Imagine it’s the year 2028. You walk into a storage facility office and start chatting with the facility manager. She introduces herself before taking you on a tour of the facility and helping you pick out the right unit size. You walk back into the office, and she disappears before your eyes. Suddenly, you remember this isn’t real life - you’re in a virtual reality (VR) experience. You slide off your glasses to find yourself sitting in your living room on your smartphone.

Okay, okay - that might seem a little far-fetched. After all, this isn’t “Westworld” and augmented reality (AR) is still a brand-new technology. What are the odds of it moving into self storage in ten years?

Actually, pretty good, according to VR expert, Todd Richmond. “Currently, you've got VR starting to make inroads in entertainment," Richmond said in an interview with Business News Daily. "Architecture and real estate are embracing VR, and manufacturing and design are working with VR and AR. We've been using VR in healthcare for some time — for example, using it to treat PTSD — and that will be a huge growth industry for both VR and AR. Education is another adoption area."

If the real estate industry is already embracing VR, it won’t be long until we’re able to take virtual tours of class A storage facilities while sitting on the couch at home. After all, automated self service tools are already popular in self storage facilities all over the world, and today’s modern renter is very familiar with the kiosk model, having grew up using ATMs, airport self service kiosks, and movie-rental kiosks like Redbox. From kiosks to storage bots, online rentals to smart locks, futuristic automated tools and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the game for self storage operators.

Whether you’re building a fully unmanned facility or just exploring how you can streamline processes, there’s something for everyone in this post. Jump ahead to any of the below topics to discover more, or read on to get started!

How unmanned facilities use technology to run their business

Unmanned, or “unattended” storage facilities aren’t a new concept. Rural operators have been running unmanned facilities in small markets for years by simply putting their phone number on a sign and taking rentals over the phone. For many owners in denser suburban or urban markets, running their business this way just wasn’t feasible until new technology came along.

Today’s technology-savvy unmanned storage facility utilizes self-service tools so prospective renters can do more than just call the owner and leave a voicemail. With a responsive, user-friendly website, interested renters can find your storage business online, browse available unit sizes, figure out what size unit they need with an interactive storage space calculator, and move-in from their smartphone by walking through an easy online rental process, where they’ll enter their credit card information through your secure payment portal, sign their lease electronically, and create a secure gate code. After their payment is accepted, you can see the new tenant in your facility management software with all of their information, and the tenant can instantly access your fenced and gated facility with their personalized gate code. From there, they can get into their unit via an easy-to-use DaVinci Lock (which looks just like a normal combination lock but allows owners and operators to lock/unlock the unit remotely) or a smart storage unit door. If the renter has any questions, they can always call your call center number to talk to someone and get help.

Many unmanned facilities also utilize a self-service kiosk on-site to process walk-in rentals or take cash payments. But if you’re not taking a lot of cash payments or renting to a lot of walk-ins, you might not need one at all. According to Texas storage owner, Mike Castleman, kiosks aren’t always necessary to run a successful unmanned storage operation.

“To me, the kiosk is just more hardware. In my opinion, the modern day version of the kiosk is the smartphone. It’s the ‘kiosk in a pocket’ idea. The only thing smartphones can’t do is spit out a lock. It’s just like when you go to take a flight. You book your flight from home and you get your ticket through your phone. You can do it all from your house and you don’t have to wait in line to talk to a person or use an airport kiosk.” Mike Castleman Castlerock Interests, LLC

If you’re in a cash-heavy market, you might want a kiosk. But if you’re like most storage businesses, the majority of your payments are done via debit card or credit card. With a self-service based, technology-heavy business model like this, you can even require new tenants to sign up for autopay to rent at your facility, essentially eliminating annoying rent collection calls and making rent increases smoother.

What tenants love (and hate) about automated facilities

You know how some people just won’t use the self-checkout line at the grocery store, no matter how long the lines are for the cashier lanes? Those are the same people who have the most resistance to do-it-yourself online storage rentals. But an unmanned business model can still work for these tenants - if renters who want help can call your phone number and talk to someone instead of just renting a unit online, then your facility will still have the personal touch of high-quality customer service. Call centers (or someone to pick up the phone and help customers) are essential to a high quality experience when renting from an automated storage facility.

Tenants who are more like me (a little introverted) love automated facilities for the exact opposite reason - I can rent a unit on my own, without ever having to talk to somebody, and with 24-hour access, I don’t need to leave work or make an appointment to move in. I don’t have to find my checkbook to pay rent, and I can check in on my storage unit whenever it’s most convenient for me.

Love it or hate it, most renters are familiar with using kiosks, shopping online, and paying for things with a credit or debit card, so the main resistance to an unmanned model is not lack of familiarity with technology - it’s a perceived lack of customer service or security. As mentioned above, it’s easy to still provide great customer service over the phone or by appointment, and you can boost renters’ confidence in your security, too!

Sometimes it’s as simple as perimeter fencing, security cameras, bright lighting, and an access control keypad at your gate. But if tenants need a little more assurance that you’re watching over their stuff, try partnering with local law enforcement for drive-bys after dark, adding electronic locks to your units, hiring a part-time security team, or sending SMS notifications to tenants whenever someone uses their access code. By committing to providing a safe rental experience to tenants, you’ll squash any fears that your facility is inferior to a property with a team of facility managers.

What storage technology will look like in the future

Self storage technology has come a long way in the last five years, and new tools are always being developed to help owners find new and creative ways to run their businesses and boost profits with technology. Smart storage units - where tenants have in-unit security tools and access their stuff via bluetooth - are one of the latest developments in self storage that could shape the future of the industry. Using bluetooth locks, tenants could share their code (a “digital key” to the bluetooth lock) with delivery drivers, family members, business partners, and more, leaning more toward the on-demand storage model of Clutter and Closetbox. Bluetooth lock tools can also automate overlocking, making online rentals even easier for storage owners.

“Digital key sharing is the way we’re seeing things move - it’s kind of the Uberisation of self storage. And it just opens up a lot of opportunities for facilities to offer services like pickup, delivery, and moving services. Tenants already use bluetooth all over their homes. This technology is really intuitive to self storage renters already, and it’s already in the home security world, so bringing it into self storage is a natural evolution.” Christine DeBord Janus International Group

Storage renters continue to demand more amenities, self-service tools, and convenience, and as we move forward with automated facility tools, we’ll continue to see a push in technology for the renter. The unmanned facilities of the future may have AI robots or self-driving moving trucks that deliver your stuff from your unit to your home, unit doors that open from anywhere in the world by swiping right on your phone, and full VR tours of the facility on their website. As we move forward, technology will continue to evolve and serve a dual purpose: to make renting a unit easier and more convenient for consumers and to help self storage owners manage their businesses more efficiently.

How to implement automated tools at your facility

You don’t have to dive into the deep end and open a fully-automated self storage facility to take advantage of next-gen storage technology. There are lots of low-cost ways to add self-service tools to your current technology mix. For example, two-way texting is completely free through storEDGE software and offers a ton of convenience to renters at your facility who work odd hours or prefer texting to phone calls. If you want to enhance security at your currently unmanned facility, you can start with affordable automated overlocking tools like DaVinci Lock so empty units are always kept locked and late tenants can be locked out remotely. If you already have a website, implementing online rentals and electronic lease signature can also help boost your rentals and save your managers time.

If you haven’t shopped around in a while and don’t know where to start, check out the SSA Conference and Trade Show or ISS World Expo to find out what’s new and get demos of the various technology tools that other owners and operators are using. If you have a technology team in your corner that you know and trust, give them a call and ask for references who can help you find the right solution for your unique needs. By taking small steps towards automation and adding more self-service tools, you’ll be able to cut costs at your facility and increase convenience for your renters.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this blog post, you may also like: Interview: Talking smart storage units, Tesla, internet of things tech, Mission: Impossible, and the Uberisation of self storage with Janus International Group, The 7 biggest misconceptions about unmanned facilities, and What’s the big deal with automated self storage facilities?