I’ve written several blogs on how new mobile technologies, Big Data and the emerging Internet of Things are changing how we work, and today I’d like to discuss three specific challenges faced by the warehousing and self-storage industry.

  1.  Easier Customer Engagement & Sales

The rise of mobile-first computing provides an array of opportunities to engage with the customer both more frequently and in a more relevant fashion, but also allows the customer’s experience to be made simpler and easier; all of which increase the chances of repeat business.

With more commerce taking place over the internet and increasingly via mobile, it’s vital to have mobile or web apps that make purchasing simple, and which provide a native user experience across device ecosystems, such as iOS or Android, and between channels such as smartphones, tablets and desktop PCs.

When a customer purchases storage space effective back-end integration should seamlessly deliver their invoice, and arrange for their item to be couriered to storage if required. Likewise, when the customer needs to update their account details or pick up an item or have it returned, this information should be propagated through the system to where it is needed, whether this is to a courier, a warehouse manager’s inventory dashboard or back-office staff’s instructions on what to do with a particular package.

I mentioned that customer engagement is enhanced through multi-channel apps, but this doesn’t simply mean resizing a smartphone app such that it looks nice on a larger screen; instead true multi-channel support means taking the user’s context into account. Imagine if you have three devices: a laptop PC, a tablet, and a smartphone, and that you have no particular preference as to which one to use.

I can predict which one you will use in a certain location, for example you are more likely to use the PC at a desk at work or the smartphone when rushing between meetings; and this means that I can also predict what kind of user experience you will want on each device. We are finding that consumers and business users always want a lot of functionality and deride cut-down “mobile sites” because these don’t allow them to carry out the processes they want.

Therefore the ability to provide access to the full processes through a simpler user experience that fits whether they are using a finger and thumb, multiple fingers or a mouse and keyboard helps increase customer engagement.

Another opportunity created by the shift to mobile is that because consumers will carry out their purchases through an automated portal you are able to provide 24/7 support without the overheads of multiple call centres. Further, by providing 24/7 availability you are able to engage with customers when they decide to store an item, wherever they may be.

  1.  Mobile Big Data & The Internet Of Things

Big Data is more than just the latest hype, and there are real, practical ways to use it to help your business today. Where Big Data can really help the warehousing and self-storage industry is by using data to reduce costs in areas that you may never have imagined: such as up to 90% reductions in insurance premiums from reducing losses and thefts in storage and shipments.

This success was achieved by a global shipping and airport ground handling company I worked with after they integrated their back-office systems to better keep track of items. Big Data analytics and smart, connected devices in the emerging Internet of Things make that success easier to realise for a wider range of companies.

The ultimate goal of the Internet of Things in warehousing is the “automated warehouse” concept, but even without going that far clever use of Augmented Reality tags can provide relevant information based on the role of the person reading the tag. An example of this would be a barcode which is linked though an integration platform to the customer’s data in various back-end systems and a courier company. Therefore, the customer would print the barcode with the shipping label, fix it to their item, and hand it to the courier for shipment.

The courier would scan the barcode, automatically informing the back-office that the package had been picked up and by whom. As the courier drives to the warehouse, their GPS would allow the warehouse to know exactly where the item is and when they will arrive; so on arrival the courier can be met by a member of the warehouse staff who can again scan the item, informing the back office and the customer that it has arrived safely, as well as providing the warehouse worker with information from the inventory management system about where it has to be stored.

The most obvious use of Big Data is using the increasingly vast amounts of data generated by your customers’ devices to learn about their activities and preferences, in turn allowing you to start a conversation with them around their needs and tailor your products and advertising to them. However, while this is appealing when targeting consumers and encouraging their buying impulses, it’s less relevant to business customers and in areas where impulse buying is less likely.

  1.  Emerging Consumer Behaviours

The rise of mobile and Big Data aren’t changing the face of businesses in a vacuum: the changes are a direct consequence of emerging behaviours by staff and customers who want to take advantage of new technologies.

It’s always hard to predict what form these behaviours will take, since the most interesting developments tend to be the uses people find that were never envisioned by the technology’s creators. That said there are a few key behaviours that could prove very useful for the warehousing and self-storage business, mostly centred around using warehousing space as highly flexible “burst capacity”.

Moving beyond a “rent-a-container” model to more of a “cloud” model wherein warehousing would be used as an off-site storage provider that can be remotely managed means short-term storage becomes a possibility, as well as potentially operating as a drop-off and pick-up point for courier services, as in the Amazon boxes that are starting to appear in large cities.

Having an approved location means courier deliveries can be grouped for efficiency and helps end customers who don’t have to be available and hope the courier will be on time. With Amazon shifting towards selling everyday items and even groceries, demand for this model is likely to increase in the near future.

Another recent phenomenon is the rise of group buying, which in the warehousing industry would allow groups of consumers or small businesses to jointly purchase storage space with the warehouse acting as the honest broker and ensuring the security and integrity of individual stored items. The advantages are firstly the ability to offer services and hence sales to people who might not individually be big enough to be worthwhile, and also allows customers the benefits of a higher-tier service with lower entry costs.

It’s clear that the rise of mobile, Big Data and the Internet of Things are opening a range of new opportunities in the warehousing and self-storage business. Although this is still early days for the disruption of this industry there are significant rewards to be had for early adopters, and it will be fascinating to watch this evolve.