A recent study by the National Self Storage Association indicates U.S. self-storage space exceeded 2 billion square feet by March 2006 and is growing more than 9 percent annually. Swift growth and rapid technological advances during the past years have catapulted the self-storage industry to a whole new level. Along with the entry of new investors and the expansion of leading operators, who are acquiring smaller properties to add to their portfolios, comes a hugely competitive marketplace.
The challenges for companies operating multiple facilities can be boiled down to three key concerns:
- Generating new business
- Reducing operational costs
- Maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction
One way to tackle all these challenges, as well as embrace today’s attention-getting technologies is to take your business online.The E-Commerce Solution
Implementing an e-commerce solution generates additional business by reaching a wider audience. It leads to improved customer satisfaction and reduced labor costs while improving rental efficiency. For customers, it doesn’t get any better! They can conveniently complete their transactions from home or office. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned.
A good e-commerce solution integrates with your website, which is how it targets a broader audience. The system should be user-friendly and easy to navigate, with a step-by-step approach that provides information on facility locations, unit sizes and availability, prices and special promotions. The goal is to allow customers to make intelligent and informed decisions. Consider the following options.
- Online Reservations: If prospective tenants are looking to rent a unit in the future, they can reserve it online without having to visit the facility. A quality system will help them decide what size or type to rent. After making a reservation, they can visit the office at their own convenience to complete required paper work.
- Online Rental: Tenants can complete all required paperwork online.
- Online Account Review: Accounts may be accessed to view details of charges, remaining balances, payments, daily activity—reducing billing discrepancies.
- Online Payment: Credit cards accepted! This allows tenants to make the payment on time, conveniently, avoiding late-fee charges.
- Call-Center Integration: With a secured log-in, call-center employees can access the website to check pricing, space availability and promotion information for callers, as well as rent units and take reservations.
A Case StudyHeadquartered in Columbia, Md., ezStorage Corp. owns and operates 36 facilities in Maryland and Virginia. The company is expanding rapidly, adding four to five sites to its portfolio annually. It’s had a website reservation system for more than a year. Based on the steady growth in online traffic and new rentals generated from the website, ezStorage recently decided to provide online capabilities for tenants to rent units, review accounts and make payments.
In a recent interview, Kevin Radcliffe, controller, discussed the company’s e-commerce plans. Below is an excerpt of the interview:How important is it for a self-storage business to go online?
The Internet has changed the way consumers shop. Ten years ago, many people didn’t have access to the web and, if they did, they were limited in what they could do. Five years ago, most people had dial-up connections and used the Internet for research, maybe doing some comparison shopping. Today, many have high-speed connection and do a lot of shopping online.
We have found most of our business comes from walk-ins, but a growing number of our customers are coming because of the Internet. Although we still have some locations that derive virtually no business from the web, we believe a good online presence is an integral part of any successful business plan.At what point should a company consider online reservations and rentals?
I think it really depends on where you do business and what competitive forces you are facing. If you are a small operator with little competitive pressure, you can probably wait, but from a customer-service perspective there’s no reason why even a single-location owner doesn’t offer the ability to make a reservation online. The cost of creating a simple website with basic reservation functionality is so low any company can do it. As far as offering a complete Internet-based, customer-service interaction with web reservations, rentals, account management, it’s up to the operators to judge when the time is right.What should be considered prior to taking online reservations and rentals?
First and foremost, you should check with legal counsel. Your lawyer should know what information your rental reservation system needs in order to complete the transaction. Next you should reflect on how business processes will change:
- Do the costs of the changes outweigh the benefits of offering a web-based rental system?
- Do you want it to integrate automatically with a point-of-sale system or will a manual integration suffice?
- What infrastructure changes need to be made?
- How will you drive people to the website?
- What data would you like to collect using the new system?
Why did you take your business online?We are constantly evaluating our systems and procedures for improvement. We see what other industries are doing and whether their advancements can be applied to our self-storage model. With the changes in the shopping habits of the general public, it was a no-brainer that we would go online.
Think of it this way: A customer decides to pay his bill from a secure portal on our website instead of visiting the office. We’ve now allowed him to transact business on his terms—when, where and how he wants to do it. By doing this transaction in cyberspace, we have reduced our transaction costs; plus, by collecting data from customers online, we can learn more about our tenants. Finally, we have created a more secure transaction.
The culture at ezStorage is such that we are encouraged to challenge the status quo, and we believe technology is going to help take us to the next level.How does ezStorage and its customers benefit?
Simple: More customers, better service, less-expensive transactions, better internal controls, and—last but not least— more information.Finally, how do think e-commerce will shape the company’s future?
With the different geographical markets we serve, offering an interactive web-based experience is something we think is essential to long-term growth. Customers want it, so by complying, it will help us grow.
Kat Shenoy is the president and CEO and Sachin Bhakta is the director of development of E-SoftSys. Headquartered in Blue Bell, Pa., the company is a total-solutions provider for the self-storage industry in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Products include Self-Storage Manager and e-StorageOnline. Services include website design, development and integrating online rentals and call-center reservations into company websites. For more information, call 610.277.7457, ext. 5; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org ; visit www.selfstoragemanager.com .