Enter the lobby of the new StoreEase self-storage facility in Hoover, AL and you’ll receive an enthusiastic greeting from a human manger. But don’t expect to shake their hand.
That’s because StoreEase facilities and its managers aren’t physically there. Instead they appear on large video screens equipped with cameras to welcome customers, answer questions and talk them through the rental experience. Customers can also receive service from their vehicle outside at the virtual drive-thru.
“Some people think it is a recording or an AI. Once we carry out that conversation they start to interact,” said Josh Boyd, CEO of StoreEase Management.
StoreEase’s eight virtual managers operate out of the company’s Birmingham office. From their remote location, the managers oversee 1.5 million rentable square feet of storage space across more than 30 locations in 13 states. Each manager can oversee six to eight facilities at the same time.
A smarter self-storage facility
The newest location in Hoover is owned by Orlando, FL-based Liberty Investment Properties, which has nine facilities operating under the StoreEase platform. The 569-unit facility spans more than 90,000 square feet. The units are equipped with Nokē Smart Entry locks, which enables customers to access their unit using a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone.
“This facility was purpose-built thinking through all the iterations,” said Adam Mikkelson, CEO of Liberty Investment Properties. “We worked collectively, and the developers purpose built an institutional quality property in a secondary market.”
Mikkelson said the company has a large pipeline of prospects and plans to grow under the StoreEase banner.
“We believe we can institutionalize tertiary and secondary markets with the appropriate product,” Mikkelson said.
Mikkelson said that their “smarter facilities” generate equal or better ROI than competing facilities and allow them to command higher rents per square foot in those markets. Much of the revenue gains come from lower operating expenses achieved through remote management.
“There are different line items of savings, but the main one is the payroll,” said Boyd.
However, Boyd stresses that the platform’s key differentiator is its focus on providing a high level of customer service.
“You can’t sacrifice the customer. It can’t be all about profit, profit, profit.” Boyd said. “Let’s maximize revenue through greater technology and greater service. We believe people are willing to pay for those things.”
The missing piece of the puzzle
Mikkelson first linked up with Boyd in the fall of 2020. The pair was introduced through a mutual contact at building components manufacturer Janus International.
“They were trying to sell me Nokē locks for our storage properties,” Mikkelson said. “I told him I’m not sure it can be monetized unless there is a significant expense saving we can achieve by installing them. This is the piece of the puzzle that Josh’s company is providing with remote management.”
After looking further into what StoreEase had to offer, Mikkelson saw something more unique than just a kiosk.
“It’s one thing to say put a kiosk in here and save $5,000 a month on payroll. It is another thing to consider how many walk-ins do we miss? What happens to our customer service?” Mikkelson said.
To answer that need, StoreEase uses salaried managers that are better paid and better trained in order to elevate the customer experience—even if they aren’t physically on site.
“The power behind this is the people,” Boyd said.
Timing is everything
Boyd said StoreEase debuted their first virtual counter in February 2020.
“Guess what happened a month later,” Boyd said.
Boyd, of course, was referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. The global contagion led to a rapid adoption of video conferencing technology throughout society. Online shopping grew and mobile ordering spread to new areas as everyone sought to minimize physical contact.
“All of a sudden everyone is scrambling to respond to COVID, which a lot of storage operators had to do. Josh and his team already laid the groundwork to deliver something that met a need and experience that customers favored,” Mikkelson said.
Aside from benefiting changing technology preferences among consumers, Liberty also found that StoreEase was able to address another timely trend: disruption in the labor force.
“There is structural decline in the labor force, and Covid accelerated that,” Mikkelson said. “There are just a limited number of workers to choose from and you are going to have to pay them more. If you have to do pay them more, why not through technology make them more efficient?
Ready to grow
Boyd said StoreEase plans to double in size this year in terms of the number of facilities they mange.
He says the technology is plug and play and that they can scale easily. Boyd said while the demand for their platform is strong, they have deliberately expanded at a moderate pace.
“We’ve tempered our approach,” Boyd said. “We knew going in that we could grow fast. Fast growth is not always a good thing. We had to make sure we had our people right and our tech right first.”