There’s no denying that technology is here to stay. It has become a permanent part of our daily lives, and every day there are new advancements that etch it deeper into our way of life.
To be sure, it is impossible for most people nowadays to envision our world without any kind of technology, especially as we choose to use our smartphones and the internet to complete countless tasks and replace other products. As an example, paper is becoming passé thanks to these handheld assistants. We now use electronic tickets; text and/or email receipts; digital calendars, day planners, notebooks, and address books; e-books; digital magazines; online newspapers; and apps for anything under the sun to get the job done. What’s more, smartphones can be used as a remote control, monitoring device, and notification system for just about any smart device, lock, or appliance.
As a society, it’s safe to say that we’ve long past the point of no return. Assuredly, technology will only continue to progress. This past year has made that notion clearer than ever, even in the self-storage industry, which had been somewhat reluctant to adopt new technologies beforehand. But despite the rapid implementation of technologies to adhere to stringent CDC guidelines at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and provide customers with safe, convenient rental options, questions surrounding automation still remain, including whether self-storage facilities will be fully automated in the future.
An Automated Future
Though some self-storage operators may not be able to imagine their facilities being fully automated, Ramey Jackson, CEO of Temple, Ga.-based Janus® International Group, believes it is entirely practical for self-storage facilities, pointing out that complete automation is already happening in the United States and abroad.
Off the top of his head, Jackson was able to provide three examples of self-storage businesses with fully automated facilities, and there are several tech components that they all share, including automated onboarding, two-way communication, advanced security systems, and smart access control systems. He also mentions that other operators in the industry are utilizing the “hub and spoke” method of management, which is also known as remote or satellite sites, to take advantage of operational savings. Similar to having one cashier who oversees several self-checkout lanes at a grocery store, this approach is allowing operators to better “deploy human capital” by decreasing the number of staff members on site, Jackson says. “They can react based on customers’ needs.”
According to Jackson, there are two main reasons for the uptick in automations in the self-storage industry: consumer preference and institutional capital. Obviously, COVID-19 impacted both of those, and he notes that the institutional capital investing in the industry “expects a certain level of technology in operations,” as it has been playing a significant role in other industries’ operations for years.
As for customer preference, consumer behavior data paints a clear picture of their ever-increasing fondness for automation. For starters, a survey conducted by Statista in 2017 revealed that 88 percent of adult respondents in the U.S. would rather book a hotel room online than offline, thus bypassing the need to speak with a hotel representative.
Digital/mobile wallet usage shows customers’ preference for cashless transactions and quick checkout times; more than 40 percent of all survey respondents in the Gen X, millennial, and Gen Z age groups are utilizing this payment option for their purchases.
Speaking of purchases, the amount of revenue generated from e-commerce sales in the U.S. has skyrocketed since 2013. In 2020, the total surpassed $338 billion, which was an increase of nearly $300 billion in seven years.
Of course, there is plenty of other data available to support the fact that customers are utilizing—and prefer to use—the technologies that are available to them. “Customers expect experiences similar to retail,” Jackson says, adding that they also expect to have WiFi access wherever they go. Therefore, it only makes financial sense to give them what they are seeking, especially if the competition is incorporating more automations and technologies into their operations.
“Once the REITs deploy it, others will have to follow suit or risk losing customers,” says Jackson.
Technologies and automations have definitely changed the way in which self-storage facilities operate. They have been used to educate and attract customers, generate leads, enhance site security, navigate tenants, adjust rental rates, improve access controls, and provide contactless move-ins.
Although there are a seemingly overwhelming number of automation and technology options that self-storage facilities can employ, not all are created equal, and others may be obsolete or redundant. At the very least, Jackson recommends that facilities have free WiFi; provide customers with the ability to onboard via the web with online reservations, rentals, and payments; utilize advanced access controls; and incorporate other integrations, such as call centers. Site maps and navigation tools also make his list of must-haves.
On the flipside, a few storage-specific technologies may be falling out of favor. For instance, Jackson notes that customers now prefer automatic payments over other options. “Kiosks are outdated. They are basically payment stations,” he says, and “less cash is used in transactions.” He goes on to say that individual wired and wireless door alarms are being replaced with other access controls, such as smart entry systems that feature digital keys.
Ultimately, the goal when choosing options is it to enable customers to locate your facility, find the right unit size, and move in with nothing other than their mobile device. While those new to storage may need assistance determining the right unit size, videos, size calculators, and other visuals on facilities’ websites have proven to be good aids.
As for the future of self-storage, Jackson says that newer automations and technologies for the industry include site mapping; more IoT (Internet of Things) devices, such as environmental sensors, thermostats, and irrigation systems; and advanced video surveillance systems with facial recognition and license plate capture cameras—all of which could make your self-storage facility more accessible and secure. Incorporating these kinds of advanced security options into your existing system can generate cost savings as well, since some insurance companies will reduce premiums for facilities with extra layers of security.
In addition to those potential cost savings, Jackson reminds operators that there are “revenue upsides” to automation and technology. For starters, facilities can charge premiums rates for smart units and other new technologies that improve the customer experience. And then there is the matter of usage pricing. He says that operators can—and should—utilize site frequency data to charge higher rates to those who visit the site daily, suggesting that commercial tenants, such as contractors, should be paying more than residential tenants who only make seasonal trips.
Making It Work
“It takes the right tech to be successful,” says Jackson, adding that self-storage operators should fully understand each solution’s capabilities before making a purchase. To make better informed decisions, he also recommends researching products and speaking with others in the industry who’ve use those items.
“You also have to be willing to spend money up front to see a return,” says Jackson. Then, after installations, staff should receive thorough training to ensure they fully understand how to use those items to their full potential and troubleshoot issues when they arise.
Once you have automations in place, how much human interaction is required at your self-storage facility? Per Jackson, the answer to that question depends entirely on your customers and their comfort level. “It’s consumer driven,” he says, pointing out that even retirement communities have been successful with automations. “It can be as much or as little as your customers need. But interactions can be done remotely.”
“Consumers are comfortable with technology,” says Jackson. “It’s a normal part of life. It’s what we do and who we are.” And future generations are only going to be more technology driven.