The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses and entire industries to change overnight. In addition to transitioning to remote work routines, companies had to quickly adapt to accommodate the changing needs of consumers.
Like businesses in other industries, self-storage operations were forced to navigate various changes, many of which aimed to create a safe and sanitary environment for tenants and employees. Now that the pandemic is subsiding, some of those changes are going away. But many of the adaptations the industry implemented to improve the operator and customer experience in 2020 are here to stay.
Why the permanent shift? Because in many ways, the pandemic accelerated trends that were already reshaping the self-storage industry. Now, to remain competitive, self-storage owners and operators need to understand and act on those trends.
The 4 Changes That Are Here to Stay
The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were a mixed bag for the self-storage industry. Although many operations (especially those near college campuses or areas more heavily impacted by the pandemic) experienced an initial surge in demand, shelter-in-place orders and unclear safety protocols presented serious challenges for sustaining continuity.
But while some of these changes seemed dramatic, they weren’t a complete surprise to self-storage insiders. Many COVID-related changes were simply extensions of existing industry trends designed to improve operational efficiency and create a better tenant experience. Moreover, as the pandemic fades, some of these changes will impact your self-storage operation for months and years to come.
1. Tenants want contactless rental options.
During the pandemic, consumers turned to online shopping as an alternative to potentially risky in-store shopping routines. Similarly, self-storage tenants accelerated the adoption of digital tools to locate, compare and purchase storage units — essentially moving away from in-person interactions toward a contactless, self-serve rental process.
Tenants’ preference for contactless rental options isn’t going away. Before the pandemic, the industry was already moving in this direction, spurred on by the need to provide a more convenient and streamlined tenant experience. However, to compete in today’s self-storage marketplace, you’ll need to implement tools that enable an increasingly sophisticated mix of opportunities for digital shopping and tenant engagement. Each storage business will need to determine which of these tools and how much automation is the right balance for them.
2. Improved sanitation is a standard tenant expectation.
To comply with safety standards, self-storage operations placed a heavy emphasis on improved sanitary procedures during the pandemic. Mandatory face masks, plexiglass dividers, enhanced cleaning protocols, and other practices quickly became part of the industry’s new normal. But while the threat of contamination is now significantly reduced, the emphasis on sanitary and cleaning practices remains intact.
In the future, self-storage businesses need to continue to address the sanitation of high-touch surfaces and air circulation requirements as well as maintaining a clean and tidy facility.
3. Technology upgrades remain a top priority.
In self-storage and other industries, technology helped solve many of the challenges created by the pandemic. In addition to helping self-storage owners and operators run their businesses more efficiently, technology allowed leading operations to maintain or even improve the tenant experience during a period of significant disruption.
Don’t expect the accelerated pace of technology investment to slow down anytime soon. If you aren’t constantly investing in technology upgrades, you’re probably falling behind.
4. Increased self-storage demand is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Although the demand is challenging to forecast, there are plenty of reasons why the stable to increased demand for self-storage units through the pandemic may be a long-term reality. Self-storage has been shown to be remarkably resilient in the face of challenging times. This will remain true as workers begin to return to the office, many employers adopt hybrid or flexible work models and will need to clear out space at home for permanent remote workstations.
At the same time, some employees are using fully remote work options as opportunities to relocate. The impact of relocation trends will vary by location, but operations in suburban and rural communities stand to benefit from increased demand as workers migrate away from large cities.
Not all of the changes that occurred in the self-storage industry during the pandemic have long-term staying power. For example, masks and plexiglass shields are no longer required in many facilities. Similarly, virtual trade shows and other industry web-based events are disappearing as participants return to in-person interactions.
But even though it feels like life is starting to return to normal, it’s a mistake to ignore the long-term changes COVID-19 introduced to the self-storage industry. By understanding these changes and the underlying trends they point to, you can give your self-storage operation an advantage — both now and over the long term.