By building a library of pillow offerings—and emphasizing the critical role pillows play in restorative sleep—bedding retailers can wake up to this category’s cushy sales potential
BY JULIE A. PALM
You wouldn’t sleep a single night—at least not comfortably—without a pillow. So why would you let any customer who has just purchased a new mattress set leave without new pillows, too?
Savvy retailers don’t.
As a matter of geography, pillows cover roughly 20% to 25% of the surface of the mattress, but manufacturers contend that they contribute as much as 50% to the sleep experience, working in concert with the mattress to provide proper body alignment and create a comfortable, supportive sleep environment.
Consumers sense this themselves and have become “more attuned to thinking of a sleep system that includes both a mattress and a pillow,” says Rob O’Neill, vice president of merchandising for Fashion Bed Group, part of Leggett & Platt Inc. in Carthage, Missouri.
In fact, a 2016 consumer survey from the Better Sleep Council, the consumer-education arm of the International Sleep Products Association, shows about a third of consumers bought new pillows at the time they bought a new bed set, though not necessarily from the same retailer.
Dan Baker, executive vice president of sales for North America for St. Louis-based Glideaway, says his company’s research indicates something similar: Nearly two-thirds of consumers will buy new pillows within two weeks of purchasing a mattress. But, if they’re buying pillows days or weeks later, chances are they aren’t buying them from a mattress dealer, Baker notes.
Still, consumers—more than half, according to the BSC research—are open to buying pillows from the same retailer that sells them a mattress set. Retailers just need to give them a reason to do so. And this fact represents a huge opportunity for mattress retailers who want to grow their pillow business.
“By building in more consumer value, providing great comfort and support, and offering health and wellness features through technical textiles that don’t wear out or stop working over the natural life of the pillow, we’re giving consumers reasons to purchase from a specialty mattress retailer rather than a big box,” says Sean Bergman, chief marketing officer for PureCare in Fairfield, New Jersey.
Mattress retailers who understand the importance of the mattress and pillow working in conjunction are better positioned than discounters, department stores or big boxes that simply create a big pillow display and let consumers try to figure out the best option on their own.
“Retailers are really doing a disservice to consumers if they’re not selling a good pillow,” says Sam Malouf, founder and chief executive officer of Malouf, which has headquarters in Logan, Utah. “We talk about the importance of sleep, and the pillow is going to significantly affect the sleep experience. If you allow a customer to invest in a quality mattress and then go back to their old pillow or buy a cheap, ill-fitting pillow, it will affect how they sleep on that mattress.”
Dan Schecter, senior vice president of Richmond, Virginia-based Carpenter Co., puts it this way: “If you buy a $4,000 mattress and put a $5 pillow on it, you essentially have a $5 mattress in terms of the sleep experience.” And that’s no service to your customers.
Start with the pillow
The pillow is such an important part of the sleep ensemble, pillow makers recommend not even starting the mattress selection process until shoppers have picked out a pillow to test at the same time. In fact, every manufacturer Sleep Savvy interviewed offered this as a key sales tip.
“If customers choose a pillow at the beginning and take it along to test the mattress, they’ll almost always buy the pillow—and usually the mattress, too,” says Elizabeth Dell’Accio, vice president of Blu Sleep Products, with U.S. headquarters in Pompano Beach, Florida. “If you wait to introduce the pillow until the end of the process, you’ll lose the pillow sale.”
But not every retailer has gotten this message.
“I secret shop all the time,” says Kimberly Fisher, president and chief operating officer of Talalay Global, with headquarters in Shelton, Connecticut. “It’s fun to go into different markets and different stores and see what they’re doing. But I tell you, in most of those stores, I look around, lie on different beds and many salespeople will never even recommend a pillow. I can say, ‘I wonder what this mattress would feel like with a proper pillow.’ They can have pillows on a wall in the store and sometimes the salesperson won’t go get you one.”
Bergman recommends that early in every interaction with a customer, retail sales associates ask, “When was the last time you were properly fitted for a pillow?”
“Customers will always answer ‘never’,” Bergman says. And that’s the perfect opportunity to take them to a pillow display to pick one out.
Another way to open the conversation, Baker says, is to explain to customers that the same changes in their lifestyles, health, body, etc., that are prompting them to shop for a new mattress mean they need a new pillow, too.
At the pillow display, RSAs can ask a few simple questions about pillow preferences (Do you generally like a softer or firmer pillow? A thinner or thicker pillow? What is your current pillow made of?) and sleeping positions (In what position do you typically wake up?). The process doesn’t add much time to the overall sales presentation.
Once you’ve helped shoppers pick out a pillow, slip it into a disposable cover and have them bring it along as they rest-test beds. “Nine out of 10 people will snuggle into and hold onto that pillow,” Fisher says. “They’ll form a quick attachment to it.”
It’s a good idea for RSAs to bring along a second pillow option. For instance, if a shopper initially selects a memory foam pillow, grab a fiber or shredded foam version for comparison.
“With our customizable pillows, many of our retailers will outfit a mattress with one overstuffed version on one side of the bed and less full version on the other side of the bed so they can feel the difference,” says John Howard-Smith, CEO of Savvy Rest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Switching out the pillow—either halfway through the rest-testing process or after shoppers have narrowed their mattress choices to one or two bed sets—helps shoppers see how a different pillow can alter the feel of the sleep ensemble. Once shoppers have selected a mattress, say one with temperature-regulating properties, you can bring them a final pillow option with similar properties.
And after they’ve fallen in love with their pillow and mattress choices, there’s only one question left to ask, says Mike Douglas, vice president of sales for Malouf: “How many pillows would you like today?”
Other ways to bolster sales
Here are five more pillow merchandising and sales tips:
1. Know your store.
When creating or changing your pillow program, choose one that “ties into your store’s story and your mattress story,” says Warrick Bell, vice president of product innovation for the Wheeling, Illinois-based Protect-A-Bed. “If you’re selling mostly natural mattresses, chose a complementary pillow range. If you’re selling a hybrid story, offer hybrid pillows. If you’re selling a cooling story, sell a cooling pillow. It makes the sales process easier. You don’t have to double train your sales staff on different technologies, and they don’t have to double explain technologies to consumers.”
Bergman says whether retailers offer pillows from one manufacturer or several, it’s important to create a logical, cohesive presentation for consumers.
“Most retailers try to go with one story, say wellness, for that reason,” Bergman says. “They can connect pillows, protectors, sheets to that story and it makes sense to the consumer.”
2. Don’t give them away.
This should go without saying, but a Sleep Savvy editor recently passed by a retailer with enormous “Free Pillow with Purchase” signs in the window. Anytime you toss in a freebie like that you devalue the entire product category—and potentially harm future pillow sales.
“I think it’s a big fallacy that you should give them away,” Fashion Bed Group’s O’Neill says. “Pillows are such an integral part of the sleep system and consumers understand that. They really are willing to pay more for a better pillow.”
Carpenter’s Schecter agrees. Through both research and extensive interactions with consumers on its SleepBetter.org website and its popular social media feeds, Carpenter has learned that consumers value a quality pillow.
“We know that price is not the driving factor in a pillow purchase, which runs counter to traditional retail philosophy,” Schecter says. “You can be successful selling at a higher price point and selling a better product—and you’ll have happier consumers.” Because, when it comes down to it, he adds, “Consumers are willing to pay for authentic innovation and the health/wellness benefits of a good night’s sleep.”
3. Think beyond the traditional bed pillow.
Augment your selection of sleeping pillows with a few specialty options, such as travel, lounge or body pillows. You can promote them during holidays (Christmas, Mother’s Day, etc.) to draw in a new set of shoppers, but if you commit to them, they can be strong sellers year-round, Howard-Smith says.
Savvy Rest offered a limited selection of body pillows but expanded it after watching the success one of its dealers had selling body pillows, particularly to side sleepers who appreciate the extra support they offer the knees and shoulders. Savvy Rest now makes body pillows in a variety of fills and in three widths (15 inches, 17 inches and 20 inches) for different body types. A 17-inch pillow filled with shredded latex retails for $189; a 20-inch wide version filled with wool retails for $418.
Malouf’s extensive pillow line goes beyond traditional sleeping versions to include travel pillows, as well as specially shaped lounge and body pillows, such as the L-Shape, a Gel Dough memory foam pillow meant for side sleepers ($116), and the Wrap-Around, which is filled with a down alternative and designed to alleviate discomfort during pregnancy ($99).
4. Edit the options.
While many pillow producers offer dozens of fills, styles and shapes, they often recommend that retailers limit their in-store displays to between, say, three and six best-selling options to make it easier on consumers. Larger retailers might want to go a bit bigger, say eight to 12 options. Present them in a logical way to shoppers.
Fashion Bed Group offers a consumer-friendly, four-pillow display that encourages shoppers to touch and feel pillows before selecting one to take with them as they rest-test mattresses, O’Neill says. A retailer might choose to outfit it with a down/feather pillow, a down alternative model, a latex pillow and a memory foam pillow.
Blu Sleep’s five-pillow display rack uses graphics to explain the constructions and features of pillows and guides shoppers through the pillow selection process based on their body type and sleeping habits. (In a similar way, a two-question quiz on the company’s website, BluSleepProducts.com, walks online shoppers through the selection process.)
“The program and display we’ve put together really helps the retailer better serve the customer and helps the consumer find the right pillow,” Dell’Accio says. “Since we’ve had it in the stores, retailers have seen an increase in sales.”
Similarly, Savvy Rest offers a customizable rack that shows as many as eight pillows, and Malouf has a triangle-shaped display on rug rollers that can be moved around the store floor.
Pillow makers suggest placing small display units adjacent to where you generally begin rest-testing with shoppers or near other best-selling mattresses. Good spots are near the entrance and sales counter.
5. Take advantage of ways to sell more pillows than you display.
A carefully tailored in-store display doesn’t mean you can’t meet the pillow needs of virtually every shopper who walks through your doors. Many pillow makers offer no-cost or low-cost drop shipping of any of their products within a day or two.
“So, if customers say, ‘We like this pillow but we wish it were a little higher,’ we can send the higher profile pillow straight to them. It’s like giving the retailer infinite shelf space,” Malouf’s Douglas says. Drop shipping gives brick-and-mortar stores an important tool when competing against e-tailers and creates what’s sometimes called “infinite shelf space” or the “endless aisle.”
“Retailers are really starting to understand and work with vendors to create the ‘endless aisle,’ ” PureCare’s Bergman says. “We do an entire drop-ship program and we can ship within 48 hours pretty much every product we have.”
With the size of the market and consumer interest growing, pillows have become a key part of the sleep system purchase. Here’s a roundup of advances in this feature-filled segment
Pillow makers are expanding their lines, making the selection process easier for consumers, and introducing new technologies and components—many of which complement mattress constructions. The result is a diverse array of pillows to meet the needs of all your shoppers. Let’s look at what’s new and notable:
Something for everyone
People have widely varying preferences when it comes to the type of mattress they prefer and their partialities may be even stronger when it comes to pillows. Some swear by squishy feather- and-down models, while others sneeze at the thought and want a foam pillow that matches the feel and function of their foam mattress.
Pillow producers offer a plethora of options that meet the needs of those people—and everyone in-between.
“Just like mattress manufacturers make a wide variety of mattresses, we believe people need to be able to find pillows tailored to their individual needs,” says Mike Douglas, vice president of sales for Logan, Utah-based Malouf. “So, we do it all, from natural Talalay latex to traditional memory foam to fiber to down. We offer a wide assortment—34 families of pillows in a wide variety of feels and price points.” Available under its Z brand, Malouf’s pillows include filled, shaped and contoured models. A top seller is the Shoulder Gel Dough + Z Gel. Designed for side sleepers, it has a shoulder recess that offers neck support. It’s made of gel-infused memory foam and topped with a layer of the company’s liquid Z Gel to dissipate heat. It retails for $149 in queen size.
Sean Bergman, chief marketing officer for PureCare in Fairfield, New Jersey, agrees about the need for options to meet consumers’ wide-ranging preferences. “There is no pillow equation,” he says. “One type of pillow is not right for everyone so we offer a real breadth in terms of price points and technologies—from down and down alternative to latex to memory foam to gel but also gel-infused cooling latex.”
Last summer, Fashion Bed Group, part of Carthage, Missouri-based Leggett & Platt Inc., revamped its pillow program. Its lineup of 17 SleepSense pillows incorporates everything from traditional poly and down fills to latex to memory foam augmented with gel or graphite.
“We want to offer a broad range of platforms for both retailers and consumers,” says Rob O’Neill, Fashion Bed Group vice president of merchandising.
And just this past winter at the Las Vegas Market, St. Louis-based Glideaway augmented its selection of six memory foam pillows by adding three pillows filled with a microdenier fiber—all are part of a Revolution Tech branding that the company unveiled in 2015.
“We wanted to give consumers a choice. Not everyone likes memory foam. Many people want more of a down feeling but they are allergic or they don’t like the feathers migrating out of the pillow,” says Dan Baker, executive vice president of sales for North America. “These give people that ‘huggable’ down feel at a very affordable price.”
The three newest Glideaway pillows retail from $29 to $79. The Luna features a nonclumping hypoallergenic Slumber Silk fiber. The Reveal has hypoallergenic Air Touch fiber, a 3-D poly-cluster to maintain loft and resiliency. And the Quest features Glideaway’s popular Comfort Curve design, which conforms to the contours of a sleeper’s neck and shoulders, as well as Ice Touch, a cool-to-the-touch fabric with phase-change materials.
Simplicity is good, too
As nice as having all these pillow options is, the variety comes with a potential problem: confusing consumers with too much choice. So, while some companies are expanding their lines, others are paring down. And all are looking for ways to make it easier for consumers to choose the right pillow for them.
“There are 10 times as many pillow options today as there were just five years ago. While that change is good and choice is good, it’s become a daunting and confusing choice for consumers and retail sales associates, as well,” says Kimberly Fisher, president and chief operating officer for Talalay Global, headquartered in Shelton, Connecticut.
Talalay Global has streamlined its line of finished pillows to drive home the “Talalay inside” message. New versions feature premium quilted covers encircled by a black band printed with the pillow type: Talalay Active, a bun-style pillow with a resilient feel and quick recovery; Talalay Down, a more malleable pillow filled with shredded latex that maintains its loft; and Talalay Copper, with copper added to the latex mixture during production. The company’s best-selling pillow style is a molded Talalay bun that retails for between $79 and $129.
Fashion Bed Group uses color coding to group its pillows and other sleep accessories. Sleep Chill products with temperature-regulating properties are in blue packaging, Sleep Plush products with a luxurious feel are in lavender and Sleep Calm products with added health/wellness and protection features are in gray packaging. In addition, the company uses icons and consumer-friendly language to explain benefits, for instance, promising that a pillow “repels heat to sleep cool,” “maintains shape,” “relieves pressure,” etc.
“Consumers may not be familiar with specific technologies like what a phase-change material is, but they know they want to sleep cool or they know they like a plush pillow,” O’Neill says.
And speaking of sleeping cool…
Most memory foam and even some latex pillows now feature cooling gels, pinhole core ventilation, mesh covers and other techniques and materials designed to increase airflow, reduce moisture buildup and keep the pillow feeling cool over the course of the night.
“When you get into bed, you create a microclimate that’s hot and humid. It gets uncomfortable but also creates a fertile ground for moisture and heat buildup,” says Dan Schecter, senior vice president of Richmond, Virginia-based Carpenter Co. “What do you do when you get hot at night? You throw a leg out or flip the pillow but that creates unnatural awakenings. Anything we can do to improve the microclimate eliminates unnatural awakenings for a better night’s sleep.” Carpenter’s Iso-Cool pillows have polyester fills and foams containing Outlast and are wrapped in an Outlast Adaptive Comfort material.
Malouf unveiled a cool-to-the-touch CarbonCool + Omniphase pillow at the Winter Las Vegas Market. The memory foam pillow gets its chill from an infusion in the foam of both graphite and Omniphase, a proprietary phase-change material, plus another application of Omniphase on the surface and a mesh cover made with Tencel. The pillow surface stays between 87 degrees F and 91 degrees F, a range ideal for deep sleep, says Jake Neeley, marketing director. The pillow retails for about $199. “It was a huge hit at market,” Neeley says. “We demonstrated the CarbonCool + Omniphase compared to another memory foam pillow and people could feel the difference immediately. It’s a unique product that sells itself.”
PureCare has had success with its SUB-0° pillow series, introduced about 18 months ago. The pillows, featuring FRíO “rapid-chill cooling fibers” and Tencel fibers in the covers, retail between $89 and $189. PureCare’s best-selling pillow, the SUB-0° SoftCell Chill, is part of this group. One side of the pillow features individual pockets filled with PureCare’s down alternative Identically Down (i.d); the other side is memory foam topped with a layer of cooling gel. “It’s been a huge success for us,” Bergman says.
Fashion Bed Group’s latest introductions include the Sleep Chill + Advanced Memory, with a pinhole-cored graphite gel memory foam that softens and contours to the body while still regulating temperature. It’s wrapped in a woven damask cover designed to help circulate air. The pillow retails in the $79 to $99 range. The company’s top-selling pillow is the Sleep Chill +, a memory foam bun coated with Aere gel and covered in a 3-D mesh. Sleep Chill + has been in the line for about a year and retails for $99, O’Neill says.
Since introducing its first pillow about a decade ago, Blu Sleep Products, with U.S. headquarters in Pompano Beach, Florida, has built a collection of more than two dozen offerings, including versions made of latex, essential-oil infused foam, washable memory foam, water-expanded memory foam and foamed gel. Pillows, all Oeko-Tex certified, retail from $99 to $199. To ensure its foam pillows don’t sleep hot, the company uses techniques like open-cell-structure foams and pinholes to provide ventilation. It also wraps its pillows in signature blue mesh AirTex covers. On the other side is either a Tencel fabric (for memory foam pillows) or rayon from bamboo fabric (for latex pillows).
“Our pillows are extremely breathable and we designed our new AirTex covers to add to that breathability,” says Elizabeth Dell’Accio, vice president. “So aside from being attractive, our pillows work well, too.”
Not every pillow requires the latest technology to stay cool. Savvy Rest, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, started making pillows as a way to put to good use extra pieces of latex left over from the mattress production process. The Charlottesville, Virginia-based company’s line still includes a shredded latex pillow (now a mix of both Dunlop and Talalay), but has grown to encompass seven bed pillows in a variety of fills. It offers a wool-filled pillow that benefits from the material’s natural properties as an insulator from heat and cold. Wool also improves airflow and facilitates moisture evaporation, says John Howard-Smith, Savvy Rest chief executive officer. It retails for $169 in queen.
No more pillow fights
Picture someone who can’t sleep at night: You see him tossing and turning—and scrunching, flipping and thumping his pillow into a more comfortable configuration. But pillow manufacturers say today’s pillows are designed to be responsive, conforming and supportive: No smooshing and squishing needed.
Blu Sleep designs its pillows to be extremely responsive to a sleeper’s body, Dell’Accio says. And the company chooses its foams—all made in Italy—to provide what it calls Adaptive Dynamic Support, which cradles a sleeper’s head and neck while adjusting quickly to relieve pressure points.
Fashion Bed Group’s Sleep Plush Comfort Foam pillow is made with an Energex foam that combines the “conforming support of memory foam with the resilient bounce of latex to deliver healthy, comfortable support and better sleep,” according to the company. It retails from $79 to $99.
For some consumers, the ultimate in comfort is found in customizable pillows. Savvy Rest’s loose-fill pillows (both bed and body versions of those containing wool, kapok and shredded latex) are customizable. These pillows come intentionally overstuffed, Howard-Smith says. Consumers simply unzip and remove the pillow cover and pull out the fill until the pillow reaches a comfort and support level they like. They can then keep the fill in an air-tight bag in case they want to restuff their pillow later.
Protect-A-Bed, based in Wheeling, Illinois, also offers customizable or “adjustable” pillows, including one microfiber version overstuffed with 65 ounces of loose fiber and another model filled with 25 removable microfiber Support Clusters that look “kind of like Koosh balls,” explains Warrick Bell, Protect-A-Bed vice president of product innovation. A best-seller among its REM-Fit line is an adjustable gel-topped memory foam pillow that retails for $159.
Health and wellness
No one likes to think much about it, but our pillows—even more than our mattresses—are repositories of moisture we release during the night through breathing, sneezing, coughing and even, sorry to say, drooling. That makes them a breeding ground for allergens, as well as general ickiness. To keep pillows fresh and clean, manufacturers use a host of treatments and materials. For instance, charcoal added to foams helps reduce odors, and anti-microbial silver chloride inhibits the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew and limits allergens. Blu Sleep uses Silver Clear in its AirTex covers to provide added protection against microbes, bacteria and odor.
In addition to being naturally resilient and durable, Talalay latex is breathable and inherently anti-microbial and resistant to dust mites, Fisher notes. She says all of Talalay Global’s products also are Oeko-Tex certified (Standard 100, Class 1) for product safety and sustainable production.
For consumers particularly concerned about allergens but drawn to the feel of a down pillow, many companies offer down alternatives. For example, Carpenter’s Beyond Down pillows, made with a high-tech synthetic down, have been lauded by Consumers Digest and Good Housekeeping.
For people who want super fresh-smelling pillows, Malouf offers Zoned Dough memory foam versions infused with scents like chamomile, lavender and peppermint. The pillows retail for about $145 and come with an aromatherapy spray consumers can use over the life of the pillow to refresh the scent.
“The essential oil pillows do really well for us. It’s something you don’t see at a Bed Bath & Beyond or Target, so it’s a unique selling proposition for retailers,” Douglas says.
The act of sleeping helps our bodies physically recover from the day that has passed and prepare us for the day to come. With that in mind, PureCare’s Body + Chemistry series of seven pillows features Celliant, an energy-recovery technology that incorporates thermo-reactive minerals into the cores of fibers. “It’s a truly fascinating technology, and I think we’re just at the tip of discovering all that Celliant can do,” Bergman says. Pillows in the group retail between $99 and $189.
Protect-A-Bed’s entire line of REM-Fit sleep accessories, including its pillows, are geared toward consumers interested in the recovery and performance-enhancing benefits of sleep. The company’s REM-Fit pillows feature technical fabrics and fibers designed to manage moisture and heat and facilitate airflow. Across its entire line, retail prices for Protect-A-Bed pillows range from $79 to $299.
And then there’s Protect-A-Bed’s ZEEQ—a “smart” pillow that plays music to help you drift off to sleep, monitors and responds to snoring, analyzes sleep patterns and wakes you up. It even works with Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant Alexa. A memory foam egg keeps the pillow’s electronics safely away the sleeper’s head. ZEEQ retails for $299 and won a CES 2017 Innovation Award in the Smart Home category at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
The pillow has a built-in consumer base among younger consumers who want gadget-laden products that help them improve their lives, Bell says, but “ZEEQ isn’t just for the millennials; it has something to appeal to every group. Snoring features might appeal to older consumers. Sleep analysis is for anyone.”
Julie A. Palm is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has 25 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a publications director. She is a past editor in chief of both Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines. She can be reached at email@example.com.