Another interesting statistic is, in 2002, 48 percent of all Internet users in America had purchased a product or service online. That number is expected to grow considerably over the next three years. The fears Internet users once had about purchasing goods and services online are dwindling. Many are finding the Internet to be a convenient and simple way to make purchases. The Internet is growing and is here to stay. The numbers are there to prove it.
Some self-storage owners and operators are still questioning how the Internet can benefit them and their businesses. Many use the Internet as a simple "electronic billboard" that merely provides information about their companies and facilities. But the real power of the Internet is in allowing customers to conduct business with your company 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Until a business can offer e-commerce, it has not harnessed the full power of this tool.
E-commerce, or conducting business with customers over the Internet, is important to more than 50 percent of all Internet users. Internet-related studies show this number will continue to increase rapidly over the next three to five years. This rapid growth will generate a higher demand for companies to offer e-commerce transactions. Implementing e-commerce now, and teaching employees how to manage these transactions and promote these capabilities, is a key ingredient to future success of any business.
Taking a new rental online is more than just securing a potential customer's name or lead from a website. It is allowing the customer to see available inventory and shop prices, educating him about self-storage, and then renting him a unit of his choice using a credit or debit card. The customer should be e-mailed an electronic receipt or confirmation showing the new-rental transaction, just as he would receive a confirmation when purchasing airline tickets online. The customer can then present the confirmation at the facility and complete the transaction by signing the rental agreement and obtaining an access code for the gate.
Once a customer has rented a storage unit, he should be given the opportunity to make payments as conveniently as possible. Paying online is a very efficient method. Online banking and bill paying has become one of the most popular uses of the Internet. Allowing customers to make payments via the Internet is a key to providing better customer service and improving cash flow. E-commerce also gives the storage facility a competitive edge by providing this convenient payment method.
Providing online rental and payment technology allows customers to conduct business with the facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The customer is no longer confined to conducting transactions with the facility during business hours at the self-storage location. Payments can be made at his convenience, wherever the customer may be.
Implementing and Processing E-Commerce
There are a variety of methods to enable a website's capabilities to include e-commerce transactions. There are vendors specific to self-storage that enable facilities to offer e-commerce to their customers. One provides e-commerce services by linking a facility's website to a transaction server specifically setup for self-storage. Through this server, potential customers can view the current availability of units or merchandise for sale at a specific facility. The prospect can then make the decision to rent a unit or purchase merchandise by using a debit or credit card. Payments are handled with the same efficiency as new rentals. An exchange of data and transactions between e-commerce service companies and management software systems makes the integration of online transactions seamless.
Another option enables facilities to offer online rentals and payments through online property-management software, tying transactions to a facility's website. There are also third-party products that were not designed specifically for the self-storage industry but can provide e-commerce services. Banks and other financial institutions may also offer online shopping-cart services or links to transaction servers when you secure a credit-card merchant account.
A potential drawback with shopping-cart service providers is it may be hard to adequately demonstrate which size unit the customer may really need or the availability of a facility's units in real time. It is also difficult to make a payment through a shopping-cart application since no product is being purchased. The most common reason for selecting an industry-specific e-commerce service is it can accommodate the very specific needs of our industry, such as showing unit or merchandise availability and taking a payment for monthly rent.
Maintaining a Facility's Data
One of the key features of any system must be its ability to show and update the number of units and amount of merchandise available, including appropriate pricing and discount information. This data should be easily managed through a simple browser interface or an integrated process with your property-management software. With either method of updating a website's information, the process should be easy to change while maintaining database integrity.
For most facilities and operators, it is not reasonable to purchase costly computer hardware to host a secure web server or incur the costs of qualified personal to design, maintain and update a website and database. It is more cost-effective to out-source this vital service to ensure the facility's data and transactions are hosted by a qualified and experienced company that can maintain the security of the server.
The current generation of 14- to 25-year-olds is being raised and well-trained on the use of the Internet. This generation will demand the convenience and flexibility of renting and paying for self-storage units online. Operators adapting to this new generation of commerce will have the marketing advantage over their technically lagging competition. The Internet is here to stay.
Karen Genualdi is a marketing representative with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PTI Integrated Systems Inc., which offers a complete, integrated management-control system for self-storage. For more information, call 800.331.6224; visit www.ptiaccess.com.
Rick McGee is the president of Online Self Storage Inc., which provides online reservations and payments, websites and online-directory services to the self-storage industry. For more information, call 520.407.7999; visit www.onlineselfstorage.com.
PTI Integrated Systems
Contact: Business Development
Product(s): TaskMaster, Master Security, Falcon 2000, SiteMaster Graphics
Software Type: Management software
Price Range: $495-$4,000
Designed specifically for storage? Yes
Current version on market since: January 2003
New version to be released: June 2003
Demo: Available via CD or website.
Tech support: Available 24/7. Includes 30 days free support and a standard per-call premium of $540 annually. Support hours are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., Arizona time, for the toll-free number and e-mail. Support is available via cell phone after hours, 24 hours a day.
TaskMaster is a user-friendly, Windows-based management-software program designed to handle all aspects of the self-storage business. The customer-based system simplifies management of collections on delinquent accounts, assigning multiple rentals, consolidation of billing, and a one-step payment process for multiunit customers. TaskMaster manages merchandise sales, inventory, insurance and other income; and provides infinite customer history with demographic profiling for use as a marketing tool. Automatic functions are available for daily processing of rents, late fees, default correspondence, credit-card processing, FTP/e-mail, accounting exports, and extensive reporting capabilities for accrual and cash accounting. The software's Home Office System enables management to access a facility's real-time data from a remote location. It offers a variety of reports to manage finances, marketing and budget forecasting. The Master Security System is a computer-based security-management system that runs with TaskMaster. It tracks security within a customer's account and controls all security devices. Falcon 2000 is the Windows-based computer interface between the facility operator and the standalone Falcon Security System. It is user-friendly and conveniently retains infinite history of access for easy reference.