There’s no doubt the Internet has changed the way we do business. While the impact of the web has been greater for some industries than others, it’s finally affecting the self-storage industry and shaping our business landscape. One of the main reasons the web has such an enormous influence is because it gives consumers greater access to information on products and services. With more information at the buyer’s fingertips, the balance of power between buyer and seller (control of the sale) has permanently shifted toward the consumer. It’s a buyer’s market and a national marketplace.
Realities of the Online Market
Nothing illustrates this paradigm better than the recent experience of a friend of mine. She was in the market to purchase a new car. In the past, she dreaded the dealership car-buying experience. This time, however, she was much more confident. Thanks to the Internet, she was able to research all the models that interested her. She compared all the features and extras, and printed out all the data and MSRP prices.
Before my friend even walked into a dealership, she knew exactly what she wanted and what she was willing to pay for it. In addition, she had already lined up financing on the web and knew her monthly payment. No more “Let me talk to my manager” or “What do you want your payment to look like?”—thanks to the web, she was in control of the buying process. This is the reality every business owner now faces. The question is how and when to turn this to your advantage.
Accept, Adapt, Be More Competitive
Some business owners worry the Internet takes away their control. They suspect their data might be accessed or hacked into by an unauthorized party. They worry about their Internet service provider or the entire power grid failing. You could get paranoid about these doomsday scenarios. While they are valid concerns, at some point, you have to cross the threshold of fear and ask yourself, “Do the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks?”
That’s where many self-storage owners stand on the web issue these days—weighing the pros and cons. But the ones who are willing to accept a web-based reality are the ones who will survive in the long-term. Smart owners will adapt to the new national marketplace and determine how they can use the Internet to make their businesses more competitive. Operators need to understand the web is more than a powerful medium for consumers to research products and services; it’s also an effective platform for managing a business.
Many industries are using the Internet to run their operations more efficiently using real-time web-based software. The Internet eliminates a lot of paperwork and redundancy in systems. It also reduces operational costs, enables a more streamlined management approach, and allows for faster response to rapidly changing market conditions. A storage owner can access his web-based system from any Internet connection in the world. He can even monitor his facility while on vacation with his family.
Self-storage leaders like Private Mini Storage, Public Storage, Storage USA, U-Haul, and Your Extra Space havealready shifted their operations to a web-based platform. It’s only a matter of time until all of our industry forerunners convert. If you agree that a web-based management approach is here to stay, ask yourself how you can adapt your business accordingly.
Advantages of a Web-Based Platform
The power of the web lies in its ability to connect to a network. It offers business owners an opportunity to look big but stay small. By shifting to a web-based platform, a self-storage owner can take advantage of a bigger network of operators (economies of scale) and compete with the big brands without sacrificing his personal business identity.
I recently spoke to three self-storage owners who transferred their business operations to the web. Each is a different class of owner and a leader in his own league. When I asked why they decided to switch to a web-based platform, this is what they had to say:
- Lee Fredricks of Texarkana, Ark., owner of six Tri-State Mini Storage stores—“My roundtrip drive to all our facilities is about 16 hours. The difficulty in managing the properties up close and personal is very challenging. I need a method of keeping a close eye on my facilities from very far away. We are a very small operation, and we run a tight budget because of our debt-service ratios. I want a simple and easy-to-use management system that requires minimal hardware, makes me more money and saves me money. I don’t want to keep spending more every year to upgrade my hardware and get faster machines.”
- Van Gray, owner of Your Extra Attic, a 14-store chain based out of Atlanta—“Our operational costs have been reduced in terms of what we pay for technical support because we use a free live-chat tool over the web. It has also reduced the paperwork and faxing load from facilities to the corporate office. We can now standardize the rates between facilities and adjust them, which will increase our revenue across the board. Also, we keep getting referrals from other self-storage companies who are on our same platform, and this has resulted in significant occupancy increases in some of our stores.”
- Andy Hyde, owner of All City Self- Storage in Philadelphia—“My storage building is 15 miles away from my office. My partner is five miles away. My marketing company is in Texas. My accountant is farther way. I looked at standalone packages that transmit data periodically; it really wasn’t enough. I wanted to get into the system to work on letter templates and business rules. And when my employees have trouble, I want to be able to help them without having to drive to the store. I recently migrated to a less expensive web-based platform because I want something in real time but that’s affordable.”
Lee, Van and Andy got over the fear factor of putting their business on the web and now leverage the Internet to improve their service and profits. Their focus was not just getting better online technology; they really asked themselves how the technology could bring them a long-term, strategic business advantage. By embracing the changing reality the web brought to their businesses, they created a cost benefit. The Internet enabled them to tailor their storage offering to customer preferences.
The Right Solution for Your Business
How do you pick the web-based solution that balances your business and customer needs? At the end of the day, owners all want the same thing: They want the best technology and tools to manage their business at an affordable price. They want to know how the technology will allow them to improve their bottom line.
There are a lot of software platforms to choose from and more and more vendors crowding the marketplace. All the programs are starting to look the same, though each claims to be better than the others. How do you determine which is best for you? Here is a simple checklist to use as you shop for your web-based solution:
- Simplicity and Ease of Use: You want technology that is simple and easy to use. Does it perform basic management functions securely and reliably? Does the vendor have a large base of successful users in the industry?
- Increased Occupancy: The power of the web lies in its network. Does the software connect you to a bigger pool of customers? Does it offer you the advantage of co-branding? Can you receive referrals from fellow operators?
- Savings: You are in business to make a profit. There is no reason to change your software unless it improves your bottom line. Does the technology save you money on operational expenses, tenant and property insurance, credit-card processing and after-hours phone support?
- Increased Service: Customers demand increased convenience. Does the technology enable customers to make payments, manage their accounts and get help online?
- Knowledge of the Business: Is the technology created by professionals in the self-storage industry? Does it allow you to leverage the know-how and best practices of the industry to strengthen your business?
- Affordable Technical Support: All technology purchases require support and upgrades. Make sure all forms of technical support are available and, more important, affordable. Find a vendor who furnishes regular upgrades at no additional cost.
- Price/Cost: Don’t be fooled by fancy corporate presentations on expensive features. Web-based technology is not inherently expensive. Is the technology affordable? Does it deliver value as determined by improved profits?
The Internet offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform your business and gain a permanent strategic advantage. Embrace the web and you will be surprised to see how fast your profits increase. Use the checklist and good old-fashioned personal judgment when you shop for online technology. Leverage the web to fill your storage units, make more, pay less and compete with the big brands without losing your independence.
Srini Vasan is the director of eMove, a subsidiary of U-Haul International Inc. and the world’s largest online marketplace for moving and self-storage products and services. Independent self-storage owners can connect to the eMove network by becoming an eMove Storage Affiliate. Premier-level affiliates receive WebSelfStorage, a web-based point-of-sale and management software. For more information, call 866.MY.EMOVE; visit www.emove.com.