Does evolving technology drive business trends, or do business trends drive the need for technology? Its sometimes hard to tell if the dog is wagging the tail or vice versa.
For example, an engineer thinks how great it would be to view surveillance cameras via the web. A business owner thinks how great it would be if his cameras would alert him any time they sense motion on his property after hours. Ultimately, business needs and new technology meet in the open marketplaceone trend filling the demand of another. So what self-storage needs are driving the birth of industry technology, and what technology is inspiring changes in self-storage?
Whats on the Horizon?
Talking with fellow industry professionals at a recent tradeshow, I asked, What does the future hold for self-storage technology? The consensus was its hard to predict. In 1993, who would have foreseen the power of the Internet? Now I cant figure out how we ever did business without it, one owner said.
We wonder how we ever got along without computers, fax machines and cell phones. What will be next on the must-have list? Four technology trends seem to be evolving:
Technology products are maturing and becoming easier to use, with better features for business owners and customers. Together, they comprise an infrastructure that allows storage facilities to create new business models, particularly when it comes to site security. Some of the advantages created are: an easier way for smaller facilities to compete with storage chains; personalized services for tenants; staffing flexibility for storage owners; the possibility of unmanned sites; an increased marketing edge; and rejuvenation for older facilities.
Making Small Businesses Competitive
Self-storage is one of the most entrepreneurial industries in America. For every Extra Space or Public Storage facility that springs up on Main Street, there are a handful of sites started by a single investor or small investment group. Self-storage is one of the few industries in which a small business owner can actually compete with a big corporation, because the size of a company provides little advantage in the acquisition of land and building materials, management, marketing know-how, and the implementation of technology.
Unlike other industries in which an investment in security and management technology can be costly, making it difficult for smaller companies to compete, self-storage enjoys options that are affordable and easy to employ. These days, even small facilities arm themselves with gates, access control, door alarms, surveillance cameras, intercoms and management software, creating quality security and automation that equals or surpasses that of the corporate competition.
Some would argue small businesses have more flexibility to add security solutions as they evolve, especially as they dont need to accommodate several to hundreds of sites. An incremental investment can sometimes provide better security and customer service, which helps the small business get and keep customers.
Providing Personalized Service
Security technology has progressed dramatically over the past decade. First came keypads that managed access gates, then door alarms. Next, we got video cameras with VCRs for recording data, and so on. Each development has helped tenants understand that storage owners are serious about providing secure sites to store goods. The newest advancements will take things a step further, personalizing the storage experience.
For example, electronic door locks are entering the market, targeted toward customers wanting to store high-value items or commercial customers with business files and inventory that require a higher degree of protection. These have long been a staple in the commercial market, and now theyre finding increased usefulness in self-storage.
In addition, online customer service is here and getting more sophisticated every day. Web-based options have created a slew of advantages on the management side of operations. Similarly, they will provide better security and access control. For example, integrating web software with surveillance cameras allow facility owners to keep an eye on their facilities from anywhere in the world through an Internet connection. It can also allow tenants to view their particular units, also via the web. In short order, all alarm events will be sent directly to the owner with a picture or short video of the alarm source, which will enable him to assess the security breach.
Creating Staffing Flexibility
There is a growing trend in the industry toward the use of part-time management teams. While plenty of companies still use resident managers, others keep staff on a 9-to-5 clock. How do these business-hour sites handle after-hour security? Can they safely offer 24-hour access? The latest security tools make anything possible.
Evolving technology for access control and CCTV allows owners to centralize all of a sites security functions on a single computer at a home or regional office or with a security-monitoring company. Information sits at the fingertips of those who need it, when they need it, no matter where they are. Moving forward, security alerts will be super specific, telling the responsible party which unit alarm was triggered and the camera that sensed motion. They may even include video of the event.
With all these great tools, owners can rest easy when giving managers leave at the end of the day, knowing they can view their site from a remote computer or be notified in an emergency. In the future, even tenants will be notified when something is amiss with their units, increasing the personalization of security services.
Venturing Into Unmanned Territory
A step beyond staffing flexibility is no staff at all. Some enterprising operators are venturing into the realm of completely automated self-storage operations that function with minimal to no human interventionnot withstanding tenants, of course!
Unattended sites are not new to this industry. Theyve been used in self-storage for years, though not at the current level of sophistication. For example, sites in extremely rural communities are sometimes left unmanned for sheer practicality. In these situations, the owner or manager generally lives a short distance away and can be summoned to the site when necessary.
But high-tech options are here, making unmanned storage a possibility even in urban markets. Tools like electronic door locks, self-serve kiosks, video conferencing, intercoms, cameras and the Internet all play a role. Try to imagine an office bedecked with kiosks, cameras and microphones. On-screen wizards help tenants rent units, pay rent, print rental agreements, even buy locks via the kiosks. Video conferencing and intercoms are available when tenants need help. A code-based web interface lets tenants access the views of surveillance cameras aimed at their unit doors.
Whether technological security tools are sufficient to make customers feel they and their goods are protected, only time will tell. But the features work well and efficiently; and as we have seen, where technology exists to support a notion, opportunities abound.
Making the Most of Marketing
Lets face it: Security sells. After customer service, security is the No. 1 reason customers choose to rent from you. Its one of the best investments you can make. As security hardware and software evolve, it will only become more valuable to your operation. When you can offer 24-hour service and access to your facility, its an advantage. When customers view your security logs, surveillance monitors, unit alarms and site-graphics displays, its a distinct benefit to your business. All these features combined create a powerful marketing message.
Think in particular of those customers who store high-dollar items, such as RVs, boats, antique cars, business records, art, etc. For them, peace of mind is not just a gate and a door alarm, but a surveillance camera, motion detector, perimeter beam, alert system and other hightech items. Offer these, and you can sell your site to tenants with ease.
Rejuvenating Older Facilities
Now that the storage industry has survived several decades, there are a few generations of facilities. First-generation sites were built with little or no security, as the available options of the day were minimal. But that doesnt mean they cant compete in todays competitive market. A well-planned retrofit can bring a sites security up to snuff. Doesnt that involve a lot of work, you ask? Not with wireless security tools.
Wireless door alarms have made it possible to renovate a facilitys security offerings with little hassle. The cost is even reasonable, and will continue to become more affordable as the technology improves. Not only do wireless options allow owners to upgrade older sites, they create a revenue opportunity: Individual unit alarms can be added to an entire facility, serving as justification for a full-scale rent increase; or they can be sold to tenants as an ancillary option for which they pay a premium.
Even wireless keypads and intercoms are on the horizon. The only security component for which wireless options have not been realized is the video camera, due to the large amount of data it transmits. While quality wireless cameras at affordable prices may not be around the corner, rest assured some engineer will let trends drive the cause.
So, do self-storage trends give rise to new technology, or does technology mold the industry? Perhaps its a little of both. In either case, high-tech tools are coming available, and the business need for competitive advantages is sharp. What newfangled developments lie around the bend? We cant be certain; but let me know if you get the inside track!
Tom Lewellen is the sales and marketing manager for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PTI Integrated Systems Inc., which offers a complete, integrated, management-software and access-control system for self-storage worldwide. For more information, call 800.331.6224; visit www.ptiaccess.com.