By Jim Chriswell
When I asked this magazine's editor for the opportunity to write a story on the topic of the Internet, I told her it was not just going to be about various self-storage Web sites. I wanted to provide a business overview, from a layman's point of view, of how the Internet has become something that none of us can avoid or ignore.
I have found that there is a real dividing line between people when it comes to the Internet and computing in general. People appear to either embrace computers or fear them. There is very little ground in between these two sides. You may not like using computers or, like some of my friends, are not even interested in learning how to turn them on, but I honestly feel that if you ignore this growing information storehouse and new method of conducting business, you do so at your own peril.
A recent report from INTECO, an Internet research company, estimated that 37 percent of American households are online. INTECO also reported that 57 percent of online households indicated annual incomes of more than $50,000. Another company, IntelliQuest Research, set the figure at 40 percent, or 83 million adults age 16 or older, that are online. This report detailed that 56 million people, or 70 percent of those using the Internet, shopped online in the past three months.
Actual Internet usage has been doubling every year. A recent report projected that such use will double every six to nine months for the next several years. If they hold true, these trends will bring us to a point where the majority of the American population will be online within the next five years.
The other economic impact the Internet is having on the economy can be seen in the stock market. A recent Initial Public Offering (IPO) of Priceline.com opened at $18 a share on NASDAQ. By the end of the day, with the stock's last trade above $86 per share, Priceline.com had a stock value approaching $11 billion dollars. That was almost the value of American Airlines on that same day. Not bad for a company that was less than two years old and had never shown a profit.
My point is a simple one: As business people, we just cannot ignore the tidal wave that is sweeping the country and the world. Let me give a few specific examples of how our industry is already using the Web. Your facility may already be online and you just don't know it. As I reference specific Web sites, I will also provide you with their Universal Reference Locator (URL) address.
The largest current site for potential customers to find self-storage facilities continues to be Rent Net at www.rent.net/ctg/cgi-bin/RentNet/SelfStorage/. Divided into categories by state, this site provides links to specific individual facilities or companies. I have not seen a recent report on these companies' growth over the past year, but all of the public self-storage REITS have their own Web sites and so do a number of individual owners. Let me give you a few sites to check out yourself:
- Shurgard: www.shurgard.com
- Public Storage: www.publicstorage.com
- Storage USA: www.sus.com
- Sovran (Uncle Bob's): www.sovranss.com
- Executive Self Storage: www.executiveselfstorage.com
- Manhattan Mini Storage: www.mini-storage.com
- Seth's Self Storage: www.seths-self-storage.com
Being On Board
Is your facility already listed on the Internet? You may be surprised at the answer. Many chambers of commerce have Web sites that include all of their members. In some cases, universities and colleges have local self-storage sites listed on the institution's Web site. I have run into a number of owners that had no idea that they were on the Internet in this manner.
Nothing can take the place of your own Web site. It is a little like designing a Yellow Pages ad, except you have more room and the costs can be significantly less. The easiest way is to sit down and look at the sites that others have created. You will find a great deal of creativity has already gone into many of these sites. All you have to do is go to a search engine such as Alta Vista (www.altavista.com) and type in "self-storage." You will get back more than 7,700 pages for your review. Many of these sites are just subsections of a single site, but it will get you started. You may even get some ideas for your facility's literature and marketing materials from what you find.
There is also a variety of specific self-storage sites that you can turn to for help. Inside Self-Storage magazine has an excellent site at www.insideselfstorage.com, which includes a searchable archive. You simply type in the topic that you are interested in and a search engine retrieves recent magazine articles that may be helpful.
Jill and Stanley Waldman of Ask the Waldmans have created a great site at www.askthewaldmans.com. You can search for industry vendors, look at their latest column, get self-storage REIT stock quotes and even search for projects in a given city. It's a site worth checking out.
Also remember that many of the industry associations have Web sites providing a great deal of information. The national Self Storage Association has a site at www.selfstorage.org, the Texas Mini Storage Association has one at www.selfstor.com/tmsa.htm, and the New York Self Service Storage Association's site is located at www.nysssa.org. Your state association may also have an online presence.
Small-business consultant Mark Deion, based in Rhode Island, has created one of the best business-to-business reference sites that I have found on the Web. He says he built this site over the past several years to provide other businesspeople with a shortcut to the best Web sites that he has found. He also teaches MS Power Point presentations about the Internet at Brown University. Mark makes no money from his site--it's just a service that one individual is willing to provide. I urge you to visit www.deionassociates.com/hplist/ to see the many national and international links he has developed.
I'll admit to spending a great deal of time on the Internet each business day. I am fortunate in that, for the past two years, I have had high-speed Internet access in my home office via a cable-modem connection. I communicate via e-mail, research various topics, access banking information and buy products and services on the Web. It even surprises me at times the information that I can find.
For example, doing research for a client recently, I discovered that a growing number of communities have all of their real-estate tax records online. I was able to access the tax files on all of the self-storage facilities in the target market my client was considering. From my office in Buffalo, N.Y., I was able to learn not only the assessed values and annual tax amounts, but the total square feet of each project in Florida.
There are no hard numbers on the impact that Web sites are having in generating possible self-storage rental leads. Judging from the attention to detail that many self-storage companies have put into their sites, it is obvious that these owners are not willing to be left behind. If you have not yet gotten wet, jump into the Internet. It is not only educational, but may represent the future of marketing our industry directly to the individual customer looking for space.
P.S. Just to set the record straight, Vice President Al Gore did not invent the Internet. In fact, the roots of the Internet can be traced back to President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1957, he signed the legislation creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It is from this agency that the World Wide Web, as we know it today, evolved. Senator Al Gore did introduce the Super Computer Network Study Act back in 1986.
Jim Chiswell is the president of Chiswell & Associates of Williamsville, N.Y. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. In addition to contributing regularly to Inside Self-Storage, Mr. Chiswell is a frequent speaker at Inside Self-Storage Expos. He can be reached via e-mail at Jchiswell@adelphia.net or by calling his office at (716) 634-2428.