MICHELE NORRIS, host:
General Electric is selling its self-storage division for more than $2 billion. That might seem like a huge amount of money for a bunch of storage lockers, but Americans accumulate lots and lots of stuff. From its sleepy beginnings 50 years ago, the unglamorous self-storage business now has revenues exceeding annual US movie box-office sales. NPR's Chris Arnold reports from Boston.
CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:
You might notice as I'm talking here that I sound a bit echoey. That's because I'm reporting from the inside of a 10-by-20-foot self-storage locker in Somerville, Massachusetts. This sort of feels like that Geraldo Rivera special where Geraldo opened Al Capone's secret vault back in the '80s. There was nothing in the vault, and there's nothing in here right now, but there is lots of space. In fact, there's been so much self-storage built in the US now that--I'm not kidding--every single person in the country could stand together inside self-storage units.
Mr. RAY WALTON (Storage Facility Manager): What happens is people, they just don't want to throw out their stuff, you know. (Laughs) And that's good for us and good for the industry.
ARNOLD: On-site manager Ray Walton walked me around the mazelike corridors of the storage facility here.
Mr. WALTON: And I can fully understand it, because I'm the same way. You know, at my condo, I can barely get my car in my garage because I got all these green tubs, you know, that are piled up. And I don't even know what's in them anymore.
(Soundbite of door sliding open)
ARNOLD: It's this company, called Extra Space Storage, that just bought the GE business, which will make this warehouse just one of Extra Space's 600 locations across the country. Customers here pay between 59 and $259 a month to rent storage lockers of different sizes.
Mr. GREGOR RHODA(ph) (Storage Facility User): I'm Gregor, and this is Shannon(ph)...
ARNOLD: Hi. How are you?
Mr. RHODA: ...and our son Cormac(ph).
ARNOLD: Gregor Rhoda and Shannon Armstrong(ph) are wheeling a cartload of their own plastic storage crates to their 5-by-10-foot locker. Shannon's carrying their baby.
(Soundbite of crates being unloaded)
ARNOLD: So is the baby part of the reason that you need self-storage or...
Ms. SHANNON ARMSTRONG (Storage Facility User): Definitely. A lot of the...
Mr. RHODA: Yeah.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...stuff is, you know, clothes he's outgrown, toys that people have given us that he's not quite ready for yet.
Mr. RHODA: And we're running a business out of the house that's based in the basement. So our small house is made that much smaller by needing to do, you know, four different jobs now and be able to run the business out of it.
ARNOLD: Small businesses actually use about 20 percent of the storage space in the building here. It's a good place for contractors to store power tools and equipment. A beauty salon stores shampoo and some extra sinks. Salespeople store their samples. But Extra Space Storage's founder and CEO, Ken Woolley, says most customers are just nearby residents storing their things.
Mr. KEN WOOLLEY (Founder and CEO, Extra Space Storage): The way we get our customers is somebody dies, somebody gets married, someone graduates, someone loses their job, someone gets a new job. Whatever it might be, there's a life change that causes need for temporary storage.
ARNOLD: Woolley says once the stuff gets put into storage, it often stays there a lot longer than the customers originally planned because they just don't have time to deal with it. The number of self-storage facilities around the country has doubled in the past decade to some 40,000 locations. The industry's annual sales are about $15 billion.
As far as why people are using more self-storage these days, one reason is that it's there. There's a definite `build it and they will come' aspect of the business. But it's also that people have more stuff these days.
Mr. JOHN DE GRAAF (Author; Documentarian): I see the huge expansion of self-storage facilities and people's need for them to be a symptom of what I refer to as affluenza. It's a disease of overconsuming in America.
ARNOLD: John De Graaf has written a book and made PBS film documentaries about American consumerism and the natural resources we use up. He says since the 1950s, house sizes have roughly doubled while the number of people living in each house has fallen by half. But even so, we still don't have enough space to put our things.
Mr. DE GRAAF: Americans have since the 1960s consumed more stuff than every human being that ever lived on the Earth in all the years prior to that time. I mean, that's pretty staggering.
ARNOLD: But it's definitely good for the storage business. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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