When Isaac Asimov wrote I Robot in 1959, he portrayed a future where artificial intelligence relieved humans of the day-to-day drudgery of life. Although not quite a robot, a talking self-serve kiosk is driving the success of two newcomers to the storage industry. Michelle Stadelman and Page Rush chose the leading edge of automation when they boldly opened a site designed to be unmanned. Within five months of opening, they have achieved 50 percent occupancy.
Stadelman is a former middle-school principal and Rush owned a collision repair shop for 23 years. “I was dealing with more than 700 students and 70 employees,” Stadelman says. “Page and I wanted to be in an industry with less employees and stress,” she says. Storage gave them the answer.
The 24-Hour Employee
In September, following two years of research, Stadelman and Rush opened Cornville (Ariz.) Country Storage, in an expanding community that’s retained its rural essence. The 180-unit facility was developed to include the Insomniac 900 self-serve kiosk from OpenTech Alliance Inc. The partners first saw the technology at an Inside Self-Storage Expo in Las Vegas, Rush says. The kiosk processes the renter’s application, scans his I.D., accepts payment and issues a contract and gate code. It also sells locks, which drop into a tray when purchased.
The kiosk is installed in the outside wall of a 10-by-20 unit. The back of the machine can be accessed from inside the unit, which has been set up as a small office. A canopy protects self-serve customers, and bright lights make the machine highly visible at night from the main road.
“I’ve had phone calls from people asking if our machine is an ATM,” Stadelman says. She uses these calls to market the facility and the kiosk’s convenient features. Customers are pleased they can rent a unit at any time without an appointment, she says. “We have people rent on holidays or weekends because that’s their only day off, and the kiosk makes it very convenient for them.”
The Insomniac features a talking animated figure called Megan the Mini Storage Ambassador, which directs customers through the rental process. A pager lets them call for assistance. Since Stadelman lives close to the facility, she can meet the client within a few minutes. “Page and I coordinate our schedules so one of us is always available,” she says.
About 50 percent of customers prefer to meet before renting. Many senior customers are shy of using the kiosk, Stadelman says. During the appointment, she walks them through the self-serve process. “It usually only takes 10 minutes to show them the system and to make them comfortable with its capabilities,” she says. Most of the facility’s younger customers are familiar with self-serve technology and use the kiosk to rent without ever meeting her.
Cornville Country Storage’s mission is to offer top-notch personal service. The facility is ideally situated in the center of a rapidly growing area of Arizona. Cornville is almost equidistant from Cottonwood and Sedona, two other expanding communities. The site is next door to the post office and local market. Close by is the Verde-Santa Fe Development, which plans to add 2,600 new residences. Many customers come from Sedona, an area known for its upscale second homes.
The facility was designed by Rush and Stadelman’s husband, an attorney who has developed other buildings. It took about six months from the initial design to opening. Cottonwood and Sedona were experiencing a real estate boom, which slowed the zoning and permitting stages. Once the contractor they wanted was retained, the process went smoothly, Stadelman says.
The single-story facility is constructed of metal from American Steel Building with steel roll-up doors supplied by DBCI. The manufacturers’ reps were instrumental in helping the construction process.
Although the facility hours are 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, some customers request 24-hour access. This service is often needed by business clients, Stadelman says. Although summer temperatures can reach triple digits, the store does not offer climate control, but the ceiling of each unit is insulated, reducing the internal temperate 20 degrees. Since the partner’s intent was to run an unmanned business, Cornville Country Storage doesn't sell moving supplies or rent trucks. A free dolly is available for move-in tenants.
Stadelman and Rush have the perfect partnership synergy. Stadelman does the advertising, takes sales calls and does the primary customer contact. Rush takes care of the technology, manages the software and transactions. Sometimes the partners’ families help with running the business and, of course, the kiosk eliminates the need for an onsite manager, Stadelman says.
Although the facility can be run unmanned, Stadelman likes to meet customers. She gets to know them as neighbors and finds that personal contact results in referrals. Word-of-mouth about the facility’s convenience, easy kiosk rental and security system coupled with an ad in the local Yellow Pages are the only marketing tools the partners have needed to achieve their impressive occupancy.
The self-serve kiosk along with highly visible security measures are two major contributors to the facility’s success, Rush says. These systems deter undesirable customers and those who think an unmanned business is more vulnerable to crime. About a dozen security cameras, installed by Security Products Unlimited, are around the site.
The kiosk takes a picture of the renter, and the license plate of every car that enters the site is recorded. The store’s property- management system shows the site in real time from anywhere with Internet access, Rush says. “We can see who is on the property, which units are open and how long they stay.” Other reports include the customer’s background information and payment history. Unit-access reports track traffic patterns, and the owners can see hours or days of heavy activity.
The facility’s security system is supplied by Global Electronics Ltd. and includes electronic locks and alarms, Rush says. Cornville Country Storage is only the second facility in the United States to use automatic electronic locks on each unit, according to the supplier.
Units are protected by individual electronic locks in addition to the customer’s lock. When the customer enters his code to open the gate, his unit is automatically unlocked. When the customer drives out the gate, his code locks and alarms the unit. A customer behind on the rent is overlocked. When he makes a payment at the kiosk, the overlock is removed automatically. If a customer attempts to bypass the gate code by tailgating in, his unit will not open, he says.
Rush says she’s excited about the success of the new business and the strength of the storage industry. Plus, the kiosk is allowing the partners to enjoy the best of two worlds—they’re successfully operating their first storage facility with the freedom to devote time to their families and leisure.