In eastern Virginia, the owners of two bedding boutiques are brand evangelists—and driven by customer satisfaction
BY JULIE A. PALM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LISA W. CUMMING
The owners of BedCrafters by Michelle, a two-store retailer in eastern Virginia, believe so strongly in the bedding products they sell, they have no qualms about suggesting customers shop other stores before deciding on the right mattress.
“We tell customers, ‘If this is the first place you’ve been, then you should shop other places.’ We believe in no-pressure sales. This may seem a little overconfident, but we feel that if we have shared our information on the raw materials, construction and customer service, we can earn their business on their terms not ours. That makes a relationship we desire and the customer wants,” says Michelle Brumfield, founder and co-owner. “We are so much more than just a typical mattress store. It’s easy to make a sale; we want to earn the business and build relationships.”
The forthrightness works. Brumfield estimates 90% of customers who walk through the door eventually buy a bed from the retailer.
Brumfield, who started the business in 1999, and Annette Lindsey, who joined about five years ago, have built a profitable, growing retail enterprise by doing things their way. That means selling beds from only one manufacturer and requiring that all their employees sleep on the brand. They keep price tags off beds and prefer community involvement over big advertising buys.
Underlying all of this is passion: passion for their mattress brand, passion for their partnership and passion for their customers.
Brumfield’s entry into the mattress business started with a bad back, the result of sports injuries in her youth. In searching for a new bed, she discovered Custom Comfort by Winn Ltd., a manufacturer of handcrafted beds based in Hopewell, Va. One night’s sleep on her new Winndom brand mattress and Brumfield was a fan—such a fan that she later called the owner of the company, the late Winn Butterworth, and told him she wanted to work for him as a salesperson, despite the fact that she was young, had no sales experience and knew nothing about mattress production.
Butterworth wasn’t eager to add an inexperienced 23-year-old to his sales team but did give Brumfield a job at the plant, where she learned everything she could about mattress production. Eventually, Butterworth sent Brumfield out to sell the brand to nursing homes, hotels and other institutions.
After several years with the manufacturer, Brumfield was ready for a new opportunity and told Butterworth she was going out on her own, opening a retail location in Williamsburg, Va. Butterworth wasn’t convinced it was a good idea but agreed to supply her with mattresses. In the first month, the store, which opened in 1999, did $27,000 in business “and it’s just continued to grow,” Brumfield says.
Lindsey’s entry into the business started with the same enthusiasm for the Winndom brand. In echoes of Brumfield’s story, Lindsey was in the market for a mattress for her college-bound athlete daughter and wanted to spend her money at a local business. She knew Brumfield from a networking group and headed to BedCrafters by Michelle. Lindsey’s daughter loved her new mattress. Soon, Lindsey went back and bought one for her and her husband, too.
Just as Butterworth had taken a chance on Brumfield, Brumfield took a chance on Lindsey, offering her a job. Later, the two became business partners.
Both women speak affectionately of their partnership, explaining that their strengths balance out the other’s weaknesses. Brumfield focuses on manufacturing and design, customer service and delivery; Lindsey merchandises the stores, oversees human resource issues and handles financial matters such as accounts payable and receivable. Both spend considerable time assisting customers on the sales floor. They are as much friends—even “sisters”—as business partners.
The ‘BedCrafters by Michelle’ way
The original BedCrafters by Michelle store in Williamsburg recently relocated to a new 2,300-square-foot space where it floors about a dozen mattress models. A second store in the Glen Allen suburb of Richmond, Va., opened about a year ago. It’s much larger: 6,000 square feet with about 20 models on display.
Both locations resemble specialty furniture shops more than traditional mattress stores and are merchandised to make customers feel welcome and comfortable. Black ceilings and low lighting add an air of intimacy. Serene photographs provide interest on warm walls, decorative accessories enliven side tables and plush throws make mattresses inviting. Attractive blanket chests, occasional chairs and other furnishings create bedroom-like vignettes. Antique frames and a nautical area reinforce the fact that the retailer can make mattresses in any dimension—and for special settings, such as boats and RVs. Plush animals accent the availability of pet beds.
In-store marketing messages are kept to a minimum, primarily subtle Winndom pillow shams and signs that say, “Thank you for allowing us to earn your business” and proclaim the retailer’s motto: “Give us one night…we’ll give you a better day. We promise!”
There are no posters or banners touting the latest mattress technologies and no specs on foot protectors, in part because the owners expect staff to know the beds well enough to not need prompting when it comes to explaining constructions. (If retail sales associates need a refresher, they can consult a comprehensive manual.)
Most notably, there are no price tags.
“When people see price tags, they start thinking about price,” Lindsey says. “We want them to hear the story of our beds. We want them to experience the beds.” RSAs generally don’t even mention price until a customer expresses interest in a particular model.
The story the retailer wants to share with customers is one of handcrafted mattresses that are manufactured to customers’ specifications. Mattress components can be configured to best suit customers’ health needs and sleep patterns; foundations can be adjusted to fit customers’ existing bed frames.
The store offers a variety of custom-made Winndom constructions, including those with innersprings, pocketed coils and several types of foams. Queen-size beds start at $899 and top out at $4,200. The average ticket is about $2,400.
The BedCrafters by Michelle stores carry pillows, mattress protectors, headboards, footboards, metal frames and other sleep accessories from Sleep & Beyond, Blu Sleep Products and Leggett & Platt. Customers, Brumfield says, expect the retailer to carry high-end accessories, and as many as nine in 10 customers who purchase a bed also purchase pillows and a protector.
The retailer also offers adjustable bases from Leggett & Platt, which RSAs introduce during the course of the typical sales presentation.
“We’re not aggressive in pushing anything,” Brumfield says. “As with everything we show, we mention the good points and the bad points so that customers are educated.”
Brumfield’s first sales job at Custom Comfort by Winn was in the contract arena and her current venture also has a contract unit, supplying hotels, resorts, government agencies and other institutions. That portion of the business took a back seat as the owners focused on opening the Richmond-area store, but it’s a segment of potential growth in the future.
When a customer enters the store, she’s greeted warmly.
“The philosophy of our business is that the most important person is the customer—the person walking through the door,” Brumfield says. “If you’re the customer, we want to give you what you want, but more importantly, what you need.”
Determining what a customer wants and needs begins with a visit to the retailer’s Tool Chest, where RSAs use component samples to explain the materials used in Winndom products. During the five-minute process, sales associates also inquire about health issues or sleep troubles customers might have, discuss the style and height of their current bed set and talk about the importance of sleeping on the correct pillow.
After selecting a pillow, RSAs encourage customers to rest-test a few models, which are arranged by feel and construction. The retailer doesn’t use high-tech diagnostic tools to match customers to mattresses. Instead, RSAs are expected to rely on their training and expertise—and their conversation with the customer—to determine which mattress offers the best support and comfort.
“We’re not into gimmicks,” Lindsey says. “We rely on getting the customer’s feedback and what we can see as they lie on the bed. After we’ve shown them a few beds, we tell them they are welcome to try others. We ask if they have any questions and encourage them to take their time.”
Sales staff explain the pros and cons of various constructions, as well as the “normal wear and tear” that customers should expect from a bed.
“We don’t want customers to have unrealistic expectations,” Brumfield explains. “We’re looking for a long-term relationship with our customers. If they’re happy with their bed, they’ll return for their next mattress and send in another 10 people.”
The retailer employs five salespeople, including owners Brumfield and Lindsey. RSAs earn a salary with no commissions and most have been with the company at least five years.
New sales staff start their training at the Custom Comfort by Winn factory to learn how components are made and how the Winndom beds are constructed. Then they take turns training with both Brumfield and Lindsey on the sales floor.
“Everyone who works for us sleeps on our products,” Brumfield says. “Most bought the product before they came to work for us. Our employees are passionate about our products and love working here. They’re very dedicated.”
Because the retailer’s bed sets are made specifically for each customer and are never warehoused, delivery typically takes seven to 10 days. That process, however, can be accelerated if necessary.
“In an emergency, we’ve picked up a bed for delivery in as little as six hours,” Brumfield says. “The other day we had a customer who’d moved from California and their neighbor had told them to go to BedCrafters by Michelle for new mattresses. We made and delivered four beds in three days for them.”
When a bed is finished, BedCrafters by Michelle delivery staff pick it up from the plant and take it directly to the customer. Once at the customer’s home, delivery personnel remove the old bed set, if requested. They’ve been known to vacuum bedrooms, and one handy delivery person once even crafted and stained a new center support for a customer’s wood bed frame. There’s no charge for delivery within a 45-mile radius.
Delivery personnel aren’t an afterthought in the hiring process: Everyone in the BedCrafters by Michelle organization is a customer ambassador.
“The people I have in my life—my family, staff, Annette—are why my business has been able to survive in the recession economy,” Brumfield says. “I would not be anywhere without them and Winn Butterworth. He shared his knowledge of raw materials in a mattress, which in turn gave me confidence and passion for making a difference. He always wanted to build a better product. In order for any company to be successful, it’s all about the team. It starts at manufacturing through to the sales staff and to the completion of the delivery.”
Giving back: CONTRIBUTING TO THE COMMUNITY
When it comes to marketing, BedCrafters by Michelle advertises on radio and television, in local newspapers and magazines, and through social media (primarily Facebook). But many of the retailer’s most satisfying and successful marketing efforts are charitable, which fits with the owners’ mission to be deeply involved in their community and build a reputation based on word-of-mouth recommendations.
The retailer partners with a multitude of organizations, including Blooms That Brighten Inc., Children’s Hospital of Richmond, Heritage Humane Society, March of Dimes, Relay For Life, Ronald McDonald House, Toys for Tots, Wounded Warriors Project, as well as local Kiwanis and Soroptimist clubs and food banks. BedCrafters by Michelle might make an in-kind or financial donation, sponsor an event or participate in a donation drive.
“We are different; we want to be different. We want to make an impact on the community,” says co-owner Annette Lindsey. “Our success is when we go home and know we’ve given to the community, our employees and our customers.”
In recognition of not only her business acumen but also her support of the community, co-owner and founder Michelle Brumfield recently was named 2014 Small Business Person of the Year by the Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce.
RX FOR SUCCESS: MEDICAL REFERRALS
A significant portion of BedCrafters by Michelle’s business comes through medical referrals. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that owners Michelle Brumfield and Annette Lindsey both bought their first Winndom beds in an effort to relieve physical ailments and the fact that Lindsey has past experience as a medical assistant.
The owners work hard to develop relationships with chiropractors, physical therapists, neurologists, sleep doctors, orthopedic surgeons and other medical professionals, visiting their offices and explaining how the retailer can customize mattresses to meet patient needs. Though it takes time to develop such relationships, it pays off. Lindsey estimates there are 20 to 30 health care professionals in Williamsburg, Va., who refer patients to BedCrafters by Michelle. The retailer is building a similar network in the Richmond, Va., area.
The result is that customers often enter the store with a referral from a physician for a specific type of mattress or pillow. The retailer is firm in its decision not to provide free beds to medical professionals, but customers who have a referral from a health care provider receive a $200 discount on mattress sets.
Lindsey says it’s particularly satisfying to provide a bed to someone who’s been suffering from pain and learn that after buying a mattress from BedCrafters by Michelle, the customer is finally able to get a good night’s sleep.
“You realize how much of a difference you can make in people’s lives,” she says.
Julie A. Palm is a freelance writer and editor living in Winston-Salem, N.C. She is the former editor in chief of Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines.