Just a couple of years ago, smartphone and Web-capable mobile devices generated quite the "wow" factor. Only a slim portion of the generation population owned them, and therefore businesses didn't see the need for mobile-specific products and marketing to reach their customers. But times have changed. According to Nielsen, 40 percent of cell phone users in the United States now carry smartphones, and as soon as next year, smartphones may cross the 50 percent line and overtake standard cell phones. The question for many self-storage operators and managers is, "Does this mean that next year more than half of my customers will be using smartphones? And if so, do I need to start reaching them through their smartphones with a mobile application dedicated my facility? Would tenants prefer to pay rent, ask questions and rent units this way?"
The topic is being discussed right now on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community and the official forum of Inside Self-Storage, in the thread "Would Your Tenants Use a Mobile App?" So far, there's no consensus as to whether it's a good idea to develop a customer-facing mobile app. That's not surprising, considering no two facilities have the same tenant and potential customer base. Some facilities cater to an tech-savvy, often affluent or young-professional base, while others reach a less-affluent, many times older demographic, which is less likely to be toting around smartphones. Another issue is whether any consumer, tech-savvy and mobile-friendly or not, would bother to carry out self-storage transactions on a mobile app. Self-storage is a very utilitarian expense, not generally leisureful, and many consumers aren't concerned with how they make their payments and conduct business, as long as it's convenient and doesn't trouble them too much. They're probably not too concerned with fancy bells and whistles. On the other hand, you could make the opposite argument with the same premise: Self-storage customers are most interested in convenience and ease of transaction; therefore, if a mobile app would allow them to take care of their business more quickly, why wouldn't you offer it to try to attract them?
SST member Barnett and facility colleagues are mulling paying for a customer app. Members w.walker and Michaeld have posed mobile alternatives, perhaps less expensive. W.walker is going to start printing quick-response codes on signs outside the facility so that a tenant could come to the facility, scan the QR code onto a smartphone with the built-in camera, and automatically be directed to a webpage where they can apy their bill or coduct other business. Michaeld adds that instead of focusing on a mobile app, facilities should be sure to have a "mobile-friendly" regular website or a mobile version of their website. This is important because consumers trying to access the facility website on a smartphone browser, such as Safari, will want to read a website that displays correctly and is formatted to fit a small screen. Developing and coding a mobile-friendly website or a mobile version of a website is quite a bit less expensive than paying a mobile app developer. (Appmuse.com quotes customers a starting price of $2,000, but bigger brands pay in the tens of thousands; app developers earn about $100 an hour.) Of course, that conclusion assumes that self-storage software providers won't soon include the development of a customer-facing mobile app with their cost of service. Some providers already have a mobile app designed for operators, but the next frontier could be customers. It can't hurt to call your management software provider and ask these questions.
Perhaps the best idea is to survey your customers (or a sampling of your customers) and ask, first, who uses smartphones as their primary cell phone and, second, who would prefer to access the facility website through an app instead of the typical browser. If an overwhelming number of customers seem to have an interest, and if you think you can appeal to a "techie" market by advertising your app, then it may be worth it. But my hunch is that the bulk of self-storage customers still don't expect this service, so you're probably OK to hold off on it for now.