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Higher chain-link fences? More halogen security lights?

Sovran Self Storage officials admit it's hard to imagine a breakthrough that could pep up the storage mall business.

But the Williamsville-based company, operator of 221 "Uncle Bob's Self Storage" outlets nationwide, thinks it has the key with "Flex-a-Space" movable walls, chairman and CEO Robert J. Attea said.

The company announced the innovation on Tuesday, saying the development should grow the company while transforming the you-store-it industry.

The walls on a track-and-wheel system allow customers to rent only as much space as they need, saving them money while handing the company a competitive advantage, officials said.

"With an already lean and profitable business in a competitive industry, we must improve the bottom line through innovation," Attea said.

For example, you might sign up for a 10-by-10 foot space for $85 a month, even though your belongings only measure 8-by-10. With Flex-a-Space, Uncle Bob's can bring the wall in the unneeded two feet and charge $75.

Although the customer pays less, Uncle Bob's comes out ahead by 9 percent when you look at the cost per square foot, Chief Financial Officer David Rogers said.

The company, the number-four public storage chain, plans to begin offering flexible space in six major metropolitan markets next month. All the chain's locations should have flexible space by the end of 2001 at a cost of $10 million, Rogers said, including advertising.

Sovran's move comes as players in the mature industry are searching for some competitive edge. Public Storage Inc., the industry leader, tried a delivery service -- storage containers brought to your house and picked up later -- without much success. Others have teamed with moving companies in marketing alliances, generating business from each others' customer lists.

Competitors will have to come up with new management software before they can duplicate Sovran's move, Rogers said. The company's computer program that helps site managers track space rentals had to be rewritten to accommodate the moving walls, he said.

Besides, a patent is pending for the Flex-a-Space track and wheel system.

Sovran, organized as a real estate investment trust, hopes Flex-a-Space will boost its occupancy rate to 88 percent starting in 2000, up from 86.4 percent last year. Introduction costs will dampen profit growth through the first nine months of 2000, but the company still expects quarter-to-quarter improvement.

"Whenever you give the customer a better value, that will be what the industry has to follow," Rogers said.

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