Part 2: Industry experts discuss bedding advertising, as well as best practices at the start of each customer encounter.
by Russell Bienenstock
Our discussion of the tools and techniques retailers use to sell better bedding began in the March/April issue of Furniture World Magazine. Consumer demographics were examined in that issue, and we took an initial look at what bedding experts say about best sales practices. This month, additional ideas will be presented to help you and your salespeople create a more focused and consistent marketing approach, and shift the emphasis away from price by creating a plan for advertising, approaching customers, greeting them and asking questions.
Industry experts say that bedding sales are yours to lose. Customers don’t want to go from store to store looking for the best mattress deal. They don’t want to be confused by myriad choices, without a clear path to finding what’s the best for them, and most of all, they don’t want to encounter sales associates who are incapable of providing appropriate advice and direction.
The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to sell with a plan. “Various retailers have their own methodology, but even a bad plan is better than no plan at all,” notes Ira Fishman, Executive Vice President, National Sales for Anatomic Global, a manufacturer of premium memory foam mattresses made in the USA. This plan has to start with advertising, and be reflected in the way lines are merchandised on the floor. It should be supported by store design and understood by each of your sales associates.
Why People Come In
“Nobody goes to a bedding store to see what the new models look like,” says Earl Kluft of luxury mattress manufacturer E.S. Kluft. “They go when something happens, a marriage, a divorce, a birth, someone leaves for school or someone comes back home.”
Michael Wilson, a Sales Manager for Glideaway Steel Products and Sleep Harmony, a supplier of bed frames and specialty sleep products agrees. “People are out shopping for a reason. They are in a store because something is not quite right at home. It could be a sagging bed, edge support, a bad back, shoulder pain, or poor quality sleep. They are trying to fix something. Bedding is not usually a want, it’s is a need, and people usually don’t go out and replace mattresses unless they have to.”
“That’s lucky for the furniture business,” adds Anatomic Global’s Ira Fishman. “Right now consumers are thinking about how they can conserve their money, buy essentially what they need, and not necessarily what they want. A mattress purchase is a need, although it can be put off for a certain amount of time until they really start feeling those aches and pains.”
“People don’t start looking at advertising unless they are looking for a mattress,” continues Fishman. “Especially in print, price just seems to be what brings customers through the door. People just want to save money. They are looking for a deal, and most don’t know the difference between a $299 queen, a $1,299 queen and a $2,999 queen before they walk into a store. They just know that their mattress is old and needs to be replaced. They go to a mattress store, a department store or a furniture store after seeing an ad that catches their attention while they happen to be actively looking for a mattress. And half the battle is getting them to your door first, because even if a $299 or $399 queen is what brought them in, that’s not what most of them walk out with.”
“It doesn’t matter how retailers get their customers in the door,” adds Ralph Rossdeutscher, President of Natura, the maker of natural mattresses and top of bed products. “It is OK to attract them with a $399 mattress deal. The retailer can still sell them a $3,000 mattress. The retailers who are successful are doing it right, even if you may not like it.”
“Yes, It’s somewhat of a double edged sword, says Fishman, “You would like to take the high road. You want to level with people and let them know that a quality queen is usually going to cost $999 and above, and that two thirds of the products that you sell in a queen size are above the $999 price point. One can argue that you don’t want customers to come in with unrealistic expectations, but the reality is that until you get them in the door, you will never get an opportunity to talk to that customer or step them up to what they deserve to sleep on. So you can decide to take the high road and advertise and promote high end bedding, in which case you will attract primarily people who have the wherewithal to spend that kind of money. But you do have a lot of customers who know nothing about mattresses. Many people reading the ads look at mattresses as a utilitarian purchase. They base their initial search on price, and have not gotten to the point where a retailer can help them to connect the dots, so that they come to understand that the mattress they are sleeping on can have a material effect on the quality of sleep and of their lives.”
Owen Shoemaker, Sr. Vice President of Product & Marketing Development at Comfort Solutions, Inc., a company that offers product variety through a unique portfolio of specialized brands, agrees. “If retailers don’t use television and print advertising that over-emphasizes price point to get people to cross the threshold, they run the risk of not seeing the traffic counts. On the other hand, they can put too much emphasis on price point. If customers think that they can buy a top of the line queen size for $399, then that’s a misdirection to the consumer who doesn’t know any better. They are only in the market every 7 to 10 years, so they’ve forgotten what mattresses cost. I think we’ve been advertising $599 bedding as a leading price point for the last 20 years non-stop. How is that possible when everything else is more expensive from dish soap to diamonds?”
Price Ad Limitations
There are definitely drawbacks to an over reliance on price/ item advertising. You can’t differentiate your store if everyone else is doing basically the same thing. And if everyone is doing the same thing, advertisers with the largest budgets that can break through the clutter benefit most. On the other hand, a sea of similar looking ads presents an opportunity for innovative retailers to tell a different story. “Big box advertisers are producing look-alike advertising that fails to tell their stories,” noted Larry Mullins, President of Ultrasales and regular contributor to Furniture World Magazine. “Think about the mattress presentations in a typical color flyer. They are typically very weak, uninformative and look-alike. A good mattress salesperson can spellbind a customer with a presentation about the benefits of the correct sleep set. He or she can also give assurance of satisfaction, and present credentials giving evidence of expertise. But most furniture flyers are tongue-tied and use costly ad space like a billboard. Very easy for the ad department, but a huge waste of money for the store. Don’t kid yourself. A customer does not even see a mattress ad until she realizes hers is wearing out. Then she begins a process of considering where to buy a mattress. Bigger ticket items have a large universe of medium-warm prospective customers at all times who are delaying and considering before actively shopping. It is this fact that makes the high-impact strategy a powerful and effective tool for wise retailers of big ticket items, however, mattress advertising is increasingly look-alike. It generally fails to tell a unique story, and projects a cold, Wall-Mart corporate impression. There is no local color or content. These are mass-produced, and rely too heavily upon credit offers and gimmicks.
“Creating effective ads depends upon five basic factors of who, what, when, where, how and why,” Mullins continues. “The key component to this formula is telling who you are. Not simply your logo or sig. You want to say favorable things about your store that are relevant to the customer, and things no one else can say. The prospect wants to know what’s in it for her. Why should she care who you are or what you are selling. This seems obvious once it is pointed out. Yet, most furniture and bedding specialty stores may be surprised to know that, with a few notable exceptions, most furniture marketers leave the ‘why factor’ almost entirely out of their advertising messages.
“This ‘why factor’ informs the prospect of the benefits a retailer’s product will provide. Why are you having a bedding sale? Why reduce prices? Why are you overstocked? Slow sales? New merchandise on the way? An honest reason will resonate much better with your sales staff than either a concocted one or none at all. Retailers should give their staff a short script so that everyone can relate the same story to customers.”
Ideas For Reaching Higher-end Customers
“Based on all the price oriented advertising out there, many consumers think that the majority of product they will see is going to be at that low price point,” Matthew Connolly, President of Eclipse International, a division of Bedding Industries of America, manufacturer of the Eclipse, Hemmingway, Therapedic, Eastman House and Playboy brands told FURNITURE WORLD Magazine. “But the more savvy, more knowledgeable consumer knows that they are going to spend a lot more to get quality. It’s the old adage, you get what you pay for. Today there are more customers who walk into stores looking to spend $1,000. And they may expect to spend $2,000 to $3,000 or more to get a luxury product.
“These better informed customers are looking on the internet to get information about natural products and health oriented sleep. They may already know that natural latex is better than a synthetic blend, and Joma wool is better than lambs wool. So they are more cognizant of the benefits of better products and they set themselves up to buy better products. Informed consumers are looking for latex, exotic foams, exotic materials, organic, or green, and they know that they are going to pay for that. More than in the past, consumers do have an idea of what they want to spend and what they are going to spend.”
To catch the attention of mattress buyers who are searching the internet for information, our experts say it’s a good idea for retailers to update their web presence to provide information beyond low price, an offer of financing, photos and brand names.
So while you have their attention online, try to engage them with offers as well as information. “A good way to capture the names addresses and emails of visitors to your website,” advises Gerry Borreggine, Therapedic International’s President & CEO, “is to get them to sign up to win a gift certificate to your store by saying something like, ‘Thank you for visiting our site. Please sign up to win a $50 gift certificate to our store, usable anytime from this date to that date.’ When I was a retailer, everyone who signed up in this way won, and it really worked to increase traffic.”
Armed with customer contact information gathered from internet inquiries, purchased lists, and preferred customer data, you can effectively use direct mail to encourage higher-end bedding sales.
“Direct mail is useful for shifting the emphasis away from low price,” continues Borreggine. “It’s viewed as a private appeal to the consumer who comes in with a letter in hand, or a coupon offer that appears to be tailored specifically to them and an exclusive group that is just like them. A person who comes in with a direct mail piece has a propensity to buy that is far greater than someone who casually responds to a newspaper bedding ad.
“Direct mail works well for the introduction of a new technology or new products, coupled with an exclusive discount. The call to action is the discount. With a percentage off offer, price is not limited to any specific price point. So if a coupon is 20% off, it can be used to purchase a $399 mattress or a $3,999 set. The percentage off offer works in our category especially well because the consumer gets to save more as they spend more.
Instead of a percentage off, the call to action could instead be an offer to, ‘come see our brand new mattress line and we will give you a memory foam pillow made by such and such company, an X dollar amount value.’
“Direct mail offers need a specific start and end date for them to appear valid and to increase their effectiveness, concludes Borreggine. Make the offer non-transferable and explicitly say something like, ‘This sale ends July 7th at 5PM. There will be no exceptions, we cannot honor any sales beyond that date due to our commitment to the manufacturer.’”
“There are other ways that you can get a customer through the door. such as promoting an event that offers free consultations with a sleep specialist or sleep doctor,” adds Ira Fishman.
Or, depending on your position in your marketplace, you can, like retailer Mattress Firm, do targeted mailings or take the “high road” by addressing underlying demand for quality bedding, while establishing store credentials for selling it.
“We do some advertising where we target a luxury category offering, notes Cory Ludens, Director of Learning and Development for retailer Mattress Firm. “It may feature Tempur-Pedic, Stearns & Foster, Sleep to Live, Simmons Black or others. We also do some target marketing on a smaller scale using direct ship mail to customers’ homes. Our mailings are based on the purchasing history in a particular zip code.
“In our national advertising we’ve made efforts and inroads over the last year in trying to change our message. There is a price message out there and a value component to shopping at Mattress Firm, however, earlier this year we started an advertising campaign that focuses more on why customers should replace their bedding. It isn’t focused on a specific category. It is focused on shortening the window of time consumers take for purchasing their next bed. The effort is helping to convince those customers who have had a mattress for 10,11 or 12 years to replace their bed because their body has changed and technology has improved. We’ve found that this tends to draw in a customer who is less pre-disposed to making their decision based primarily on price. That’s because we are not inviting them in with a $299 price ad. We are giving them reasons why they should have already replaced their old bedding.”
Where To Start The Sales Process
“There are four parts to the sales process,” instructs Stefano Marescotti, Chain Development Manager for Magniflex. “These are the greeting, education navigation and closing.” In the September/October issue of Furniture World we will take a close look at navigation and closing. But before doing that, let’s examine how sales associates can set a positive tone for helping customers with their bedding purchase.
Research shows that whether customers come into a store looking for an advertised special, a brand name or a specific specialty sleep product, they do need help finding a mattress that will provide them with the best quality sleep.
“We just finished a study with Duke University,” recounts Dr. Robert Oexman, Vice President of the Sleep to Live Institute, “and we found that people can’t by themselves choose a mattress that will help them to sleep better. We took seven mattresses with different support characteristics and we studied 128 people in a 16,000 night sleep study. We asked them to choose, unaided, the one that they thought would give them a good night’s sleep. These were healthy people who didn’t have health issues, back pain or sleep complaints. We found that the choice of mattress did affect the quality of their sleep, and also that the subjects in the study did a very poor job of choosing, by themselves, the right mattress.”
So even with only seven models represented, consumers had a tough time finding the right mattress. How much more difficult then is their choice in a bedding department where many times more models, numerous brands and bedding categories are represented? It is clear the customers do need help. The question is, how to best help them? One factor that surfaced a number of times in our interviews was the question of how retailers view their core philosophy for serving customers. Do they want to help customers choose a mattress that will give them the best possible night’s sleep or is their focus primarily on closing the most bedding sales at the highest margins. Many retailers feel that they don’t have to make this distinction because these two considerations are not at odds with each other. Higher-end products properly matched to the comfort preferences of consumers generally provide them with a better night’s sleep as well as higher profitability. Still, this is an important consideration because management’s stated goals for how to treat customers, are reflected in sales associate’s professional attitude. This, in turn, affects how customers perceive the motivations, level of professionalism and integrity of a sales staff.
We were told by Peter A. Marino, author of ‘Don’t Lose Those Bedding Sales’ that, “building rapport at the beginning is essential, because this affects how well customers listen to personalized features and benefits presented later in the sales process. To quote owner and consultant Harvey Mackay, ‘People don’t know how much you know until they know how much you care.’”
Anatomic Global’s Ira Fishman concurs, saying that, “A best practice is to treat customers just like you would a member of your own family. Treat everyone who enters your store with the same dignity and respect. Everyone, deserves the opportunity to sleep on the best and that idea is important for sales associates who feel that a particular customer is not going to spend $2,000. My advice is not to worry about what customers can or will spend. As long as you understand that everybody deserves the opportunity to sleep on the best, you are showing it to them for their reasons. You are not trying to just get them to spend more money. Make them feel comfortable and show that you care. That takes time and effort and it requires that salespeople give the same performance every time. True salespeople don’t take shortcuts. They should have the same mindset as an actor in a Broadway play. Even if there is a snowstorm outside and only 10 people actually make it to the performance, the audience deserves the same experience as if it were to a sold out theater.”
Patti Ark, Director, Customer Relations for Reverie, a manufacturer and distributor of adjustable foundations, latex coil mattress and natural rubber pillows, suggests that furniture and bedding retailers “treat customers like guests and call them guests. Just doing this changes the salesperson’s mind frame.”
And, beyond what salespeople do to treat consumers like guests, some other common sense guest friendly actions should be considered, Jodi Allen, Sealy’s Senior VP, Chief Marketing Officer, points out. A research study Sealy recently commissioned found that, “store cleanliness is very important to consumers. Besides the obvious areas such as flooring, floor samples, etc, don't forget about the bathrooms--they should be in good working order and clean.”
Engage Them At The Greeting
Once a customer shows up to look at your low priced special, a specific brand or just to find a replacement for worn out bedding, don’t lose them at the door!
“A good sincere greeting at the door is sometimes worth everything,” continues Ira Fishman. “You really don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. You would be surprised at how many people lose the mattress sale at the greeting. Sales associates may be thinking about their problems, saying to themselves, ‘Oh here’s another one with the ad in her hand. She’s going to ask me for the advertised special. I’ve already sold three of them today and this is going to be the fourth.’ That kind of thinking dooms a lot of salespeople.
“If you are sitting at your desk when a customer walks in and you don’t let them know that they are the most important person in your life at that moment, you are not being a professional salesperson. That’s your reason for being there. The key to selling better bedding is to show up with the right attitude, giving yourself the opportunity to succeed.”
Slow Down, Ask & Listen
“If you are not satisfying the customer’s reasons for coming into the store... if you are not selling on value after that, and listening, then you are missing your most important sales opportunity,” Michael Wright, Senior Trainer, Leggett & Platt Consumer Product Group, tells us. “The customer wants to tell you about how they sleep. What position they sleep in, what are they doing in bed, what are they using now. It’s really about listening to the customer so that you can start building them a sleep solution.
“One way to start a conversation about bedding is to ask, what is it about your sleep that brought you in here today? Don’t start off by asking if their neck hurts. Let them tell you they are moving into a new home. Let them tell you they want to change their mattress size. And in the back of your head, as they keep telling you stuff, start to build a sleep package with a good better best, and all the options you have as add ons. Everyone likes to feel like they are on David Letterman. Everyone likes to talk about themselves. And when you can make it about what’s in it for them, in terms of value and getting them a good night’s sleep, they will start to trust you and open up. Sales associates are there to build value for customers so that they don’t feel that they need to shop somewhere else. I work with guys who do this and I work with guys who are cashiers. And the people who make all the money are the ones who spend the time to get good at it. It’s not an accident that the people who are good get bigger tickets and more customers because they are doing a lot of listening.”
Therapedic International’s Gerry Borreggine has a slightly different take on the greeting. “The most successful ones,” he says, “are the innocuous, non-threatening, casual but attentive greetings. The trick is to make the customer feel like you care about them, without piercing their cloak of privacy. When customers walk in they may not want to talk to a salesperson right away. So choose your words to not challenge or threaten them while soliciting a response. Try saying, ‘Good morning, don’t you just love (or just hate) this kind of weather?’ or ‘Did you have any trouble driving in today?’ Greetings that elicit a multi-word response to get a conversation going are best.
“From that point it can be a challenge, but as you continue the dialog, you can easily add, ‘what was it that you came in to look for today?’ I’ve had people say, ‘I came in for a twin size mattress for a spare room and don’t even need a box spring.’ Lots of salespeople are discouraged when they hear that kind of response. Always continue to engage them and soon an opportunity may open up to ask, ‘what size bed are you sleeping on,’ and they might say, ‘we are sleeping on a queen but would really like a king.’ At that point you’ve arrived at a whole different conversation. Questions beget answers that provide opportunities for salespeople to take the sales presentation and the conversation in directions that they or the consumer did not even intend to go.”
Gayle Ramsdell, Director of Sales & Training at Reverie confides, “One of the worst things I see at retail is that salespeople are in such a hurry to make the sale that they don’t listen to what customers are telling them. If they see that a customer is walking with a limp or holding a cane who says that they are looking for a $300 mattress, it’s important to take note. Part of building relationships with customers so they continue to come back is to find out what issues they have, address them appropriately, and try to sell them the right product. When the customer buys the right product, they are going to come back whether they change that mattress in five years or 20 years.”
Reverie’s Patti Ark concurs. “Listening and watching get left behind when salespeople rush so that they can get the commission on a sale, and start working on the next sale, without asking themselves if they are doing the right thing for the customer.
“A good salesperson will say, ‘Tell me what you are sleeping on now. Tell me what you like and don’t like about that bed.’ If you ask the right questions, it is clear that you will later be able to take them from one mattress to another that’s going to help them. And I think that a big part of being able to do that is to find out about their lifestyle.”
Owen Shoemaker of Comfort Solutions, elaborates on Gayle Ramsdell’s point about rushing the sale. "There is a thing that we call retail speed,” he notes. “That refers to the velocity of a selling transaction that works to a happy conclusion for everybody. Sometimes the consumer wants to go slow, and that’s their sense of retail speed, but if the RSA and the retailer are trying to write as many orders as is possible because the floor is busy, there is a mis-match. So how do you slow things down? Well you have to add sales help to the floor sometimes to get customers covered, but at the end of the day, it’s a question of training. If sales education programs do the quality job that they should, RSA’s will learn to slow themselves down so they can help consumers to relax enough to find the bed that is right for them. Only then will customers get a chance, under the bright lights in the bedding department, to focus on something besides price and share what is producing discomfort in their current bed. They might say, ‘I have a numb hand every day and my shoulder always hurts.’ The RSA needs to know that’s more than likely because their current bed is too hard. And if they don’t know that, because they are inexperienced, the RSA might sell them another extra firm bed and ruin the process all the way around. So that’s why good sales education can help slow the retail speed, get better qualifying and better results.”
“To avoid confusion later on in the process by showing too many beds,” notes Russ Gulla, a Sales Manager for Glideaway Steel Products and Sleep Harmony, “qualification is necessary, getting answers to 4 or 5 questions even before taking them to the first mattress. That’s the best way to narrow it down, and make their time more efficient in the department.”
“Ask them, ‘what are you sleeping on right now,’” suggests Magniflex’s Stefano Marescotti. “Try to get more information on what the person needs. If your customer has a summer home in the country they use 15 days a year, they are probably not going to be willing to spend the same amount of money as they would spend for everyday use. So qualification is part of that process.”
The same guidelines for asking questions in other furniture store departments also applies to selling mattress sets. It generally isn’t advisable to ask questions that many consumers simply are not ready to answer, such as the specific style or color they are looking for. “And the worst thing salespeople do in stores that sell organic lines, advises Natura’s Ralph Rossdeutscher is to say ‘are you interested in organic?’ It doesn’t work. Some people are looking for organic bedding, but it’s a very small percentage. These people can be fanatical, and they know more about the product than most salespeople ever will.”
“The answers to our open probes can be very helpful in building rapport with customers,” elaborates sales educator Peter A. Marino. “The vast majority of shoppers do not relish the thought of spending time in a store looking for a proper mattress and boxspring. Yet circumstances lead them to our stores. Our open probes should get customers to talk about what those circumstances are. Also, open probes should get customers to tell us their fears, their doubts, their hopes, their expectations and even what their experience was if they shopped other stores. Are they hoping to get a little better sleep or a lot better sleep on their new sleepset? How much are they willing to spend for that better night’s sleep? Do they presently suffer some degree of insomnia? What back problems are they currently experiencing? When they shopped in other stores did the salesperson teach them how to test a mattress?
“To get some valuable information from them,” continues Marino, “You might try the following 3-step opening: ‘Would you mind if on the way to our sleep shop I’d have you tell me what your greatest concern is about buying a mattress? That way I can skip all those questions that have nothing to do with why you’re here. Would that be all right?’
“The first thing I personally do is ask customers how much time they spend in bed,” adds Bill Hammer, President of Shifman Mattress. “I prioritize the purchase. Bedding is something that people don’t put a priority on, but they will spend 2 or 3 hundred dollars on a fine dinner, and more than $500 a month on an automobile. Our most expensive mattress costs much less than a cup of coffee a day, when extrapolated over time. Most customers come into a store looking for price and you need to change that direction. And if the salesperson can find a way to ask questions to help the customer prioritize the purchase, all of a sudden the customer is looking for something that is comfortable and good for their health instead of low in price. Most people spend 6 to 8 hours in bed, so I point out to them that that’s about a third of their day. And all of a sudden, they are refocused and willing to look at something that is good for their health.”
“One of the first questions we ask,” explains Mattress Firm’s Cory Ludens, “is about the use of the product. Is it for a guest room or a child? That gives us an idea of what they are shopping for, but we don’t specifically ask about price. That’s because we later establish a price range with customers using the products we have in our store. It may have been ten years since a customer has purchased a bed. Asking price questions early pigeonholes the sales process in that specific price range.
“We teach our associates early on in the process to ask a few different questions to help determine the basic categories customers fall into. We use four different categories that include the ‘specialist’ and ‘investor’, to help us connect with customers, speak their language and help them find the products they are looking for in a timely manner. Does the customer fall into the ‘investor’ category where they are interested in purchasing the best regardless of what it is they buy? If they fall into that category, it gives salespeople clues about how to talk with them and present products.
“For example, someone in the category we call ‘the specialist’ might be an engineer who shows up with a clip board and wants to know everything there is to know about how a product is constructed. But not everyone is that way. They may not be interested in all the construction elements. They might be much more interested in the history of the manufacturer and the finer detail points. They might not care how many coils are in it but they may be very interested in the fact that there is a layer of cashmere right underneath the cover.
“If somebody is looking for a master bedroom bed and they want it to last for 20 years but their price expectation is somewhere in the $500 and under range, that allows us to explain and level-set some expectations for that customer. We can offer them a product under that price, but we want to make sure that our customers expectations are in line with what they can realistically expect.
“It doesn’t do anybody any good to sell somebody something when they have different expectations for a product than what that product is designed to meet. We try to make sure that we look more at fulfilling their full expectation package instead of just their price expectation.”
In the next edition of Furniture World, we will continue this series with a look at ways furniture and bedding retailers navigate customers through the mattress sets on their sales floors. This will include strategies for working with customers who come in to look at an advertised special, and comfort testing techniques. We will also relate what experts say about best practices for moving up and down in price after an initial comfort test and how to move sideways between mattress categories.
Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other articles by Russell Bienenstock