For nearly a century, this furniture store in a Milwaukee suburb has found success in proven sales strategies — and by bucking current mattress industry trends
Photography by Lila Aryan Photography
For BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, a fourth-generation, family-owned furniture store outside Milwaukee, “built right” is more than just the root of its name: It is a philosophy that still guides the retailer’s operation more than 90 years after it first opened.
Started in 1928 as an upholstery shop that made custom furniture,
BILTRITE no longer manufactures its own products, but still follows founder Irwin Kerns’ goal of selling “the best quality furniture and mattresses at the best possible prices,” says Randi Komisar Schachter, one of the fourth-generation family members running the business now. (See story on the company’s history on page 14.)
Indeed, the store has built a reputation for offering high-quality, affordable furniture and mattresses, including small-scale, heavy-duty, and solid-wood Amish-made furnishings that shoppers may not find elsewhere and certainly not all in one place. That’s another selling point BILTRITE advertises to Milwaukee-area consumers: It is a local business with a single location — a convenient one-stop shop for all their home furnishings needs.
The company also distinguishes itself by not doing a lot of things that many other stores see as retail requirements. As an independent retailer, BILTRITE puts the emphasis on “independent.” The store isn’t open most Sundays and doesn’t sell online. And when it comes to mattresses, BILTRITE shuns pillow-tops, boxed beds and the major “S” brands.
“A mattress store that sells furniture”
BILTRITE, located in a busy shopping area in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield, Wisconsin, offers furnishings for living room, bedroom, dining room, home entertainment and home office. “But mattresses aren’t an afterthought for us,” Schachter says, explaining that the store has carried the category since 1949. “We’re a mattress store that sells furniture.”
The store has about 45,000 square feet of showroom space, with a 2,500-square-foot mattress department that spills over slightly into the surrounding areas where less expensive mattresses are displayed on daybeds and bunk beds. Altogether, the retailer shows more than 50 mattresses in innerspring, memory foam, latex and hybrid constructions — all displayed on bed frames; none in racks.
In the past, the retailer carried the major “S” brands but switched several years ago. Its lineup now includes brands such as Aireloom, Comfort Sleep, Therapedic (including its BackSense, Bravura, Hummingbird and Medicoil collections) and Restonic (including its ComfortCare collection and its licensed Scott Living line from “Property Brothers” Drew and Jonathan Scott). A founding member of the Furniture First buying group, BILTRITE also carries the Mattress 1st brand, which is made by Serta.
Among the wide selection, what shoppers won’t find are any pillow-tops. “People get aggravated by them,” says Marty Komisar, the third-generation president of the retailer and Schachter’s father. “We’re very sensitive to people saying that their mattress is sagging.” The retailer’s current lineup of bedding brands and its decision not to stock the body-impression-prone mattresses have lowered both customer complaints and warranty returns to negligible numbers, he adds.
Nearly half the mattresses are two-sided and clearly marked to tout that feature. “We have two-sided product priced the same as one-sided product,” Komisar says, “and about 80% of people who come in and say they want a two-sided bed end up buying one.”
BILTRITE also offers a selection of heavy-duty mattresses made with high-density foams, heavier coils and strong foundations that can accommodate sleepers up to 600 pounds. Those beds, along with the store’s selection of lift chairs and other heavy-duty furnishings, make the retailer a destination for larger, heavier shoppers (think Green Bay Packer builds).
Mattress sets (with flat foundation) start at $365 for a basic memory foam or innerspring in queen size and top out at $4,000 for a luxury Aireloom set. A best-seller is a two-sided Therapedic Medicoil priced at $1,000. “We’ve got a wide range of prices in every category,” Schachter says.
Tags list mattress prices with flat and adjustable foundations, but also as mattress-only for customers who want only a mattress. “We believe in set pricing, but we don’t expect all customers to buy an adjustable base, especially for lower-end mattresses,” Schachter says.
BILTRITE offers four adjustable bases from Leggett & Platt Inc., as well as flat foundations in high and low profiles. About 40% of those are Amish-made box springs tagged to promote their sturdy construction. The store’s bed frames come from Glideaway and Knickerbocker.
The retailer offers a limited selection of sleep accessories, focusing on pillows and mattress pads from Bedgear, and promotes to its customers the fact that it doesn’t require the purchase of a mattress pad with a mattress. That’s because, unlike most bedding retailers, BILTRITE doesn’t offer comfort exchanges.
“At a lot of stores, comfort exchanges get rebagged in their clearance center as floor samples. But we guarantee that everything you buy from us is ‘factory fresh,’ ” Schachter says. “For sanitary and health reasons, we want everyone to sleep on a new mattress, so we work hard to help people make a good choice the first time.”
Komisar, who handles the occasional calls from customers who are concerned about the feel or function of their new mattress, says retail sales associates are trained to explain to shoppers before the sale that the “break-in period for a new mattress can be two weeks, even two months.”
Bucking two of the biggest trends in the mattress business, BILTRITE doesn’t sell boxed beds or run an e-commerce operation. The retailer wants shoppers to come in to “see it, feel it, love it” in a way they can’t when viewing a photo and reading a product description online, Schachter says.
“Every day, we have a customer come in who had a disaster ordering something online, whether it is a nightstand or a mattress or dining table. It’s awful. But we’re here to help them,” she says. “Our older customers understand how important it is to touch and feel a product before purchasing it and appreciate the value we offer. But millennials also appreciate shopping in-store. They’ll research online and then come in to buy because they like to support local businesses.”
Although it doesn’t sell online, the retailer has a comprehensive website that provides detailed information about products, allowing mattress shoppers to browse beds by price, technology and special features, such as heavy-duty and two-sided constructions.
When shoppers enter BILTRITE, they are greeted by a store receptionist who answers initial questions and directs them to various sections of the store. Once bedding shoppers arrive at the mattress department, which is dressed in restful gray and blue tones, they are greeted again by a trained mattress RSA who asks overview questions to determine why they are in the market for a new mattress and to get a feel for their budget.
Next, shoppers are fitted with a pillow based on their preferred sleeping position. “We explain to them that about 30% of a good night’s sleep comes from the pillow,” Schachter says.
Based on shoppers’ answers to qualifying questions, RSAs begin the rest-testing process on mattresses they think are best suited to the shoppers, as opposed to starting everyone off on a routine set of two or three beds.
To help them get truly comfortable, mattress shoppers are encouraged to remove coats and jackets (common attire during much of the year in Wisconsin), set down purses and take off their shoes. Floor mats printed with a “Please remove your shoes” message reinforce that last practice, which also helps to keep floor models clean.
While shoppers try various mattresses, RSAs assess their posture and alignment, and as shoppers narrow their choices based on feel, RSAs talk more about each bed’s features and benefits, aided by buns and cutaways that allow RSAs to explain components and constructions.
“We might spend 10 minutes dealing with mattress shoppers or two hours, however long it takes,” Komisar says. “We don’t sell them a bed; they buy a bed.”
BILTRITE offers free same-day or next-day delivery on mattress purchases $499 and up, with deliveries made Monday through Friday. The retailer outsources the task but the teams drive BILTRITE-branded trucks. Used bedding, if in good condition, is removed from customers’ homes and donated to local charities. Although most customers live within a 30-mile radius of the store, BILTRITE has delivered to homes throughout Wisconsin and even into the Chicago area, about 90 miles away.
As part of the retailer’s white-glove service, mattresses and foundations are delivered in their factory-sealed bags, but if a customer is to receive other furniture, service technicians first remove those items from their boxes and inspect them for any damage or missing parts before wrapping them in thick blankets for delivery.
“We don’t want to get to a customer’s home and have them open a box and find pieces missing,” Schachter says. “Everything you buy from us is factory fresh and new.”
BILTRITE is located “just off the freeway on a furniture row that has lots of traffic,” Schacter says.
Competitors include the furniture sellers La-Z-Boy, Penny Mustard and Steinhafels, and sleep specialists like Verlo Mattress, as well as online sellers. Department stores and Mattress Firm, which once opened dozens of stores in the Milwaukee area in just a few years, are less of a threat than in the past, Komisar says.
With its emphasis on affordable furnishings, BILTRITE promotes regular sales. The retailer advertises heavily on television and runs monthly print ads in a high-end local magazine, but also relies on digital ads and social engagement on platforms like Facebook, Google and YouTube. Social posts typically include “#buylocal.”
In charge of BILTRITE’s marketing, Schachter authors the retailer’s blog and is featured in the store’s advertising and marketing efforts, earning a reputation as a friendly, genuine spokeswoman for the brand.
“People don’t expect Randi to be in our commercials and then actually working in the store,” Komisar says. “They’re surprised to see her on the sales floor.” But Schachter isn’t the only person featured in BILTRITE’s ads. The store emphasizes the fact
that it is family-owned and operated by putting the whole family, including the fifth-generation children, in
Experienced staff and involved family
BILTRITE has about 45 employees, a mix of full- and part-time positions, and five family members — Komisar and his wife, Gail; Schachter; and Brad and Sarah Komisar — are in the store most days, with all five helping to staff the place on Saturdays. (Brad Komisar is Marty and Gail’s son. Sarah is Brad’s wife.)
The retailer’s sales staff works on commission, supplemented by occasional contests and manufacturer’s spiffs. BILTRITE also offers an employer-funded “old-fashioned profit-sharing plan, not a 401(k)” that sets aside a percentage of wages for its employees, Schachter says.
“We attract good people because they know they can make a great living with us,” she says.
Not all RSAs sell bedding. The store has a few dedicated mattress specialists and another half-dozen employees who are trained to sell the category. “We used to allow everyone to sell bedding, but as we grew, we found not everyone could handle the category,” Komisar says.
Daily sales meetings and visits by manufacturers’ representatives augment the initial training RSAs receive when they are hired and keep them up to speed on new products, sales and store initiatives.
When shopping for products, BILTRITE’s buyers visit the markets in High Point, North Carolina, and Las Vegas, but also attend the Ohio Hardwood Furniture Market in Millersburg, Ohio, which showcases furniture makers from Amish country, and the retailer takes RSAs to visit furniture builders in Ohio to further their product education.
“Our sales staff has a lot of industry experience,” Schachter says. “Many have worked for us for 20 years or worked for a competitor or even owned their own store. Most new hires come to us with experience and we just have to direct them in the ways we want things done. We don’t have high turnover.”
Being closed on Sundays contributes to staff satisfaction, too. (See story on page 16.) “They are a happy team,” Schachter says, “and being able to rest and spend time with their families on Sundays is part of that.”
BILTRITE’s History: “Adjusting, Competing and Surviving” While Working as Family
Family-owned businesses are increasingly rare among mattress retailers. Rarer still are those like BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses in Greenfield, Wisconsin, that have survived to the fourth generation.
“I started in the business as a kid, so I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs— bad economies, competing against other stores, the internet, boxed beds. But we’re always profitable, and even when the economy gets tough, we can break even,” says Marty Komisar, a third-generation president and owner, explaining that BILTRITE owns its inventory, property and building, which provides a financial cushion during economic downturns. “We’re all about adjusting, competing and surviving.”
BILTRITE was founded in Milwaukee in 1928 by Irwin Kerns and his wife, Frieda Kerns, as an upholstery shop, making custom furniture. According to a company history, BILTRITE survived the Great Depression by committing itself to “selling quality furniture with value, selection and service, at the lowest price” — a practice that, as Komisar notes, continues to this day.
In 1948, BILTRITE moved from its initial location at Third and Garfield streets to 723 W. Mitchell Street. Not long after that, the Kerns’ daughter, Claire, married Morton Komisar. They later took over the business and then were joined in the endeavor by their son, Marty. Marty and his wife, Gail, became the third generation to run the business, which grew significantly in 1989 when the family renovated, connecting four buildings into one large, multilevel furniture store on Mitchell Street. Marty and Gail’s children, Randi Komisar Schachter and Brad Komisar, officially joined the business in the early 2000s after each finished college. (With the two different family names starting with “K” and Randi’s married name of Schachter, the family simplifies matters and keeps things casual by referring to themselves in store marketing materials by the initial “K” — Marty K., Randi K., Brad K., etc.)
In 2006, BILTRITE moved to its current location at 5430 W. Layton Ave. in Greenfield, a suburb southwest of the city. The Great Recession hit not long after the retailer relocated, and the family adjusted once again. “Instead of grading down (in terms of product quality and price) like the bigger chains did, we graded up, and we’re doing extremely well,” Komisar says. “We’ve grown every year since the move and are approaching four times the sales volume of the original store, which isn’t too shabby.”
BILTRITE is not just a family business in its ownership structure. The third and fourth generations are actively involved in day-to-day operations — and have been since they were young. “We eat, breathe and sleep furniture and mattresses,” Schachter says.
Marty Komisar started working in the store at age 12, when the retailer had just six employees. After school and on weekends, he helped in the warehouse or did minor furniture touch-ups and repairs.
Following suit, Schachter and her brother began working for the store while they were in high school. “But when I was a little kid, we’d pack a lunch and Dad would take my brother and me to the store,” Schachter recalls. For college, both siblings attended High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, drawn to the school for its home furnishings program. After graduation, both returned to BILTRITE.
Today, Marty Komisar is president of the company and, until recently, was mattress buyer. Gail Komisar manages store and office staff and is involved in design projects. Brad Komisar now oversees bedding, as well as store operations, while Schachter manages sales and marketing. Her husband, Eric Schachter, isn’t involved in the business, but Brad’s wife, Sarah, is a sales associate specializing in the retailer’s Amish-made products. With a background as a teacher, she also trains retail sales associates.
There is now a fifth generation of the family, who may someday take over the business. Randi Schachter and her husband have two kids, Jordan and Sloan; and Brad and Sarah Komisar have a son, Simon.
And although most customers won’t see her in the building during shopping hours, there’s a four-legged furry family member involved, too. Brad and Sarah’s dog, Kugel, is the store mascot and a frequent visitor to the store office. “She sits behind the desk, no leash,” Schachter says. “She knows not to go past the door, except after everyone is gone when she can roam a little. She’s a very calming presence.”
Closing Store on Sundays Boosts Sales
As a mattress retailer, would you be willing to stop doing something that accounts for 20% of your sales? In 2016, Biltrite Furniture-Leather-Mattresses in Greenfield, Wisconsin, did just that, deciding to close its doors most Sundays so staff, including the third and fourth generations of the family running the business, could spend more time with their loved ones.
It may come as no surprise that the decision was made around the same time that the fourth generation — Randi Komisar Schachter and her brother, Brad Komisar — were starting their own families, the fifth generation.
As the store explains the policy on its website: “BILTRITE is important to every member of our family, but we are a family-owned business and family comes first.”
Rather than hurting business, the store saw overall sales rise after adopting the six-day-a-week schedule. “We got overwhelming, over-the-top support,” Schachter says. “And we still get phone calls and handwritten letters from customers telling us how wonderful it is that we’re closed. People love it. They appreciate that we value family.”
The store remains open on five Sundays near major holidays, including the three biggest weekends for mattress sales: New Year’s Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Black Friday. On those Sundays, the store is packed.
The rest of the year, Saturdays are the store’s busiest day. “On Saturdays when you come in here, you’d think we’re having a ‘Going Out of Business’ sale,” says Marty Komisar, third-generation president of the retailer, “but we’re staffed up for it.”
Retailer Cultivates Image as “a Milwaukee Tradition”
Like many independent mattress retailers, BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses in Greenfield, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee, is deeply involved in its community.
“When I go and shop our competitors, I always come back and feel like our store has a unique feel that’s fresh and homey,” says Randi Komisar Schachter, a fourth-generation family member who handles sales and marketing for the retailer. “It doesn’t feel like part of a chain. It feels like part of a Milwaukee tradition.”
Amenities like a lounge area where shoppers can enjoy beverages and snacks help convey the homey feeling, and a wall that features old photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia, lends a sense of history. Down a hallway near the restrooms, shoppers find framed letters of thanks, shirts signed by Milwaukee Bucks players and other testimonials from happy customers.
The retailer recently hosted its first ladies night, which drew about 50 women into the store. A highlight was a local chef talking about healthy eating and offering cooking tips. “It was a nice turnout and a fun event,” Schachter says.
BILTRITE partners with a number of local charities. For instance, it holds an annual food drive for United Way of Milwaukee & Waukesha County and occasionally helps to outfit homes of Make a Wish clients with furnishings. It also supports the Grand Avenue Club, which aids people with mental illnesses by providing educational and career assistance, as well as community support.
“We’ve employed two (Grand Avenue Club members),” Schachter says. “It’s a great nonprofit, and we’ve supported them financially and through furniture donations. We take every new employee to their annual gala called the ‘Great Event’ so they can see the great work they do.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.