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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner, and this is a bonus episode — actually a pair of episodes from The Economics of Everyday Things, another show that we make here at the Freakonomics Radio Network. The host of this show is Zachary Crockett, a journalist who loves to explore and explain — well, the economics of everyday things. For instance … car colors. And … storage units. I’m hoping after you hear these episodes you’ll start listening every week to The Economics of Everyday Things, which you can find on any podcast app. Here’s Zachary:

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Like a lot of men his age, my dad likes to talk about how everything used to be better. Shoes used to last longer. Musicians used to be more talented. Movies used to cost a couple bucks. And cars? They just had a lot more character.

Tom CROCKETT: My first car was a 1965 Chevy Impala. And this was a real car. It was a real car I bought from a neighbor. It had 25,000 miles on it, and I paid $400 for it. I mean, the personality that it had, every detail about it. The headlights, the tail lights, the fender, the bumper, the doors. You could punch the ’65 Chevy and you’d break your hand.

As Tom Crockett tells it, a big part of that character was the multitude of colors that you’d see on the road back in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Tom CROCKETT: In the old days, we had variations of green and variations of brown. Tan colors. There were light blues. Lots of different shades of blues. My uncle Guy had, like, a canary yellow Cadillac. He’d drive it with a top down.

But these days, he says, it seems like all the cars on the road look the same.

Tom CROCKETT: Black, white, silver, black, white, silver, black, white…

There is some truth to that. Today’s cars are a lot less colorful than they used to be. Eighty percent of vehicles sold in North America are now what’s called achromatic — white, black, gray, or silver. That’s up from just 36 percent 50 years ago. Now, if you’re like my dad, you might say that the automobile industry has lost its flair. But according to car color designers, there are more color options than ever before — it’s just that those mundane tones are what today’s young buyers actually want.

Nikkie RIEDEL: We know that boomers and Gen X are definitely looking for some of those pops of color. So they’re more interested in, like, the tangerine orange. And we found that millennials are gravitating to gray.

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Car Colors.

For the earliest mass-produced cars, paint was more of a practicality than a form of expression. Throughout most of the 1920s, Henry Ford’s famous Model-T only came in one color. Ford was rumored to have said that “a customer may have a car in any color he desires, so long as it is black.” Ford’s affinity for the color was rooted in economics: black paint was cheap and durable — and using only one color sped up production.

As cars became more common, consumers wanted theirs to stand out. Automakers responded with different color options. In the 1930s, the first metallic finishes hit the market. They were made out of fish scales — and it took 20,000 herring to make a pound of paint. In the 1950s, you could find cars in pink and turquoise. The ‘60s and ‘70s were populated with yellow and green muscle cars. And by the 1980s, vehicles came in just about any color you could dream up.

Mark GUTJAHR: 80s was a very colorful decade. Tere was a lot of green cars red cars, blue cars.

That’s Mark Gutjahr. He’s the global head of design at BASF, one of the largest car paint manufacturers in the world.

GUTJAHR: And achromatics — the colors that are black, gray and white and silver — they were not so dominant.

But Gutjahr says that, around the beginning of the millennium, car colors became a lot less colorful. Silver quickly became the color of choice, largely thanks to emerging technologies.

GUTJAHR: You know, mobile phones were silver. Your stereo was silver, with a lot of buttons and things to turn. And then this famous American company came in and invented a tool. And the product was white. 

That famous company was Apple. And the device, of course, was the iPod. It came out in 2001, around the same time the company opened its first retail locations.

GUTJAHR: White was the transporting color of being advanced, high-tech, forward-thinking. The color took over in rapid speed. And it’s still number one globally. 

Today, 34 percent of all cars in North America are white. After that comes black with 22 percent, silver with 14 percent, and gray with 10 percent. No other color cracks double digits. Now, there are practical reasons to buy a white car. Lighter colors reflect more sunlight, which reduces the need for A.C., increasing fuel economy and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions. But the main reason people buy achromatic cars is that they’re just sort of inoffensive.

GUTJAHR: We did some research on, you know, new car buyers — like, what they were looking for. And what people like personally as a color actually has nothing to do with what they buy. 

There are a few possible explanations for this. For starters, cars are often shared within a family, and achromatic colors make good compromise picks. Dealerships also tend to stock more white, black, and gray cars, because they’re easier to sell than a niche choice like turquoise. If a customer comes in looking for a color that’s not in stock, a salesperson can often convince them to buy the gray model on the floor instead.

GUTJAHR: Gray colors please a lot of people. That’s why they’re so successful. We have around 120 different shades of gray. 50 shades is not enough.

Whether you have a gray car or a pink car, it’s likely that BASF was involved in the color. More than 50 percent of all cars produced globally each year have at least one layer of BASF paint.

GUTJAHR: We work with nearly everybody in the industry to develop colors every year. It’s roughly 900 colors that are currently running in the market.

Every major car manufacturer also has its own in-house design team. And when a brand wants to develop a new color, the conversation usually starts with someone like Nikkie Riedel.

RIEDEL: I’m a car-line planning manager at Subaru of America.

Reidel’s job is to help oversee all of the little design choices that go into creating a new Subaru model — from the color of the stitching on the seats to the color of the exterior paint. The first thing Subaru’s team does is look at what’s popular in the spaces where their customers are interacting.

RIEDEL: We’re really lucky at Subaru because we know our customer really well. Definitely people who want to take the path less followed. They’re always looking for their next adventure. So we’re looking at snowboards, we’re looking at skis, we’re looking at skate decks, we’re looking at all of the clothing, like ski jackets and that sort of thing.

A few years ago, they noticed a trend.

RIEDEL: We started seeing everything kind of shifting toward cooler tones. And so we developed Cool Gray Khaki.

Over the past couple of years, you’ve probably noticed cars in this color. It’s a light gray with a bluish tone — and it’s got kind of ceramic look to it, no sparkle. Cool Gray Khaki is Subaru’s invention — but many manufacturers, from BMW to Honda, have introduced very similar shades.

RIEDEL: Cool Gray Khaki is a cooler muted tone. It has a very flat finish. So it doesn’t have a lot of metallic or pearl in it, which also suggests a rugged esthetic and a more modern, younger look. When we all saw it, we just kind of knew it was a hit.

Before a color like Cool Gray Khaki is finalized, it’s tested in a light studio that simulates different settings.

RIEDEL: Light is really important, especially when you’re talking about a vehicle. The sunlight that you see in Southern California is going to be very different from Maine The other consideration is that these cars will be seen in showrooms. So one of the settings that we have, that we check, are what our retailers are using for overhead lighting in the showroom, make sure that that also looks as good as we want it to.

They also have to make sure the paint formula can hold up in different environments. Many car manufacturers send painted car parts to weathering facilities in Florida, where they’re put out in the sun to see how the paint is affected. Florida has high-intensity sunlight, lots of rain, and high humidity, which makes it an ideal place to test for cracking, peeling, and moisture sensitivity. Once a color has passed all the tests, manufacturers work with paint suppliers like BASF to produce the color at scale. Again, Mark Gutjahr:

GUTJAHR: So what they get from us is like a mixed material with all the ingredients that are in it. 

Even a seemingly plain color, like a white or gray, is a lot more dimensional than it seems. When a car is painted at a factory, the process begins with something called an e-coat. The car parts are often dipped in a bath of zinc phosphate and an electrical current binds a layer of resin to the surface. The parts spend time in an oven. And then robots spray them with primer and a base coat that can include all kinds of effects.

GUTJAHR: So you have these glitter sparkles that you can put in. Like, you know, very different textures, very soft, silky textures you can generate.

The final step is typically a clear coat that gives an extra glossiness to the finish, but also protects the paint from UV light and bird poop.

GUTJAHR: All the layers together, they make a thickness of a hair. So it’s extremely thin. And it’s extremely technical.

From conception to production, bringing a new color like Cool Gray Khaki to the market can take up 6 years. So, in 2024, Subaru’s team might be working on the new colors for the 2030 lineup. And even after all that work, Riedel says there are still slight variations in the final product of any given color.

RIEDEL: Every time you formulate the color, it’s not going to be 100 percent exact. They’re virtually imperceivable, but if you put, you know, one body panel next to another there’s a chance that you could see the difference. So the way that they’re spraying our white in Japan could look slightly different from what we’re spraying in the U.S. factory.

So, will every hit new color be another variant of gray? Probably not. Some industry experts are predicting a more vibrant future. That’s coming up.

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Car manufacturers like to keep their offerings fresh and trendy. So, most new car colors only have a lifespan of three to four years — even when people love them. During its run from 2018 to 2023, Subaru’s Cool Gray Khaki accounted for around 18 percent of sales for the models that were available in the color. If you go to Subaru forums, you’ll still find customers singing its praises. But in the end, it was phased out to make room for its successor — an earthy shade called Alpine Green. Nikkie Riedel says Subaru fans are a little more open to bold colors than the typical car buyer.

RIEDEL: We’re able to sell bright blues and greens and orange colors. We’re lucky because we have always been kind of that quirky, fun car. So we kind of lean into that and make sure that we’re offering really fun colors as much as we can.

Take for instance, a color called Geyser Blue, which debuted on some of Subaru’s 2022 models.

RIEDEL: We took blue and mixed a little bit of green into it. Green is not usually a great seller for cars, but Subaru does it really well. And then we took all of the metallic flake out, so that kind of psychologically signifies that it’s more of a rugged, off-road color. It’s beating out black, white, gray — and that’s pretty tough to do, yeah.

Cars are an expensive product. And color has a big impact on sales. So, car companies like Subaru have to make sure they produce the right amount of models in each color.

RIEDEL: We don’t want to have too many colors in the lineup. We have to make sure that we’ve got just enough choice so that our owners can kind of pick what they want and personalize their car, but not so many options that we can’t get the car to the right place, to the right customer.

Subaru keeps a close eye on data from dealerships. If they see demand for a particular shade slowing down, they adjust accordingly on the factory lines. And dealerships tend to keep reliable colors like white, gray, and black on hand.

RIEDEL: It’s a lot easier to convince somebody to buy a white car than it is a bright orange car.

Some colors tend to sell better in certain regions.

RIEDEL: The Sun Belt areas, so the southern part of the country, is going to sell more white cars than they would black cars, just because the heat. So we would probably allocate maybe more white cars down there.

Riedel says there are also some generational differences in who buys certain car colors.

RIEDEL: We know that boomers and Gen X are definitely looking for some of those pops of color. So they’re more interested in the tangerine orange, the bright oranges. And we found that millennials are gravitating to colors that are closer to like the Cool Gray Khaki. They’re always attracted to more muted colors, compared to other generations.

But even millennials are starting to come around to more colorful cars.

RIEDEL: I think we’ve maybe bottomed out on minimalism, and I think people are starting to look for character now, and personalization. 

Some research has suggested that there’s a correlation between car colors and how the economy is doing. Somber tones like gray and black rise during times of hardship. And when things are looking up, brighter colors tend to reemerge. At BASF, Mark Gutjhar has noticed a slight shift away from the dominant achromatic colors.

GUTJAHR: What we see is a huge diversity in colors. So there’s more and more color shades coming in. The last year’s production showed — in every region of the world — purple, violet colors. And that was something really not there for a long, long time.

Nearly every car brand on the market has experimented with an adventurous color or two in recent years. Fiat Chrysler offered the Jeep Wrangler in what they call Snazzberry — kind of a reddish maroon. Toyota released a 4Runner SUV in an extremely vivid Voodoo Blue. BMW had Sao Paolo Yellow, which looks like a highlighter. Colors like this can raise the price of a new car.

RIEDEL: There are different pigments, and pigments vary in cost. There’s also the application process, if it’s a single coat, dual coat or a tri coat. There’s all different effects. So we call a metallic a pearl, or a silica finish. Every time you add another layer of paint, you’re adding time to the line.

These bolder colors may cost more — but they could also pay you back in the long run. The vehicle search engine ISeeCars analyzed pricing data on more than a million used cars, and found that color has a surprisingly strong impact on resale value. The colors that retained the most value? Yellow, orange, and green. But at least for now, most car buyers still spring for the less exhilarating hues. And a few years ago, when he found himself in the market for a car, even my dad, Tom Crockett, joined the club.

Tom CROCKETT: I bought a used 2014 Subaru Impreza.

Zachary CROCKETT: What color did you get?

Tom CROCKETT: I bought a white car because it was the only used car on the lot. Believe it or not, I actually like the color white. The only problem is, you know, now when I go out to look for my car, I have to sort through multiple white cars to make sure that I’m getting in the right car.

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Hey, it’s Zachary here. Thanks for checking out these episodes of The Economics of Everyday Things. Let us know what you thought of our look at car colors — we’re at And you can find more of our weekly show in your podcast app. All right, here’s our second episode — on a kind of business that’s been springing up like crabgrass all over the country.

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When Kara Kolodziej went through a breakup six years ago, she had to move out and get a place of her own. The new place was smaller — so small that she didn’t have room for all of her stuff. And she didn’t want to get rid of it. So, she decided to rent a storage unit.

Kara KOLODZIEJ: Mainly, things I stored were books, kitchenware. I have a lot of clothes and gear, you could say. So, winter clothes or summer clothes or snowboards. As people in my family started moving out of their homes, I started inheriting a lot of, you know, knickknacks, heirlooms, which I just didn’t have room for.

Kolodziej isn’t alone in her quest for more space. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans rents a storage unit. High housing costs, urbanization, and rampant consumerism have made self-storage into an estimated $45 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone. And real estate investors are clamoring for a piece of the action.

Anne Mari DeCOSTER: Self-storage has become sexy because people have recognized what a strong fundamental business it is. Americans love their stuff, and they don’t want to get rid of it.

In the second part of this special episode of The Economics of Everyday Things: storage units. The modern self-storage industry traces its roots back to the 1960s. The earliest facilities were more about investing in land than building a viable business.

DeCOSTER: It began with folks who had good vision and they imagined where population was going.

That’s Anne Mari DeCoster. She’s a consultant who has been in the self-storage industry for 22 years.

DeCOSTER: They tended to buy land outside of city centers, anticipating that the population would move there. And in the meantime, they put a self-storage facility on it so that they could generate cash.

For these early entrepreneurs, storage units were what’s called a “covered land play.” You buy some cheap land not too far from a growing population center and wait until there’s enough people nearby to build a hotel or a shopping mall. In the meantime, you need to cover taxes, so you set up a business that’s cheap to operate and brings in a little cash, like a storage facility. But a funny thing happened.

DeCOSTER: Investors realized that self-storage is among the highest and best uses. So instead of selling those, they kept them.

Today, there are around 52,000 storage facilities in the United States — more than 20 million individual units. About-two thirds of those facilities are owned by small to midsize operators. The rest of the market is controlled by a handful of large national corporations like Public Storage, U-Haul, CubeSmart, and Extra Space Storage.

Zach DICKENS: My name is Zach Dickens, and I am the chief investment officer with Extra Space Storage.

Dickens has been with Extra Space Storage for more than two decades. During his time there, he’s watched the company grow into one of the largest self-storage operators in the world.

DICKENS: We’re around 283 million leasable square feet today, and 2.6 million units.

Those units vary in size. On the lower end, some are just 25 square feet. Those are generally good for someone like a college student; they hold a twin mattress, a dresser, and maybe a few boxes. On the bigger end, you’ve got units that are around the size of a two-car garage, and it goes up from there. The monthly rental on a unit varies based on size, location, and how fancy it is. Some are climate-controlled; others get hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

DICKENS: The average unit price today is somewhere around $180 a month per unit. And that’s probably on a unit that’s a little bit bigger than a 10-by-10 unit, or 100 square feet.

For the facility owner, most of that rent is profit. Operators have to pay for things like property tax, insurance, and utilities. And many facilities have a manager on-site during business hours. But as far as real estate goes, storage is a pretty low-maintenance business.

DICKENS: If you looked at residential: when somebody vacates a property, you have to go through a process of doing a lot of tenant improvements. Whereas on the storage side of it, you simply roll up the door, they take their belongings, and we sweep out the unit. And it’s ready to rent for the next person.

It’s also a business in constant demand. Around 9 out of every 10 units tend to be occupied at any given time. And tenants are easy to replace when they vacate.

DICKENS: If you are in a retail space and you have an anchor tenant go out of business — like a Bed Bath & Beyond or some of those that have had issues — it changes your economics dramatically. Whereas if you lose one or two storage customers, it’s a small loss to the property. We can quickly replenish that with another customer.

Most self-storage units are offered on month-to-month leases. Dickens says that most people think they’ll only have to use a unit for a couple months. But they’ll actually end up staying much longer.

DICKENS: They typically stick around 14 to 16 months on average.

A move into a storage unit often revolves around some kind of major life event. Self-storage consultant Anne Mari DeCoster says it could be a college student graduating, a military officer being deployed, or a family moving to a new home.

DeCOSTER: People need storage when they’re in transition, when life events happen — like having babies, or maybe their parents are growing elderly and they need to move in with you. When divorce happens, often there’s a period of uncertainty and transition. When people move, they need storage. They’re going to sell their home, they have to get the clutter out, so they rent storage.

But another large chunk of the customer base is people who simply don’t have room to store all of their stuff.

DICKENS: We find a lot of use between people that are renting. Because they don’t have a lot of space within their apartments, and, you know, we’re like an extension of their apartments where they can store their holiday belongings and their decorations and all that.

This is especially true of millennials, who now make up the largest share of storage renters in America.

DeCOSTER: Baby boomers, they tend to store memories. They store Grandma’s living room furniture or china. They don’t visit that stored property very often. But millennials and Gen Z, they tend to use self storage as an extension of their home. They leave in the morning, they get their kayak, they go kayaking, they come back late in the day and they put it back in the storage unit — because they don’t have any place else to store it.

With the rising cost of housing, many renters are downsizing. Across the nation, the size of new apartments in urban centers is also decreasing — partly because developers are building more studio apartments. At the same time, Americans are buying more stuff than ever before.

DeCOSTER: It’s the American love affair with their stuff that creates the demand for self-storage. We are a wealthy country with a lot of things, and we want to keep them.

So, what exactly are all of these things that people are storing in their units? And what happens when they stop paying rent? That’s coming up.

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During his time at Extra Space Storage, Zach Dickens has seen people use storage units for all kinds of things.

DICKENS: You see a lot of couches, that sort of thing. We have musicians that have to store their equipment in a temperature-regulated environment. People with vehicles that want to preserve those vehicles. People with heirlooms that don’t want to store them at home. Small businesses that want to store excess product. Pharmaceutical reps use us because they’re not allowed to store their medicines on their own property at home, and so they’ll use us as a secure alternative there. 

Tenants are almost always required to get insurance on their unit, and they’re generally prohibited from storing more than $5,000 worth of stuff. What you put in there, though, is entirely your business. That is, until you stop paying for it. In that case, your stuff goes to the highest bidder.

In most states, when a customer is late on rent, storage operators are required to send out multiple notices over the course of 30 or 60 days. When the notices go unanswered, the unit’s contents are seized and auctioned off. Reality T.V. shows like Storage Wars and Auction Hunters often make it seem like storage units full of hidden treasures are abandoned on a regular basis. Anne Mari DeCoster, the storage industry consultant, says the truth is a little less glamorous.

DeCOSTER: It is very, very rare that a foreclosure sale at auction generates enough money even to cover the rent due. Because for the most part, people store memories. You know, your children’s school work, and your grandmother’s dresser, and clothing, furniture, household goods. And those are not things that sell high in a public auction where the consumer is determining the value of it.

That’s not to say there isn’t the occasional crazy find. In 1989, a contractor in Long Island paid $100 for a unit and found a futuristic car used in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. He later sold it at auction for just under $1 million; the winning bidder was Elon Musk. DeCoster has a few tales of her own.

DeCOSTER: We had a whole unit of coffins that needed to be auctioned off because the business had gone out of business. So the owner-operator contacted mortuaries. And then, you know, 5 or 10 of them bid. 

That doesn’t mean the storage facility operator got a windfall.

DeCOSTER: Any proceeds from an auction that are in excess of the rent owed are returned to the renter, and many times the renter can’t be found. They moved, they died, they are in jail. Typically if money is not claimed, it reverts to the state or the county. 

Other items don’t have any monetary value, but still require legwork from the storage operator. Like: an urn full of cremated human remains.

DeCOSTER: Those are the cremains of a loved one who maybe died 40 or 50 years ago and they were very well cared for for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And then there’s this dilemma, you know, what do you do with them? And many, many operators will call one church and cemetery after another to find a place where they can bring the cremains.

The relative secrecy of storage units sometimes leads to more morbid finds. A unit in Colorado contained a pile of police evidence, including a bloody rope and an ax. The buyer of a Seattle unit discovered the bodies of a woman and her two sons, who had been missing for 12 years. There have been units that contained meth labs, boxes full of stolen passports, and illegal firearms. But stories like this are pretty rare. Industry experts say only around one to three percent of storage units are auctioned off in any given year. And every state has laws that require plenty of notice before an operator can sell someone’s stuff.

DeCOSTER: No one goes into self-storage to sell renter’s belongings. They go into self-storage to rent space. And when a renter is not paying rent, what they really want is to be able to rent it to someone who will.

And there’s usually a new tenant waiting in the wings — because storage is a business that bucks economic trends.

DeCOSTER: When things are good and people are buying more things, self-storage does very well. But when things are not as good and people are hurting, storage does well under those circumstances too, because that’s when people have to combine households or they have to move into smaller living quarters. So one of the great dynamics of the industry for an investor or an owner-operator is that regardless of the business cycle, self-storage tends to do well.

Most storage facilities are still owned by small-time operators. But in recent years, the industry has followed the path of nursing homes, mobile home parks, and car washes: institutional investors have been consolidating smaller businesses in a bid to gain market share. And that has led to expansion. In 2023, operators built 49 million square feet of new storage space — nearly 16 percent more than they built the year before. In some high-growth cities, storage units have been popping up so fast that legislators have enacted moratoriums temporarily banning new construction. The industry has been fighting back.

DeCOSTER: I think it’s shortsighted to try to prevent self-storage development. it’s a great way to use space that’s not otherwise used — you know, the triangular shaped piece of land that has a funeral home on one side, and a 55-plus community on the other side and a retail business on the third side — that’s a great opportunity for self-storage because they don’t have to be a specific size or shape.

Storage units may be a symptom of over-consumption, high housing costs, and shrinking apartments. But for tenants like Kara Kolodziej, they’re a home away from home — a place to put all of the things we don’t really use, but can’t seem to part with.

KOLODZIEJ: You’re not getting a house, you know? And even if you are, you’re sharing living space with another person. At least 50 percent of my friends have storage space. If you want to keep stuff, you’re going to have to put it in storage, whether it be for two years, five years, or longer. Which isn’t a bad way to be, because you can really get down to the core of what is super important to you in the long term.

For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett.

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And I’m Stephen Dubner. I hope you like The Economics of Everyday Things as much as I do. Please go to your podcast app and start following it; there’s a new episode every week. And if you’ve got an idea for Zachary, send an email to And we can always be reached at And we’ll be back very soon with a regular episode of Freakonomics Radio. 

Freakonomics Radio and The Economics of Everyday Things are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley and Zachary Crockett, with help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson and Julie Kanfer. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Augusta Chapman, Dalvin Aboagye, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Zack Lapinski.

CROCKETT: I bet that operator was pleased to find that those coffins are empty.

DeCOSTER: Yes, very much so. You don’t want to find one that isn’t, that’s for sure!

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  • Tom Crockett, classic car enthusiast.
  • Zachary Dickens, executive vice president and chief investment officer of Extra Space Storage.
  • Mark Gutjahr, global head of design at BASF.
  • Kara Kolodziej, self-storage unit tenant.
  • Anne Mari DeCoster, self-storage consultant.
  • Nikkie Riedel, carline planning manager at Subaru of America.



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