It’s the time of year when American households are filling up with stuff. Your living room is piled with boxes from your Black Friday haul, or your porch is creaking under the weight of UPS deliveries. While retail analysts are obsessively tracking buyer behavior to gauge the impact of Cyber Monday on store earnings, one industry that will surely benefit from the binge—eventually—is the storage business.
The country’s accumulation of things is outpacing our capacity to keep them in our homes, as the growth of mini-warehouses attests. The number of self-storage establishments more than doubled, to 15,000, from 1998 to 2012, according to Census data, dotting the landscape with faceless buildings full of objects we don’t want to see but can’t bear to toss.
The Census data may actually underestimate the industry. According to the Self-Storage Association, the U.S. had 48,500 mini-warehouse facilities last year. Combined, they amount to 2.3 billion square feet of space for lease—enough, in the trade group’s unnerving formulation, to warehouse every man, woman, and child in the country.
It can be a lucrative business. Self-storage companies generated $24 billion in revenue last year, according to the SSA, an amount that gets divvied up among a handful of large companies—such as CubeSmart and Sovran Self Storage, which operates a chain called Uncle Bob’s—and 30,000 single-facility entrepreneurs.
To be clear, it’s unlikely that Americans are spending the weeks before Christmas loading up their Dodge Rams with their old stuff to clear room for the new. After all, new houses keep getting bigger. Storage sales generally fall off at the end of the calendar year and pick up in the summer, which is also the busiest time for U.S. moving companies.
Demand for storage units is driven by what Ronald Havner, chief executive of self-storage giant Public Storage, calls the four Ds: death, divorce, disaster, and dislocation. “People moving, people changing their lives in terms of death or divorce. Hurricanes, tornadoes upset people’s lives and require storage facilities,” he said at a conference this summer.
Put that way, the storage business is a darker reflection of the retail economy. Shopping and exchanging holiday gifts is, ostensibly, joyous, but those objects are often deposited in storage units in sadder times. For our stuff, though, the journey may be a homecoming of sorts. Products that enter the consumer world from, say, an Amazon.com warehouse, leave it for a temperature-controlled chamber at Uncle Bob’s.