Running an Automated Self-Storage Site: Customers Clamor for Self-Service

Robert A. Chiti Comments
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As the economy continues to take America for a wild ride, self-storage owners are left looking for creative ways to rent more units, reduce operating cost and improve customer retention. Many have found that using technology to automate existing facilities is producing some real benefit. Some have even discovered they can operate their facility with limited or no onsite staff.

“In this tough economic climate, automation has enabled me to undercut the market and still be open when my competitors are not,” says Robert Walker, owner of Self Storage of America, an 1,100-unit facility in downtown Indianapolis. “A minimal investment in automation has allowed me to eliminate staffing expenses on Sundays, Mondays and all holidays, saving me $10,000 annually.”

Five years ago, running a self-storage facility without an onsite manager was something attempted by owners of only very small facilities. The idea of running a 25,000- to 40,000-square-foot facility without a manager was unheard of; but today, unmanned sites have become more commonplace. As it turns out, all facilities end up being unmanned to some degree.

Hours of Operation

It’s no secret that consumers have become use to and even expect to do business on their schedule. Gone are the days when a business can keep banker’s hours. In this respect, automated storage facilities are better equipped to serve today’s consumers. Traditional facilities with onsite or resident managers usually hold office hours for 8 to 10 hours and are closed for business the rest of the day, where unmanned facilities are open up to 24 hours.

When it comes to renting more units, there’s not much argument that when a potential renter is looking for a storage space after hours, he will bypass facilities with the light out in the office and go to the one down the street where business is still happening. But there’s a catch: To be open for business when the office is closed takes an investment in infrastructure including electronically controlled access, security cameras, ample lighting, a self-service kiosk to rent units and process payments and, yes, people.

While technology has improved to a point where customers can serve themselves, there are still times when only a live person will do. Someone still needs to answer calls, clean out units, perform lock checks, hold auctions and be available to deal with customer issues. This part of the puzzle is being solved with the help of a call center and a part-time employee to stop by the facility on a regular basis.

Designing and Building Unmanned Facilities

Self-service kiosk at Secure Holdings Inc.

Jim Adams, president of Secure Holdings Inc. in Indiana, has made developing and operating fully automated facilities a part of his company’s long-term strategy. “Having built unmanned facilities from the ground up as well as more traditional storage facilities, I know firsthand each model can be done successfully,” Adams says. “A few years ago, it became obvious that we could not all buy prime locations in urban markets like Public Storage. With many of the metropolitan markets already saturated, I started looking at how I could develop a quality facility in second- and third-tier markets.”

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