Like all businesses, the self-storage industry faced a crucial challenge when COVID-19 erupted. The world seemed to change overnight, and facility operators had to move quickly to adjust to the new normal. Though we were fortunate in that self-storage was deemed essential in most areas and allowed to stay open, there was still a need to adopt new processes that would keep employees and customers safe.
Many operators embraced technology to offer online and otherwise contactless unit rentals. As the pandemic drags on, the popularity of these new offerings seems to be increasing. Customers continue to avoid face-to-face interactions as much as possible, and the storage operators who are using tech tools to power their hands-off service options are better equipped to compete in this new paradigm.
On SpareFoot.com, my company’s self-storage marketplace, we rolled out a new “contactless” badge in April. To earn it, participating facilities had to offer electronic leases as well as online payments, reservations and move-ins. They also had to provide support by phone, text or e-mail. Within a short period, about 50 percent of the operators on the network had earned the designation, which allowed consumers searching site to instantly recognize businesses that offer COVID-safe rental options.
Based on data collected on SpareFoot, we believe consumer preferences for online, human-free business transactions will continue, even after the health crisis is in the rearview mirror. Here’s what we’ve seen:
- Demand on Google for generic keywords like “storage near me” are up year-over-year. That means more consumers are looking for storage online, as opposed to simply walking into a local facility.
- Marketplace visitors dropped to -17 percent at the beginning of the pandemic but are now up 20 percent year over year. Shutdown orders early in the crisis prevented anyone from doing business anywhere. When restrictions relaxed, the self-storage sector quickly recovered as pent-up demand was unleashed. COVID forced many people to move for work or change their housing situation, all of which leads to more business for storage operators.
- Self-storage reservations dropped to -22 percent at the beginning of the crisis but are now up 33 percent year over year. Not only are customers shopping online, they’re making the decision to reserve online.
- Self-storage unit prices dropped to -15 percent at the beginning of the crisis (mostly driven by real estate investment trusts) but are now up 4 percent year over year. This is a great sign for the industry. It demonstrates there’s ample demand for the storage product, even as it comes off the heels of a historic development run.
A Permanent Shift
Our customers are turning to the digital realm to find self-storage in greater numbers than ever before, and we anticipate that change will stick even when the public pandemic comes to an end. Consumer preference for contact-free service could remain for a number of reasons including convenience, a streamlined service experience, and a growing comfort with technology.
Operators who want to capture as many tenants as possible will need to adapt to more digital forms of shopping and engagement. They must equip themselves with the latest technology to be competitive in this new environment. You need an online presence, plus the ability to offer online rentals and payments.
A move toward more digital and automated processes was already happening in self-storage before the pandemic, but the virus accelerated the trend and made it even stronger than before. Consumers are shifting to digital shopping and self-serve options. If you want to succeed, you’ll need to “meet” them where they want to be—not in person. COVID-19 will eventually go away, but the trend toward contactless operation is here to stay!
Trace Hughes is a senior copywriter at Storable, a supplier of cloud-based access control, management software, marketing, payment processing, website development and other services for the self-storage industry. He has nearly a decade of marketing and communications experience, having worked with several advertising agencies. He believes clear, compelling communication is the cornerstone to any successful business. To reach him, email [email protected].