Where do you stand on organic? Your answer will likely be determined by whether your status is a major bedding retailer, an independent, or a niche player.
As a percentage of the bedding market, the organic segment is small, and depending on who you speak to in our industry, it is either growing fast, has the potential to grow fast, or has plateaued. Among those retailers and manufacturers who have a passion for selling the benefits of bedding that is natural, organic and healthy, there is both agreement and differences on a number of the issues that will be discussed in this and a subsequent article.
It’s easy when organizing an article about organic mattresses to focus on technical definitions, terminology, and the various certifications. These are important, but can easily be found online by checking some of the websites that will be listed in the next installment of Furniture World Magazine’s “Selling Better Bedding and Mattress Sales” series.
Instead, this article will take a look at where the category is today, and where it may be headed. We will also discuss important core issues and identify strategies Furniture World readers might use to profit from an increased emphasis on this industry segment.
Who Cares About Organic?
In the article in our “Better Bedding & Mattress Sales” series two years ago (www.furninfo.com/series/bedding), major retailers and manufacturers named the reasons why customers start to look for a new mattress. Most people shop, they said, because there has been a marriage, divorce, birth, children leaving for school or returning to the nest. Sagging beds, edge supports, bad backs, shoulder pain, poor quality sleep and the like are additional purchase motivators. Customers are trying to fix something, they said. Bedding is not normally a want, it’s is a need, and people usually don’t go out and replace mattresses unless they have to.
Chemical sensitivities and concerns about the materials used in mattresses were not mentioned.
Natural/ organic/ Green Where Are We Today?
How big is the natural, organic, green market? How much consumer awareness is there regarding the category and how high is the level of consumer and industry interest? Furniture World asked a number of bedding experts to offer opinions based on their research and experience. As with any research, the answers received depend on the questions asked. For example, asking bedding customers if the quality and safety of the materials in their mattress is important, will yield a much “greener” sounding response than asking them to list the most important things they look for when shopping for a new mattress.
We asked Walt Bader, President of OMI, the manufacturer of organic mattresses produced in a large-scale 100 percent organic factory and author of two books on the subject, to estimate the percentage of consumers who come into stores looking for organic mattresses. He replied, “If a retailer waits for a person to come in and say, ‘I’m looking for an organic mattress.’ Or, ‘I’m looking for a certified organic mattress,’ it’s ten percent or less. That’s because 90 percent of the public, or more, doesn’t even realize that organic mattresses exist. The question really should be rephrased to ask, ‘What percentage of customers would be interested in buying an organic mattress if they knew one existed?’ So, if you asked what percentage of customers would be interested in buying an organic mattress if they knew one existed, then the answer is seventy percent.”
Bader goes on to explain that the 70 percent figure is based on research published in the last annual report of the Organic Trade Association (www.ota.com) which reported that over seventy percent of American households are buying organic. “Organic,” he explained, “includes food, beverages, personal care, cleaning products, textiles, and mattresses. These organic consumers meet the acid test for consumer behavior. They buy. And so, over seventy percent of American households buy something organic. This organic segment has a committed, demonstrated purchasing motivation for organic products because they believe they are healthier.
“I remember a college teacher (and that’s a long time ago) telling a marketing class that you can spend millions of dollars to discover consumer perceptions and then billions to try and change their preferences. The organic market is growing around 20 percent a year, even through the recession, and while retailers tell me often that they realize their function is to meet the needs of their customers, they ignore their organic segment either because they don't identify with it personally, or feel consumers won't spend the money for the product, or think that if they have an organic product on their floor it will diminish in some way their other products. All three are incorrect. We don't sell our mattresses by saying we are better than mattress X, Y or Z, we merely have the product on the floor for the consumers who already have an organic preference. It actually gives retailers another handle to close a sale in addition to comfort and price. And what retailer doesn't need more motivations for a consumer to purchase these days? Retailers are shocked when they learn we have stores that will do a million dollars a year with our line,” he concludes.
Michael Magnuson, president of the consumer destination website www.GoodBed.com estimates the percentage of active bedding shoppers interested in natural and organic to be between five and 15 percent. “Our SmartMatch mattress finder,” he says, “allows people to indicate whether they're looking for a mattress with organic or natural features. Based on the use of this tool by many thousands of shoppers, we've found that between five and 15 percent of consumers have at least some interest in a mattress with organic or natural characteristics.”
The Specialty Sleep Association’s (SSA) President Dale Read agrees that many customers say they factor “green” into their mattress buying decisions. “I’ve seen several research reports,” he recalls, “one that we did with underwriting by Simmons, and another study that confirmed that 30 percent of consumers said they thought green was a factor.
“If one in three buyers are interested, that’s a huge opportunity, and our research showed that there are incremental sales and real money to be made by addressing health and safety issues. Fifteen percent of women who had purchased a mattress said that they would pay more for an environmentally friendly mattress if they could substantiate, through some kind of labeling or certification, that the claims that were made were real. They would pay substantially more, as much as $200 dollars more, if they could prove they were putting a healthier and safer product in their home. Now that’s huge in the mattress industry.”
Read also mentioned that he was surprised when SSA research into the market for “green” products revealed that only ten percent of consumers interviewed said they care about product lifecycle issues. “So only about ten percent of all of those people cared about product lifestyle issues when you define green in terms of the future and welfare of the earth,” he says. “But when they think about green as, I’m putting bad stuff in my house. I'm concerned about my kids and my home. Could it be off-gassing? Could my mattress be poisoning me? Could I get allergies from it? Are there chemicals in it that are dangerous? When you put it in those terms, that's where 79 percent of 637 consumers interviewed said they would choose a mattress that didn’t have those health and safety issues.”
GoodBed.com’s Magnuson concurs that health and safety are the larger issue for consumers. “While there are certainly all kinds of people that are concerned with health and/or sustainability,” he notes, “one of the groups we hear from most frequently on this topic is actually mothers that are buying mattresses for their kids. Most often, these are affluent, well-educated parents that are concerned first and foremost about how the mattress they choose may affect the health of their child. While sustainability considerations may be a factor as well, we see health and safety considerations as the key driving force for this group of consumers.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find ladies with pitchforks and burning torches storming retail stores saying, ‘We want organic beds,’” adds Dale Read. “What I think you’re going to find is that as this awareness increases they will see organic as a buzzword that really means healthier, safer, cleaner living that’s good for their kids, good for their families and good for their homes.
“I believe that the Sustainability Furnishings Council did some research,” he continues, “and what they found out is the more that people are educated and informed about the opportunity to purchase green products, the more likely they are to do it. They need to know that these products are available. I believe they're going to find that as the economy recovers from survival mode, these women are going to demand more. It's going to be a women's revolution. Growth is going to come from concerned mothers, from consumers growing from the bottom up.”
Susan Inglis, Executive Director, Sustainable Furnishings Council confirms. ”We have, indeed, done research that shows that 49 percent of consumers are interested in choosing eco-friendly products, but they do not know what the options are. So, it is up to sales people to point out when a product is made in America or made of organic materials or certified no-VOC, etc.” The SFC’s 2012 survey of 432 women aged 30 to 60 with income of over $50,000 who purchased at least $500 worth of home furnishings within a year showed growing interest among the most committed buyers. The study’s authors noted that, “Purchase interest in green furnishings is holding steady. Those definitely interested remain over 30 percent and likely actual trial rates remain at 40 percent; both are very healthy numbers. Likely trial rates are significantly higher at 50 percent in both the West Coast and the Northeast. This finding is in line with assumed higher populations of sophisticated consumers there.” Also found was that the percentage of consumers who “would pay nothing or only up to five percent more for green furnishings fell from a peak of 78 percent in 2010 to 67 percent” in the 2012 survey. The study suggests that this is a significant drop and an indication of some revival in consumer confidence.
Major Retailer's View
“The majority of retailers’ consumer messaging,” notes Gerry Morris, a bedding sales consultant and author of two books on selling mattresses, “gives customers reasons to buy such as urgency, low price, discounts, the most free services and longest financing. And that plays right into the consumer’s mindset that they're seeking value. These messages make them more prone to shop, compare and chase that elusive best value. In general, retail advertising is not consistent with messages that manufacturers are putting out there, which is to paint a picture, an emotionally-based picture, with lifestyle images that portray the benefits of their products.”
In fact, industry messaging can be thought of as both a cause and a result of how consumers view the mattress- purchase cycle. The more that low prices and financing are advertised, the more consumers focus on getting the best deal. The more consumers focus on getting the best deal, the more reason there is to advertise along those lines. It’s a positive feedback loop. Major bedding advertising expenditures generally don’t focus on natural or organic bedding. “The reason there's very little advertising in the organic mattress world,” postulates John Muccino owner of The Organic Mattress, a specialty retailer based in Sudbury, MA, “is we'd be advertising to less than one percent of the people who buy an organic mattress. No one can really afford to advertise to one percent.”
In addition to price/value advertising, Furniture World interviewed major retailers who focus much of their advertising on heath-related issues unrelated to organic and natural materials.
We spoke with Nelson Bercier, President of the California-based chain Sit ‘n Sleep. He explained that among major bedding manufacturers and retailers, “The latest push now is quality of sleep, and quantity of sleep. Those are the topics we like to talk about, more so than all-natural, organic, recycled or eco-friendly mattresses. Organic doesn’t attract me as a retailer because it is a niche market that doesn’t offer enough return on the investment. But there are some smaller niche players that have made a go of it.”
His view is shared by a number of majors we spoke to who emphasize the health benefits of a good night’s sleep as well as address other sleep-related issues such as indoor dust mite allergy prevention, bedbug safety, weight loss, productivity and spine health, but do not focus on the natural or organic segment.
“That’s because the retail industry has found that,” continues Bercier, “major manufacturers have often skirted around the issue, putting a lot of words and labels out there that are misleading, just a hint of the truth, greenwashing. On the consumer side, there is a very small part of the retail demographic that truly is educated, knows the right questions to ask and knows when they’re being told the truth or a story. Honestly, among other consumers who ask these questions, I don’t believe that most even listen to the answers. I think they have just been programmed to ask the question and then go on to the next thing. And that’s why this greenwashing has been so successful because people hear what they want to hear.
“Before this interview, I took your questions, created my own little questionnaire, and sent it out to a hundred Sit ’n Sleep sales people to get their feedback. More than half of them responded with one line responses, such as, ‘No need’ or ‘No one asks’. Others said, ‘We have latex, and when someone asks we go to a latex as pretty much a natural solution.’ Of course latex is a manufactured product that has a polyurethane foam core. We’re not telling people it’s all natural, but we do say it’s as close to a natural product that we have, and most customers are fine with that.
“My point of view is that our customers are more concerned with top of bed. We sell a lot of organic sheets, pillows and all-natural encasements because that’s where their skin surface touches. And those are products that are affordable and have organic claims that are far easier to prove than for a mattress. They are also more affordable.”
Darlene Staub, who owns the Natural Sleep Shop, Cranberry Twp., PA, selling all organic mattresses and organic bedding, agrees. “We also have a line of nursery furniture that’s non-toxic finished furniture, and then we carry another line that’s GOTS certified organic nursery bedding,” she says. “We’ve had competitors come into our store to see what we have and what we do. I think right now the attitude is that we’re not really cutting into their market enough for them to care.”
Says GoodBed.com’s Michael Magnuson, “Selling organic products is a very tricky thing for a traditional mattress store, because only a minority of customers walk in the door with an interest in organic or natural mattresses. For the rest of the customers, the easiest way to convince them to take an interest in an organic line-up is to talk to them about the potential health and safety benefits. The challenge is: how do you do this successfully without undermining the other products on your sales floor?
“In the food industry, they have addressed this issue primarily through simple price stratification. Most grocery products now come in a range of options, with the organic options almost always being more expensive than the non-organic. To consumers, Product A is "healthy but expensive," while Product B is "inexpensive but maybe not as healthy". Consumers then self-select based on their sensitivity to price and health considerations.
“For mattresses, it doesn't break down this simply. Product A is "healthy but expensive," but what does that make Product B, which is also expensive but not organic or natural? "Expensive and maybe not as healthy" doesn't make for a great selling proposition. Meanwhile, in more cases than not, Product B is what the consumer walked in the door thinking they wanted, and thus would be much easier to sell to them. Therein lies the dilemma.
“From the retailer's standpoint,” he concludes, “there are three logical ways around this. The first and most obvious is to sell organic or natural products through separate channels, so they are not competing on the same sales floor with traditional products. The second is that when they are on the same sales floor, try to stratify by price so the organic or natural products are more expensive than traditional options. The third is to increase the percentage of people that walk in the door wanting an organic or natural mattress. Practically speaking, this would take a concerted, highly focused education effort to build awareness about the benefits of these products.”
SSA’s Dale Read, is also onboard with the idea that there is resistance among some major bedding retailers to embrace the natural/organic segment and label their products because, “They like the concept, but if they adopt it, they feel they are automatically admitting that 90 percent of the beds on their floors have problems, aren't healthy and aren't safe. My reply is that it is all up to them how they train their RSA’s. They don’t need to bring up the subject unless a customer says they are concerned about their kids, or that they’ve been reading about upholstery fires lately in California.” He says that if the product is adequately labeled, they don’t need to explain all of the contents. “They can just point to a little contents label on the bed. That's why the SSA has been promoting our BedFax contents labeling program, and also a four-level environmental program content labeling requiring that manufacturers produce evidence of bio-based percentages of materials or have certain certifications. It's an easy sale if you've got a label that says a mattress has, for example, fifteen percent bio-based content. An RSA doesn't have to be a genius to say that a mattress is made with less petroleum and that it won't off-gas, or put bad stuff into their home. That doesn't mean they automatically condemn every other SKU.” More about labeling and certifications will be discussed in the next installment.
Buying Motivations For Organic Mattresses
What are the major motivators that cause consumers to shop specifically for mattresses with natural or organic content?
Owner of the Natural Sleep Shop, Darlene Staub says, quite often the main reason people visit her store, is that they’ve become ill from sleeping on their synthetic foam beds.
“A lot of us, myself included,” she tells Furniture World readers, “came to this conclusion by the process of elimination. We had air quality testing done in the house, and the room with the mattress had the highest level of VOC’s. So I narrowed it down that way. And then by removing it, I felt better. Several of our customers started having migraines right after they started sleeping on a memory foam mattress. I think that more people are reacting to chemicals that are being put into mattresses now, and so we see a lot of shoppers that have become chemically sensitive. They seek us out to buy something that’s more whole and pure. And, many of them tell us that sleeping on something that’s pure and organic has made the biggest difference. They don’t have all the allergic reactions, the migraines, the body aches, and everything that can be associated with toxins found in other mattresses.
“Plus, there’s so much research coming out now showing the links between the levels of toxins in our environment and the increase in autism, ADHD. There are increases in Parkinson’s now linked to mercury. People are just becoming a lot more aware of what’s in their environment and the long-term effects.
“Some of our customers who are chemically sensitive shopped the major retailers first and told us they could hardly remain in those stores. They had difficulty tolerating the chemical smell.
We also see a lot of people that already live an organic lifestyle and just want that choice for their children or for themselves when they buy a mattress. But we also have customers who have become sick and then they adopt an organic lifestyle in everything that they do.”
Staub also commented on the research her customers do before starting to shop. “Perhaps three-fourths of our customers have come in after having done a lot of research on their own, through their own networking and online research.
“The major retailers do a great job with marketing, spending a huge amount of money on advertising. That’s something we can’t do being a small, independent business. So most of our shoppers are people who have searched the internet for organic mattresses, or who have linked to us from the website of our major mattress supplier.”
When asked about the internet preparation of his customers, John Muccino at The Organic Mattress was quick to give a percentage. “100 percent, he says. “It’s all online. If you're going to run a special you need to do it online.” The result of online education in advance of walking into the store he says is, “We don't sell them. We just show them the different options and they lie on the ten different mattresses, find out the one they like. They sell themselves. It’s totally laid back, here's the way it works. I bring them in to the store, I show them an A, B, C, D, E, F, G mattresses. I explain to them this one is nearly firm, semi-firm, single-piece, multi-piece, then I go downstairs and read my newspaper tell them to lie around and call me if they need me. I do not stand over a bed when people lie on it and I think that's gotta be an intimidating and very uncomfortable feeling to be honest with you.”
Natural Bedding Category Growth
Given the general interest in healthy lifestyles, why aren’t most consumers making more of a fuss about what’s in their mattresses? Why isn’t the market for natural and organic mattresses in the USA much larger? Before moving on to answer this question, let’s review what we know about the market.
- There is general agreement among most of the people interviewed for this article that there is interest among consumers regarding products that can be described as natural or organic.
- Research has shown that bedding purchasers say they are willing to pay more for products that have components they believe to be safe and healthy for their families.
- A majority of consumers don’t come into major stores looking for natural or organic bedding as their primary consideration.
- A majority of larger retailers have chosen not to emphasize the category in their advertising or on their sales floors.
- The internet is replete with well-researched as well as anecdotal information related to the materials used in bedding and the health risks. A quick search yields lists of chemicals commonly found in mattresses along with research reports and first-person anecdotes from people who report getting headaches, rashes, sinus problems breathing insufficiency, ringing in their ears, dizziness and flu-like symptoms from their new mattresses, accompanied by warnings about cancer, autoimmune and other hazards.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the issues that have influenced the development of this segment. These include the fact that it’s a maturing marketplace, as well as greenwashing, labeling, the need for transparency, consumer behavior and certifications.
An immature US market? Retailer Darlene Staub believes that US born consumers seem to be less aware of the organic bedding options compared with Europeans who have moved into her trading area. European countries have been more aggressive in banning chemical additives and certain processes in the production of consumer durables and food items. “I think this situation is slowly going to change,” she says. “We have a very large international business in our area and many of their employees shop in our store. A lot of what is sold here in this country is banned in the European Union. I’ve found that people who come from Europe often want purer, healthier choices because that’s what they’ve been accustomed to in their home countries. We are going to see the major manufacturers change, but the problem is, it will be a huge change for them because producing natural mattresses and storing them next to synthetic foam mattresses ruins the purity of them.
“Our customers are becoming more educated about health as a whole. They are coming to realize that having good health is not only what they eat, although that’s a huge part of it. It’s also what they are breathing, what they sleep on and wear. We are affected by the chemicals in everything around us, and this is especially true for small children and infants.”
Greenwashing- An Important issue: “Greenwashing on websites is still fairly prevalent,” says SSA’s Dale Read. “There is a huge, broad gap of claims, certifications, products, etc., all under the umbrella of natural eco-friendly, better-for-you products.
“It’s not nearly as common as it used to be when I first got all enamored with this topic and said it should be a mission for the Specialty Sleep Association (SSA). That’s because the recent down economy dealt a real blow to a whole bunch of companies who were marketing and selling green, making all sorts of claims about soy memory foam and other ingredients. And the truth is that all polyurethane beds, whether memory foam or standard polyurethane, are made up of approximately 67% oil, or polyol of one kind or another, and 33% isocyanates. And you’re never going to get rid of 33% isocyanates no matter how much of the oil is transferred from petroleum to soy or castor or palm oil or another renewable oil source.”
The Natural Sleep Shop’s Darlene Staub agrees. “I do think there is a lot of greenwashing going on in the market lately. Retailers slap the word organic or eco-something on a mattress and people think they’re getting a pure product. We have a “big box” chain around here that sells an infant mattress. They list it as an organic infant crib mattress, but if you read the fine print, you find out that it is made of polyurethane foam with a vinyl coating, and a very thin layer of certified organic cotton over top. My view is that it is pointless to put organic cotton on top of all those toxin-filled materials. But unfortunately, when customers are surfing their website, the biggest bolded phrase is, of course, ‘organic crib mattress’. Unknowing young parents are ordering these products and believe what they’ve purchased is something pure and safe for their child. So, I think there needs to be a lot more honesty and integrity in the market. Consumers need to be made aware of the third-party certifications that can assure their purchase is as pure and organic as they expected. In our store, we share the many independent certifications that Savvy Rest and our other products have earned from the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Greenguard, OTCO and many other independent companies to assure what they are purchasing is a high quality and organic product.”
It is “buyer beware” for consumers who believe greenwashing claims. “We go in to people's houses quite frequently,” John Muccino recalls, “and see mattresses that people bought online before they shopped with us. I hear them on the phone fighting with some retailer, somewhere else in the country, trying to return a mattress that doesn’t live up to expectations. It's an online world. People want to sit at home and buy things. A mattress, in my opinion, is like a diamond ring, how could you ever buy it online? But people do.”
“If the government ever decides to step up enforcement, it’s going to be a big wakeup day,” adds Dale Read.
“You still see people making claims that a product is renewable, or say what it’s made out of without any percentages listed and without certifications posted or other proof. The FTC green guide says that if you make a claim in the green area, eco, natural, whatever, you must substantiate it. You must tell the consumer what you mean. Essentially the FTC is saying that manufacturers and retailers must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and not leave anything out. The FTC came down very hard, on a lot of retailers in the bamboo cellulose-based rayon textile area.”
“You’re going to see a flurry of F.T.C. actions in the next 18 months, warns OMI’s Walt Bader.”
Whether made through willful deception or inadvertently through a lack of due diligence, unsubstantiated, incomplete and deceptive claims have had an effect on the industry.
“No doubt there is a lot of confusion amongst consumers when it comes to mattresses in general,” observes GoodBed.com’s Michael Magnuson. “But when you then couple this with the amount of confusion that exists with regards to organic products, and the amount of greenwashing that goes on amongst manufacturers and retailers, the confusion and frustration reaches epic proportions. I've even heard some of the most green-minded consumers throw up their arms when it comes to this category, because there is so much conflicting information out there.”
Consumer Behavior. The Fast Food Effect:
People say they are interested in eating healthy, but most don’t want to or can’t afford to pay double for their organic broccoli. And, when push comes to shove, they may decide that a Big Mac is a tastier choice than the organic broccoli anyway. In the food world, bacon, donuts, fast food and 64 ounce sodas rule! This, in spite of clear, widely accepted research that shows established links between food choices and eventual health risks such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Sometimes a choice made today gives more credence to immediate concerns over possible long-term effects.
Is the organic bedding choice much different? Certainly it’s less clear in minds of consumers. Like organic food, fewer organic mattresses are available at lower price points. The Organic Mattress’ John Muccino says he has seen price as a big factor in recent years. “I'm going to say,” he tells us, “it’s because consumers can go out and buy a mattress for $599. I thought if we could deal with the masses instead of the classes I would be all set. But I'm convinced that most organic mattress stores are going to end up being boutique type stores dealing with higher end financial people earning six figures or more.”
And, just as it’s not possible to make Cheetos that are natural and healthy and taste exactly like Cheetos, it’s not possible to get that memory foam feel without using memory foam.
Finally, people may feel ill after choosing to ingest fast foods, a signal that it might not have been the best choice, but when it comes to mattresses, the choice, and the research is less clear to them. In fact, they may not even know that there is a choice. A quality new mattress feels great and has advantages whether it comes from one side of the natural organic divide or the other.
So what’s a smart furniture retailer to do? As we mentioned at the start of this article, it probably depends on whether you are a major bedding retailer, an independent, or a niche player. Just as we’ve seen recent movement in the natural food market with aggressive moves by chains like Whole Foods, there may be a similar opportunity in our industry; sales and profit potential which will be the topic of the next installment in this series.
In the next issue Furniture World will look at organic certifications and product labeling. We will also investigate a number of ideas retailers can use to grow the category, including sales techniques and marketing approaches.
Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.