by a small staff has been almost universally the leading business model. Recently, however, a few startups have begun to reshape the very definition of storage by taking control of all the steps in the process, from moving in to retrieval.
Storage-by-the-bin is what some have called the new business model because many of the companies provide their own bins. The customer fills these bins before having them shipped off to a warehouse out of the way. The tenants don’t visit their storage unit – they don’t even have a storage unit – but they don’t need to. They can simply put in a request and the storage company will deliver their bin(s) back home.
Companies like MakeSpace, Clutter, and Storrage are pioneering storage-by-the-bin in a number of cities around the U.S. MakeSpace in New York takes pictures of the items to be stored before carting them to their warehouse, and Clutter in Los Angeles asks its customers to do the same using their app. The trend has even made its way to the United Kingdom, with London’s WeStore entering the fray.
Boxbee in San Francisco has perhaps gone the furthest by marketing their delivery services as the physical equivalent to digital cloud storage. Bins aren’t only for the one paying for storage. Now friends and family can request deliveries as well and make use of your items while you’re not using them. “Cloud storage is such a great idea, but it needs to extend beyond the world of software and apply to people’s physical things,” says Boxbee CEO Kristoph Matthews.
"Our vision for the future is that your home finally becomes the place where you just keep the things you love and need every day. All of the other things you only need one occasion, you keep somewhere else, and just order it when you need it."
It’s a grand vision, and we’ll have to wait a while to see how successful these kinds of companies will be. Nonetheless, for self storage owners everywhere, these innovative services have several huge takeaways.
The first question the savvy business-owner will ask is, “How can I get involved?” If you find a budding storage-by-the-bin service emerging in your area, contact them and figure out what you can do to be a part of this new trend. Here are some ways you might be able to get involved:
Rent warehouse space. Most of these companies use commercial warehouses to store their customers’ belongings, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be involved. As they grow, they’ll need more space, and space is one thing all storage facilities have. See if any of these types of companies is interested in partnering with you. If you have large warehouse-size spaces, you could very well have some indispensable real estate.
Rent a truck. Not all of these companies own their own vehicles. Many pay for third-party courier systems. If you have a truck that you usually rent to tenants, you might have just found yourself another customer. Look into renting your truck out to one of these budding companies for some extra cash.
Franchise. Most of these companies are small and relatively new, so it might not be as hard as you think to get in on the ground floor. Seattle’s Storrage in particular has expressed interest in franchising, and most of the companies are no doubt looking to expand beyond their initial location.
Partner with the company. Find some other way to partner, like a joint advertising campaign or a mutually beneficial referral system. Many small companies will take whatever exposure they can get, so don’t be afraid to step out on a limb and ask to work together.
A Storrage graphic summarizing their system.
Not everyone is located in the same city as one of these developing companies, and some of them might simply not be open to partnering. If that’s the case, there are still a number of ways to implement the innovative ideas companies like Boxbee are developing.
Mobile storage pods are units that are brought to the renter’s home, filled, and then returned to the facility. This is not a dissimilar concept to the storage-by-the-bin companies that are on the rise, but it’s also only half the equation. A huge part of the appeal of this new wave of companies is the ability to have items in storage delivered back to the renter. Perhaps this is a feature many more storage facilities will begin to incorporate.
Of course, the existing infrastructure will have to change somewhat since currently, in most storage facilities, the tenant seals their unit with a lock that only he or she has access to. In order to deliver items back to the renter, the facility manager would also need access to the unit. Some conventional facilities, however, already have built-in cylinder locks installed by facility staff, which could ease the transition into managers having access to all of the units.
Another innovative solution is to accept postal deliveries. Companies like Kinek are working to increase the number of storage facilities in the nation that accept postal deliveries. This is a convenient feature that does not involve a lot of work from the manager and staff but allows renters to pick up their packages at their leisure if, for example, they couldn’t be home during the time of the delivery.
Once again, accepting postal deliveries is still a step away from the storage-by-the-bin model, in which a renter’s delivery could be stored directly with their other belongings without the renter needing to make any trips, but it’s a step in the same direction.
A MakeSpace bin.
It’s hard to say at this point in time how far storage-by-the-bin will go. Even the largest companies are still small. Boxbee, which won the LAUNCH Festival Start-Up of the Year Award, has already stored more than 4,100 items in its short history. There seems to be a lot of upside to the burgeoning industry, especially in urban areas where space is scarce and people are always on the go.
There will always be a place for traditional self storage, however. Many customers take great comfort in knowing that they are the only ones with access to their respective units, a security measure that is impossible in the storage-by-the-bin model.
Another benefit of traditional storage is the pricing. If you only want to store a few boxes’ worth of stuff, paying for the boxes individually might very well be cheaper than renting a 5×5, which is usually the smallest unit available at a conventional storage facility. On the other hand, a customer wishing to store a whole house would need a lot more than a few boxes, and a single large unit at a traditional facility will probably be cheaper than the equivalent amount of boxes at a storage-by-the-bin facility.
Clutter, however, has added to the by-the-bin pricing model, with options to charge instead by the truckload. Customers fill a van with their belongings and are charged based on the size of the van.
An outline of a Clutter van.
For now, though, we simply have to wait and see how the new storage model fares. With cloud storage becoming more and more popular online, it’s not unreasonable to see the same happening with our physical belongings. Boxbee’s CEO Matthews has that exact vision. “Imagine the not-too-distant future where we have a feature in the interface where someone can browse what kinds of objects their friends have in storage, and they can have that delivered to their house and sent back, like a lending library,” Matthews says.
"It turns storage into something that is not just a poor excuse to hold on to your stuff, but a dynamic thing that is useful to a lot of people."
While many would argue traditional storage is not a poor excuse, the smart facility owners know that there is always room for improvement. With the rise in smartphones and cloud storage, it seems inevitable that these storage-by-the-bin services will begin to take off, which shows how useful the concept can be.
While it is doubtful that storage-by-the-bin will supplant traditional storage entirely, it is becoming more and more an imperative to think outside the box, move forward in the wake of modern technology, and never simply sit back on one’s haunches and expect the industry to lie still.
Now is your opportunity to put your customers first and find new ways to reach out to them.