By RK Kliebenstein
Editor's note: The opinions of this column are the express convictions of the author. Inside Self-Storage does not endorse individual products or services of industry suppliers.
From computer bits and bytes to Xeon processors, from automatic-payment processing to world-class training for your managers, Tech Talk brings you the latest in technological products and services for self-storage. Designed as a means for first-generation stores to compete with newer, state-of-the-art facilities, this column will give you the tools to beat the competition.
New Lease-Up Tool
One of the latest trends among the major self-storage operators (such as U-Haul, Shurgard, Storage USA and Public Storage) is the race to perfect the renting of storage space via the Internet. Modeling after successful websites such as Sabre, which serves as a reservation system for the airline industry, and Internet portals such as Travelocity, which actually allows passengers to book reservations online, the self-storage giants recognize the value in allowing customers to rent online.
There are huge upfront expenses involved in developing this technology. Some companies have used the online rental feature to lure independent self-storage operators into lucrative management contracts and gain access to online rentals. Online directory services such as Storage Net can get the customer to your door via the Internet, but they do not allow a prospective customer to actually rent a unit and pay by credit card.
What Is the Concept?
At the Self Storage Association conference in Denver at the end of September, a company called Online Self Storage debuted a program that represents a quantum leap in the ability of independent operators, regional players and even national firms to embrace this technology at low cost. Onlineselfstorage.com is an electronic marketplace for the self-storage industry, bringing facility owners together with online customers.
This interactive Internet marketplace allows facility owners to electronically post available inventory, advertise promotions, provide updated pricing information and give important details about their facility, including location, amenities and unique features. Customers that prefer shopping online will be able to make informed decisions regarding their storage-space needs, obtain information about specific facilities, and make reservations or payments from the convenience of their home or office.
What Does This Do for the Storage Customer?
For customers who demand the convenience and power of online shopping, the service provides a large selection of available storage inventory, allowing them to choose the best location, price and amenities. Unlike conventional shopping through Yellow Pages or online searches through the websites of individual facilities, Online Self Storage provides an interactive shopping experience that culminates in the reservation and purchase of the best available space. Some of the site's features include: online bookings, quick- and detailed-search capabilities, geocoding and mapping, specials and discounts, customer education, space calculator and customer profile.
What Does This Mean for Owners?
For self-storage owners, the service provides an electronic marketplace where they can post up-to-date information on available inventory, specials and other aspects of their facility. Owners will also be able to accept electronic credit-card reservations and ongoing payments online. Special features for owners include: participation options, instantaneous sales transactions, inventory control, facility-management features, Internet specials and promotions, reservation and payment management, and online banner advertising.
What if You Already Have a Website?
Online Self Storage integrates into a facility's existing website, registering online rentals as a part of the company. The service offers embedded websites a "competition free" session. Figure 1 indicates the flow web users experience, depending on how onlineselfstorage.com is accessed. This process is "seamless" to the prospective self-storage tenant.
What Are Potential Drawbacks?
One of the current challenges of this system is that the spaces an owner offers for online booking must be manually conveyed or "uploaded" into the reservation system. Online Self Storage is developing application interfaces that will automate this process, but this feature is currently not available.
The only other drawback is that you do not "own" the customer once he is in the Online Self Storage reservation system; that is to say, you are still competing with other storage properties. This risk is somewhat mitigated by the search system. We know self-storage is location-sensitive, that the storage customer wants to store within close proximity to his home or business, and that he will likely choose a self-storage facility first by location, then by price and availability. If your product is priced properly and you are giving proper descriptions and features online, you have the best opportunity to capture the prospective customer.
Is It Expensive?
Initial discussions with the developer about pricing indicate the start-up cost may be a one-time fee less than $500, with per-rental charges around $10.
A Final Thought
Access to a reservation system of this sophistication level is a definite boon for the self-storage operator. The cost of developing such a system is prohibitive. By sharing it with other operators, an owner can have almost all of the features with very little downside. This product is of such low risk, every facility with space available to rent should consider participating.
For more information, call 877.301.4635, or contact the author at 561.367.9241.
RK Kliebenstein of Coast-to-Coast Storage is an industrywide author and public speaker on technology and tools to help storage operators compete in this challenging marketplace. For more information on how your first- or second-generation facility can beat state-of-the-art competitors, contact Coast-To-Coast Storage toll-free at 877.622.5508.
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