What makes a storage facility smart? Twenty years ago, you might have said naming it AAA Storage to be first in your local yellow pages. Now, you can sum up a smart storage facility with one word: technology. The self-storage industry has made huge strides in the past five years, particularly in the area of smart technology. These tools have the potential to help small and large storage businesses win more customers, increase revenue, and streamline day-to-day operations.
The current COVID-19 health crisis has only accelerated the need for this technology. “Contactless rentals” may be the industry’s buzzword of the year, but there’s no doubt that technology is helping many owners stay afloat during this unprecedented time.
This article will help you understand “smart” technology, the features of smart storage facilities, and how to integrate them. If you want to offer contactless rentals for 2020 and beyond, there’s never been a better time to get started.
What Is Smart Technology? Smart technology refers to billions of “smart” devices used around the world that have at least one thing in common: They communicate over a network and share information automatically. What started out with computers has now moved to phones, cars, vacuums, smoke alarms, and of course the ubiquitous Amazon Alexa assistant.
Here’s how it works: When a previously not-connected thing gets connected to a network, the thing typically becomes referred to as a “smart” thing. For example, your newborn’s socks are just socks, unless you buy the $300 Owlet “smart” sock that monitors your newborn’s breathing, activity, and heart rate and relays the information to an app on the caregiver’s phone. This sock has now been transformed into a smart device, and it is closer to resembling a computer in its capabilities than a sock.
Smart technology can be tiny, like a smart pill, or gigantic, like an entire airplane. It can be as simple as a stuffed animal toy for kids or as complex as a NASA deep space rocket. A Nest thermostat that can be controlled from your phone is a smart device. A Roomba vacuum is a popular self-cleaning smart vacuum. AirPods are smart earphones. The Ring doorbell is a best-selling smart doorbell. Can you believe that Mark Cuban said, “I’m out,” to Ring on “Shark Tank”? What a missed opportunity.
If you’re not a native tech user like a millennial, some smart devices might seem a bit ridiculous at times. Who would buy a $300 smart baby sock? You could buy like 500 pairs of baby socks at Walmart for that much money. It turns out that a lot of people are willing to pay for it. In fact, Owlet sold over $30 million in smart socks in 2017. Smart thermostats like Nest are now more popular than the simpler models, despite the $150 up-charge. Traditional doorbells are almost nonexistent on newly built homes.
Even if you’re not personally a fan of smart devices, the numbers don’t lie. People love smart things. And more smart, connected devices are being created every day, including smart buildings.
What Is A “Smart” Building? A smart building uses integrated smart technology tools to share information about what’s happening in the building between various building systems, such as door locks, lighting, water meters, pumps, fire alarms, power, and more.
Smart hotels are one example. Software, smart locks, smart security systems, and more can all be integrated at the hotel. By integrating these tools, property managers can monitor the health of the entire hotel building remotely. Smart hotels are also extremely popular with guests. Hilton launched their “digital key” campaign in 2015, and the commercials with Anna Kendrick still seem to be everywhere in 2020. Using smart locks on their hotel room doors, Hilton was a pioneer in the area of “contactless” check-in. This technology allows guests to pick their room online, check in via their app, and unlock their hotel door with their phone; no key card is required. Guests don’t have to worry about losing their key card, having a key card stop working, checking in before the front desk closes, or figuring out parking while checking in. They can park and go right to their room without speaking to anyone.
Smart apartments and office buildings are also becoming more and more popular with tenants. Offering many of the same amenities that smart hotels offer, smart apartments have time-saving, convenient features for tenants and owners. Smart access control is one of the biggest features. For tenants of a smart apartment, there are no keys or codes to remember. Since water, Wi-Fi, lighting, locks, and more are all connected, owners and property managers are also able to collect a ton of valuable data. This helps them make better decisions on how to manage the apartment building more efficiently and effectively.
Smart Technology Assists Contactless Rentals Enter smart storage facilities. Self-storage typically trails a few years behind when it comes to office building, hotel, and apartment building management trends. Tenants want mobile and online convenience. Now, COVID-19 has sped up the timeline, and the industry is rapidly changing to offer more convenient, “contactless” rentals for tenants. Smart storage facilities are the ideal solution.
The REITs are leading the charge. CubeSmart has implemented “smart rentals” for contactless storage rentals. Life Storage has responded with Rent Now 2.0 for contact-free, self-serve, fully digital rentals. Public Storage and Extra Space are also upgrading facilities across the U.S. with smart technology to make unit rentals more accessible and convenient.
Just like apartments and hotels, storage facilities have buildings and tenants, with units frequently changing hands. The need for smart locks is doubled with self-storage because of the threat of break-ins, as well as the requirement for tenants to purchase a lock. Storage tenants don’t think about their storage unit as often as apartment tenants or hotel guests think about their residence or room. Self-storage is an afterthought, so it’s common for storage tenants to forget their gate code or lose their lock key. Smart locks and convenient mobile apps solve this problem for self-storage tenants.
Smart storage facilities also help managers do more for their tenants. By integrating facility management software into their connected smart facility, they can spend less time on manual tasks and more time selling and providing customer service. Smart facilities also allow for owners to capture more customers from after-hours rentals and move-ins. And just like the Owlet smart sock, smart storage facilities can charge a premium for all their smart features. Smart storage facilities are truly a win-win-win for owners, managers, and tenants.
Smart Technology For Contactless Rentals So what are the individual tools that make smart self-storage facilities “smart?” Let’s talk more in-depth about the key features of some of the smart technology tools we’ve mentioned earlier and how they assist with contactless rentals.
• Smart storage units • Smart gate and entry • Smartphones • Smart lighting • Mobile-optimized website
Smart Storage Units Smart storage units feature the latest technology in storage unit locks. Instead of a traditional unit door hasp that is secured by a disc lock or padlock, smart storage units have a lock and hasp system that is wireless, cloud-based, and managed with a digital key. Smart storage units also monitor the interior and exterior of the unit for motion and body heat, so you’d know immediately if someone was sleeping in their unit or breaking in through the wall. Smart, indeed.
For tenants, smart storage units are attractive because of their convenience and security. Tenants can access their unit using a smartphone or a Bluetooth key fob, so there are no codes to remember. They can give movers or family members temporary access to their unit by sharing their digital key. When the movers are done, the tenant can then revoke their access to the unit.
For owners and managers, smart storage units provide a ton of data, time-saving tools, and security benefits. Smart storage units can be remotely locked or unlocked, so managers can ready vacant units for new tenants and overlock delinquent units without having to go on site and remove a yellow lock or place a red lock. They also give owners valuable data for predictive analytics. Owners can use smart storage unit data to predict move-outs, fine-tune rate increases, and more. Owners and managers also benefit from all of the security tools smart units offer. All smart unit activity is monitored in the app and web portal. Any after-hours access, motion, or thermal heat triggers an instant notification. With smart storage units, owners can be proactive about criminal activity rather than reactive.
Smart storage units provide the “wow” factor in contactless rentals. Customers can rent a smart storage unit as easily as they order online groceries, buy on Amazon, or request contactless food pick-up. After renting online and signing their lease digitally, tenants can access their unit with merely a tap on their phone. Smart units also eliminate the need for tenants to meet face to face with a manager, which is especially handy during a worldwide health pandemic.
Smart Gate And Entry Smart gate and entry is 100 percent digital access control at the gate, door, elevator, stairs, office, or man door. Instead of typing in a code on a keypad, smart entry systems use Bluetooth technology via a smartphone or Bluetooth key fob, so they’re completely touchless. Just like opening your garage door from in your car, tenants can open your gate without stepping out of their vehicle. Smart entry systems are wireless, cloud-based, and managed with a digital key. Just like smart units, they also monitor for motion and body heat and collect access data.
For tenants, smart gate and entry tools are extremely convenient. They don’t have to exit their vehicle to open the gate. They don’t have to stand in the rain or cold wind to type in their code. They don’t have to remember a code at all. Tenants can also share their digital entry key with movers or family members to give them access. They can revoke access after the mover or family member no longer needs it.
For owners and managers, the best feature of smart gate and entry is high-tech security. They can arm entry points remotely with their smartphone or computer. They can create personalized access permissions for their tenants or maintenance workers. All activity at smart gate and entry points is tracked. Any after-hours access, motion, or thermal heat sends an alert to owners and managers.
Because entry is touchless, smart gate and entry tools offer a truly contactless experience for tenants and managers. Managers don’t have to clean and sanitize keypads. When paired with smart storage units, tenant access becomes fully automated. After renting online, tenants can access the gate, the temperature-controlled building, elevators—everything at the facility all the way down to their unit—all from their smartphone or key fob. And managers can control exactly what tenants can access from their cloud portal. There is no need for managers and tenants to meet to set up access or troubleshoot gate issues.
Smartphones Of course, we can’t talk about smart devices without talking about smartphones! But what do smartphones have to do with your self-storage technology?
The answer is everything.
According to Pew Research Center data from 2019, 96 percent of Americans have a smartphone. Half of Americans surveyed said they couldn’t live without their smartphone. Seventy percent of smartphone users have made purchases from their phones. Even more, 90 percent of time spent on smartphones is done through apps.
As a self-storage owner, you know how important it is to have a website. Now, most websites are accessed through smart devices. So, if your self-storage website doesn’t work well on smartphones, or if your business doesn’t have an app, you’re losing business.
For tenants, apps offer a customized experience. All the tenant’s information is compiled in one place. They can easily view account information, pay rent, order supplies, and review their lease from your app. The integration options are even more helpful to tenants. With smart entry and smart storage units, tenants can also open your gate, secure their unit, view their access history, or share their digital key. It’s easy for them because it’s all in one place on the device they have with them all the time: their smartphone.
For owners, having an app gives you the ability to more effectively market to tenants. You can send push notifications and updates directly through the app. You can also get more useful data from your tenants. Owners can track access histories and payment trends to create their own tenant “heat map.” This can help predict move-outs and fine-tune your rate increases.
Apps and mobile-first websites are key when it comes to contactless rentals. Tenants need to be able to easily browse your website and rent or reserve units online from their phone. Once they’ve rented, it’s easy for them to download an app on their smart device to manage their rental. Downloading an app is so much easier for tenants than meeting with a manager in person. Do yourself a favor and check out the REITs’ websites and apps from your smartphone. You’ll see how beneficial these tools are for tenants, and you may be surprised to find out how easy it is to enable this technology for your business.
Smart Lighting Smart lights are lights that connect and send data to an app or cloud-based web portal. Unlike traditional lighting, smart lights can be automated and controlled remotely. They’re designed to be highly energy efficient and collect data based on energy use, motion triggers, and more. Just like the Philips Smart Home system, you can turn your storage facility lights on or off and adjust them from your smartphone.
For tenants, smart lights help them feel safe when accessing the facility after dark. Motion-activated smart lights work together with security tools to brighten and secure hallways, elevators, and storage units. Lighting is a key element in the tenant’s rental experience, and with bright, LED smart lights, everything feels more secure.
For owners and managers, the biggest benefit of smart lighting is energy efficiency. Smart lights use experience data to “learn” more about your facility and lighting needs. With data-backed automation, smart lights last longer, generate less heat, and use less energy. For just one little lightbulb, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when you combine hundreds of lightbulbs across your entire temperature-controlled building, and add in parking lot flood lights, the savings really add up. The energy-efficient tools and security benefits all help to market your facility as modern and secure.
Smart lighting works with security systems and access control tools as part of a full, contactless rental experience. Tenants feel safe at your brightly lit, environmentally friendly facility. Owners and managers can monitor lighting and adjust it remotely. When smart lights are paired with other smart tools, they become much more powerful and provide state-of-the-art security monitoring.
Mobile-Optimized Website If smart tools are the muscles that get things done at your business, then your website is the brain. Your website is the storefront for your business online. As such, it needs to integrate easily with other smart tools.
So how do you know if your website is built to integrate with other smart tools?
Look into your software’s current integrations. Does the software technology offer an open API for integrations with new technologies? Are software updates and new integrations done frequently? Check how your website looks and feels on a mobile device. Is it easy to browse available units, rent online, and make payments?
For tenants, the benefit of an integrated, mobile-optimized website is convenience. With a mobile-optimized website, customers can easily see available units and current rates. Tenants can make payments effortlessly and review or sign their lease digitally. When also integrated with smart entry or smart storage units, rental automation is seamless. A tenant can rent online, sign their lease digitally, and access their unit immediately, without having to meet with a manager. They don’t even need to purchase a lock.
For owners and managers, the time-saving benefit of a well-performing website is hard to quantify. Everyday tasks such as lead tracking and sales calls become much easier. Move-ins and paperwork communications are automatic. This makes it much easier for owners to manage multiple properties or manage properties remotely. Managers are freed up from time-intensive tasks (like taking payments) to provide better customer service and phone sales.
A mobile-optimized website is essential to any storage business offering contactless rentals. It’s the first piece of your business with which most customers will interact. And it’s how they’ll judge if your business is technologically savvy or not. Integrating your mobile-optimized website with your software and smart entry system makes it easy for your customers to rent on their own. The more customers and tenants can do on their own, the better!
Integrating Technology Sure, smart technologies are powerful. But they’re much, much more powerful when they work together. Multiple smart tools can be connected to communicate and share data. You can even set up “if this, then that” style triggers. For example, if motion is detected by a smart light at the gate, motion and access activity is recorded by the smart entry system.
Smart tools can also be integrated to make the tenant’s rental experience better. Smart storage units and smart entry tools are two such tools that work smoothly together. You can use the same smart technology to control access at your facility from the gate all the way down to the unit. This way, the tenant has no codes or keys to remember, all entry is touchless, and they only have to have one app or key fob. They can make a payment to your management software in the same app or even send a message to a manager.
For owners and managers, the benefits of integrating your smart storage tools is hard to quantify. When all of these tools communicate, data is shared. Without a smart storage facility, this data was previously inaccessible to owners. Owners can then use this data to fine-tune their business model, adjust rates, adjust marketing, and more. You can even use the data to speed up the ROI of your smart technology investment and facility upgrades.
When creating your own smart storage business and integrating multiple smart tools, storage owners should first research integration with their property management software. Communication with property management software is vital. Most self-storage-specific smart tools are designed to work with the leading property management software tools, but more general, consumer-facing tools, like the Nest thermostat or Ring doorbell, don’t.
Connect smart entry and smart storage units to security alarms and security systems. Smart entry and storage units can be easily connected as part of a complete security system. All of these tools work better together to track activity, collect data, and monitor tenants.
No matter what happens with COVID-19, or if murder hornets attack your town, you can be sure that smart technology is here to stay. In the future, we can expect consumers to use their smartphones for more and more things. They’ll continue to seek out online convenience. And storage managers will rely more on technology and automation to run the business.
Smart tools can help storage owners large and small win more tenants, boost revenue, and streamline their day-to-day management. And when these tools are connected to create a smart storage facility, the sky’s the limit.
John Bilton is the Nokē Smart Entry Sales Manager at Janus International.