Change can be both exhilarating but frightening, and the self-storage industry has experienced a lot of it in recent years. The pandemic brought a tidal wave of innovation, with technology at the very crest. It propelled suppliers to create new products with advanced capabilities, and for the most part, operators are enjoying the improved service and revenue they can bring. Still, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Read on to see how fellow operators feel about the tsunami of contactless, automated and remote-management tools.
“Consumer demand and the pandemic were a catalyst in improving self-storage technology, and we’re embracing that leap,” says Sarah Little, global director of marketing for StorageMart, which operates more than 200 facilities in Canada, the United Kingdom and United States. “We aim to see that trend continue as we embrace better technologies seen in parallel industries and as we innovate within the industry.”
One of the biggest changes in self-storage over the past three years was the mass move toward contactless rentals. While some businesses offered them before COVID, the pandemic pushed many more operators to do so.
“We have been doing online rentals at our stores for eight years. The rental tool just keeps evolving, and it’s one that we can’t live without,” says Melissa Stiles, marketing director for Storage Asset Management, which provides third-party management to more than 530 facilities nationwide.
Consumers have long been accustomed to purchasing products online. Using the web to choose, reserve and pay for a self-storage unit hasn’t been as common, but that’s changing. Contactless solutions allow customers to find and rent space from any web-connected device. Users can also manage their account, make a payment or send a vacate notice. With some platforms, tenants can also communicate with the property manager.
“Although there are still a handful of customers who prefer to visit our stores in person, we’ve found that the majority of tenants prefer the contactless options we provide,” says Randall Mosca Jr., chief brand officer for Columbia Management Group, which operates more than 20 self-storage facilities in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. “The process is quicker and can be done from any device at any time. From a business standpoint, it allows us to trade expenses, such as supplies and employee hours, for technology dollars.”
Storage King USA is leveraging tools such as mobile apps, motion sensors and electronic door locks to meet heightened consumer expectations. These systems also benefit property managers in a variety of ways.
“For our team, contactless service reduces the time and cost associated with the in-person reservations, often allows our teams to reach a larger pool of prospects through alternative communication avenues, and enables us—via the use of smart locks—to expeditiously take action on delinquent units, if necessary,” says Vanessa Rovekamp, director of marketing for Andover Properties, which operates more than 100 self-storage facilities nationwide. “Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, have embraced the contact-free self-service approach and prefer to not interact with employees,” she adds.
Of course, a contactless rental isn’t right for every customer. There’s still a percentage of people who choose not to engage with technology or don’t have the resources to do so.
“Some still prefer to call or come into our stores, but a significant percent choose to do business with us online or through other contactless channels like the kiosk,” says James Hafen, vice president of product for self-storage real estate investment trust Extra Space Storage Inc. “Customer reviews and ratings of our online leasing process continue to be remarkably high, and store employees have adopted exceptionally well to the new channels.”
In this post-pandemic world, there are a variety of technology tools on which self-storage operators rely including management software, kiosks, electronic locks and digital surveillance cameras. Longstanding staples are evolving to offer more robust features, and artificial intelligence (AI) has greatly improved in recent years, particularly in video applications.
“Some of this is more critical as operators scale operations from a single or few properties to larger portfolios, or move to more automated operating models,” Hafen says. “Especially with the widespread use of online rentals, the game is changing in all these systems to mitigate risk while chasing exceptional customer experiences.”
Cloud technology has expanded the capability of many products, giving you and your tenants more options. This has been particularly beneficial to operators who’ve moved to a partially or fully automated site.
“Putting everything in the cloud, from video, digital access control and property management, is the only obvious option for storage operators, and we could not go forward without those tools,” Hafen says. “Everything from basic management, pricing, security and analytics are made much more efficient in the cloud, vastly improving efficiency and scalability.”
Cloud-based technology for things like gate access and security is something Andover believes every operator should have, Rovekamp says. However, even with a variety of tech tools at your disposal, you still need to keep an eye on the overall customer experience. “While technology is a great asset for our business, we continue to take a pulse on the human need many [renters] still have to engage in live interaction when it comes to customer support.”
While the self-storage industry has come a long way in terms of technology, there are still some features operators would like to see. Improvements in management software, security cameras and door locks top the list, but for some, drones are a product of interest. Besides using them to create videos and promote property features, these tools can enhance site security and assist with remote operation.
10 Federal Storage, which operates more than 60 unattended facilities in 14 states, has connected its drones to smart, AI-driven cameras. When a camera sees a human or car, it calls a drone to track the object until that person or vehicle exits the property.
“The drone can serve dual purposes for us. In addition to the security angle, we as an unattended operator can reduce the number of times we need to send a regional manager to visit stores, as we can use the drone to perform remote, visual walk-throughs of the site,” says Brad Minsley, principal and co-founder of 10 Federal. “This allows our regional managers to audit landscaping, general appearance, etc., all remotely as frequently as they want. They can even schedule the drone to fly overnight and record its flight to allow for us to audit site lighting.”
Another enhancement many operators desire is better Wi-Fi coverage. As older sites upgrade their technology, some are finding it challenging to avoid hiccups in connectivity. Part of this is due to the common construction of a storage building—steel and cement. While it can be costly, an improved internet network is often necessary.
“To empower customer experiences in mobile apps, drive security automation through video or sensors and beacons, and enable digital experiences like door locks, Wi-Fi and bandwidth will be key,” Hafen says. “New construction is often proactively planning for this, but older properties face disruptive and potentially expensive upgrades to enable future storage innovation.”
Like it or not, technology is here to stay. Self-storage operators just need to determine which products and services will best benefit their business and customers, then find vendor partners to guide them through the upgrade process. Smart storage providers continue to refine their digital and in-person customer experience, from rental to move-out.