Talking about Hong Kong residences’ lack of storage space is like saying light travels 300 million metres per second in a vacuum. It’s a universal constant. Unlike the speed of light, the storage situation may change soon if developers follow the government’s recommendations to build smaller flats to solve the housing crisis.
Earlier this year, a Colliers International storage investment whitepaper estimated that over 800,000 Hong Kong households — 76 percent — had no dedicated storage space. If just half those households went seeking space the market demand would dwarf the current supply, which is a shade below three million square feet.
This is the world that British-Italian brothers Stuart and Lewis Cerne moved into when they arrived in Hong Kong two and six years ago respectively. Stuart arrived from Beijing, and Lewis was already working for a Hong Kong firm when the pair decided to start working together — again. “We started our first business together when we were still in our teens,” explains Lewis, responding to the frequent question of whether or not working with family is a good idea. “It’s a process. You don’t start working with your brother and have it all happy days. But the moment you figure out how to do it, it’s fantastic.”
Ever the entrepreneurs, it was obvious their new home had storage issues. The duo soon realised that where Hongkongers weren’t sleeping and sitting, there was a storage system. “So we thought what if you take the storage out and put it on your phone?” Lewis continues. Times have changed quickly and worldwide the so-called Internet of Things is changing the way we live. “We’ve always been very interested in logistics. Ten years ago in London we were thinking of starting something called Share-a-Cab, and at that time it wasn’t feasible. This was before smartphones and GPS … But we kept thinking about consumer logistics and how it could help consumers do things more easily,” Lewis finishes. And so Spacebox was born.
It’s a simple idea. Unlike self-storage that requires a vehicle to move items in addition to the time to do it, Spacebox does all that for its clients. All consumers have to do is pack. Simple as it may seem, it’s a tricky concept for some to envision. “We focused on creating the front end — the technology, the tracking and the branding,” explains Stuart. Spacebox has several third party partners that provide the physical space — 12 facilities in Chai Wan, Tung Chung, Tsuen Wan, Aberdeen, Sha Tin and others — but which “Meet our criteria, humidity, temperature and security requirements … We’re taking people’s personal belongings and storing them. We have to make sure they get them back in the same condition,” he states.
At the heart of Spacebox is, indeed, a box. Rather than randomly piling stuff in banker’s boxes and suitcases Spacebox provides clients with however many of its heavy-duty plastic boxes are required. The standardised units make the process easier, even if the idea of box storage is new. “It’s a new market. People don’t really have an immediate understanding of what a box is. What does it fit? Eventually we hope this becomes a standard product in Hong Kong that people are familiar with,” says Stuart
So does Spacebox really work? The short answer is yes. The Cernes are slowly rolling out the service and doing research while they’re at it. Most consumers will start the process online at the bilingual Spacebox website, by phone or both. An actual person can help you decide how many of its boxes you need and the next step is setting up a delivery time for the 60x32x40cm boxes. Those are dropped off with a paper inventory list, security clips that seal the boxes and a packing guide. As to contents, think airport. If you can’t take it on airline, you can’t store it at Spacebox: organic materials, explosive items, anything illegal and so on. After you’ve inventoried your stuff, it’s back online via laptop or smartphone app or by phone to log into your dedicated account and arrange for pick up. There’s a confirmation by phone and email and then your stuff is whisked away. Unused boxes can go back and you’re not charged for them even if you ordered them. And best of all, clients can access their boxes any time they want as many times as they want.
The online and mobile applications are where clients load photos and make notes themselves; no one else can access this account. Early versions of the Internet-based manager were more mobile-reliant, but the Cernes assure that both platforms should be fine-tuned by late-April and understand not everyone wants to live in the Cloud. Though (at press time) managing data online was tricky, a quick phone call can solve most problems (and true to their word it’s more intuitive now). One last downside of the service is the automatic PayPal account you get if you don’t have one for payment. That was on the verge of being phased out in favour of standard credit card billing, also by late-April.
So far, the biggest use of Spacebox storage is for seasonal clothing, memorabilia and bulky sporting equipment. But the Cernes future plans are ambitious; they’re toying with ideas like same-day single item retrieval and delivery, third-party usage by small businesses, and targeting frequent travellers to Hong Kong who prefer to do so without luggage. The focus right now, however, remains on residential clients who want hassle-free storage. For the unconvinced, consider these numbers. A pair of wardrobes can take up to 80 square feet of space, which shakes out to roughly $2,800 per month in a rental flat. Ten Spaceboxes run $499 per month. As they say: you do the math.