Share This Page

South Side company uses marketing to get edge in crowded self-storage business

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 10:38 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Nick Lackner, General Manager for City Center Self Storage located in the Terminal Building on the South Side shows off the building's storage units, Thursday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Nick Lackner, General Manager for City Center Self Storage located in the Terminal Building on the South Side looks over the Pittsburgh skyline from the roof of the terminal, Thursday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Nick Lackner, General Manager for City Center Self Storage located in the Terminal Building on the South Side shows off the building's security system which is connected to his iPhone at the Terminal Building, Thursday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Nick Lackner, General Manager for City Center Self Storage located in the Terminal Building on the South Side rides in the building's freight elevator, Thursday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Nick Lackner, General Manager for City Center Self Storage located in the Terminal Building on the South Side talks about partially converting the building back to it's original use, storage, Thursday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Nick Lackner, General Manager for City Center Self Storage located in the Terminal Building on the South Side talks about partially converting the building back to it's original use, storage, Thursday.

Demand for self-storage and a clever marketing ploy are helping a young company grow in a landmark Pittsburgh building that was instrumental in moving materials and food for much of the past century.

City Center Self Storage in the RiverWalk Corporate Centre in the South Side, for years known as the Terminal Buildings, has almost doubled in size since opening in January, said Nick Lackner, who manages the business.

Here and elsewhere in the nation, more people are seeking self-storage units, and City Center's business has grown from 60 units nine months ago to 110.

To spur that growth, City Center borrowed a marketing gimmick from Progressive Insurance, which uses enthusiastic TV sales cashier “Flo” to highlight the fact the company helps consumers comparison shop by giving them competitors' rates. City Center's website offers customers information on pricing and services for at least 21 of its competitors, including rating summaries from reviews on Google and Yelp, and a broader listing of 61 of its 98 competitors in Allegheny County.

“We found that more and more people are consulting online directories for information,” Lackner said.

Each week, he checks websites of competing businesses and compiles pricing and other service features such as air conditioning and elevators into charts that he posts on City Center's website — a “Price and Value Report” and a “Self Storage Directory” of competitors.

“We can't satisfy every customer, but if the information is on our website, and if they can use it to choose where to store their goods, that's great,” Lackner said.

One competitor, Guardian Storage Solutions, remains the largest self-storage operator in the area with 12 locations. Its marketing manager, Christina Alvino, said City Center's listings are just the latest twist on self-promotion in their industry.

Guardian and City Center are among hundreds of operators who pay to promote themselves on sparefoot.com, one of several sites that collect information from self-storage companies nationwide.

“Such aggregators allow a customer to reserve a unit online from anywhere in the country,” Alvino said.

Michael Scanlon, CEO of the Self Storage Association in Alexandria, Va., the industry's primary trade group, said City Center's marketing technique of providing competitors' pricing may be unique in the self-storage industry but not in the business world.

“It's the Progressive Insurance model — we'll tell you what competitors charge and what we charge,” Scanlon said.

Lackner hopes it gives City Center an edge as competition grows.

A report by Cushman & Wakefield Inc. found “robust” self-storage industry market conditions, citing significant gains in occupancy and investment of more than $2.5 billion in the past three years. Growth since the 1970s has been fueled by a mobile population moving to new jobs, retirement condominiums and apartments, plus businesses that now account for about 30 percent of use.

Other experts say most self-storage facilities have a sphere of influence of three miles or less, and saturation in many markets requires operators to market themselves to much smaller areas.

The Lackner family and partners bought Pittsburgh Terminal Properties Corp. from the Hillman Co. in 1963. The Lackner family owns Paper Products Co., a wholesale distributor that is a major tenant in the building.

With about 1 million square feet of space, RiverWalk is about half the size of U.S. Steel Tower, the region's largest building. A typical floor is about the size of a football field, divided into smaller spaces. The building has 48 functioning freight elevators.

Designed by architect Charles Bickle, the building opened in 1906 as a state-of-the-art warehouse. In May, the National Park Service listed it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Though it appears to be two buildings when viewed across the Monongahela River from Downtown, it is one building with two towers rising four floors above a shared two-story base. One tower was converted to offices and warehouse space years ago; the other is still used for storage.

Lackner, 32, said his family last year decided to convert sections of the then-unused tower to self-storage use: “We're sort of bringing it back to its original use.”

The family has committed three floors for self storage, but these have not yet been fully converted. Occupancy is about 90 percent for the self-storage units that have been installed, Lackner said.

The entire building, including the self-storage business and office tower, is about 66 percent occupied. Its 73 tenants include Green Building Alliance, Dollar Energy Fund, the Leukemia Society and a mix of computer software, artists, photographers, and industrial and wholesale distribution.

John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.