How does the nation’s size epidemic affect mattress retailers? Sleep Savvy explores the relationship between weight and sleep and its affect on the sales floor. We also offer insights into how you can steer shoppers to the best mattress for their body type—and deal with an awkward conversation
BY JULIE A. PALM
When setting out to write a story about selling mattresses to larger consumers, I quickly ran into a problem: What should I call this demographic? I certainly wasn’t going to opt for “fat” (which is a good thing, according to Tony Hnilicka, a store manager for Illinois retailer Sherman’s, who at 6’2” and 280 pounds considers himself a “heavier guy”). Hnilicka also warned me against using the term “overweight.” That still left me with a number of options. What about “big”? “Good-sized”? “Stout”?
And that brings us to the point of this story: Because of their size and their associated potentially associated health problems, larger consumers typically have specific requirements for their bed sets. And with some 69% of the adult population in the United States defined as “overweight” or “obese”—the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s words, not mine—most retail sales associates are going to encounter these consumers on a regular basis. It’s important to address their needs with sensitivity and professionalism.
Products with a purpose
One way retailers can serve their heavier customers is to offer sleep products that provide the extra support and features bigger shoppers may need. Some sleep products manufacturers have introduced heavy-duty frames, foundations and mattresses to do just that.
“Mattresses and foundation/box springs are getting heavier and heavier, as is the population, so whatever is under the bed is more and more important,” says Joe Hunt, vice president of sales and marketing for Knickerbocker Bed Frame Co., a family-owned manufacturer of bedding support systems based in Carlstadt, New Jersey.
The company offers two products that are particularly well-suited to heavier consumers, Hunt says. The EmBrace easy-to-assemble system is made of resin-encased steel with T-shaped side rails. It includes seven legs in queen size and nine legs in king size—all capable of supporting as much as 2,000 pounds each. Retail prices range from $200 to $499. The company’s Bedbeam is designed to replace weaker slats in headboard/footboard assemblies. The pre-assembled Bedbeam has three steel slats and adjustable legs that can be positioned from 5 to 18 inches high. It retails from $149 to $199.
Forever Foundations, based in Irvine, California, offers all-steel foundations that are engineered in much the same way a bridge is created.
“We use an open-span design that can support a lot of weight,” says Dennis Rodgers, Forever Foundations president. “But it’s not just about how much weight the frame can support. It’s about how that weight is supported.”
For larger consumers or today’s heavier mattresses, which both require extra sturdiness, the company offers Forever Plus and Forever Max Plus. The foundations have additional legs for extra side and weight support, as well as all-steel support slats (seven slats in a queen-size Forever Plus and 11 in a queen-size Forever Max Plus). In a test, the company’s sturdiest foundation supported 4,000 pounds for six months with no failures.
The company’s entire line is built around a good-better-best assortment with suggested retail prices for queen-size frames ranging from $299 to $499.
King Koil, a mattress licensing group with headquarters in Willowbrook, Illinois, launched its Extended Life brand in 2009 in response to what the company recognized as a growing obesity epidemic in the country, says Owen Shoemaker, King Koil senior vice president of product innovation and international business.
“We have enjoyed an unprecedented performance record for this product and it is, indeed, targeted directly and sold to consumers of larger size,” Shoemaker says.
Mattresses in the line have a 368-coil-count, 12½ gauge spring unit in the core; resilient, high-density comfort layers; and an Extended Life foundation that offers three times the support of a standard wood base. The top bed in the line has a 3-inch reversible pillow-top available with latex, memory foam or a latex/memory foam combination, allowing sleepers to rotate and flip the top-most comfort layers—a plus for heavier sleepers bothered by body impressions. Suggested retail prices range from $1,100 to $1,999.
The brand’s name and nickname—Extended Life or “XL”—are a nod to both the well-known XL designation for larger-size clothing and to the idea that the sturdy mattress will last consumers of all sizes a long time.
Early in the line’s conception, the company learned the fine line the industry must walk when targeting bigger customers. Originally, Extended Life was marketed directly toward “Plus Size Sleepers” with point-of-purchase materials featuring plus-size models. Retailers weren’t fond of appealing to the demographic in such a direct way, Shoemaker says. King Koil tried other tag lines—“Better Built,” “No Sag” and “Most Durable”—that focused on the beds’ sturdiness before settling on the current, “Indestructible Comfort.”
An emphasis on empathy
Sensitivity is key in marketing and selling to this demographic, agrees Ricky Ruby, owner of Ruby & Quiri, a 65-year-old, family-owned full-line, furniture store in Johnstown, New York.
“I talk to our RSAs about this,” Ruby says. “It’s a delicate subject and it’s important to deal with it in a way that’s not offensive to the customer.” Though he’s recently lost a significant amount of weight, Ruby says he still considers himself a larger person. His salespeople often will mention him—or a family member of their own who is heavier—and how they struggle with getting a good night’s sleep or finding a great mattress as a way of establishing a sense of empathy and understanding with bigger shoppers.
Mattress industry veteran Gerry Morris encourages RSAs, regardless of their own size, to use inclusive “we” language when talking to heavier shoppers. Phrases such as “When we sleep, we need…” or “When we lie down on a mattress, it…” are nonthreatening, says Morris, an author, consultant and training coach with more than 20 years of experience in the bedding business.
To meet the needs of heavier consumers, as well as others who are seeking sturdier constructions, Jimi Breazeale carries both King Koil’s Extended Life and Paramount Sleep’s HD Super Duty mattress lines, as well as Knickerbocker’s heavy-duty Bedbeam frames at the Get-A-Mattress store in Arroyo Grande, California.
“One thing I find about larger people is that they realize they often go through mattresses and furniture more quickly than some other people. They will actually often say that to us,” says Breazeale, chief executive officer of the 40,000-square-foot specialty retailer.
And that leads to an important tip about helping heavier shoppers find the right sleep set. The retailers and sleep products manufacturers Sleep Savvy interviewed for this story suggest that good qualifying questions about a larger shopper’s past and current mattresses can politely open the conversation about the need for a sturdier, better-performing mattress and foundation this time around.
“The best method we’ve found for meeting the mattress needs of these customers is for RSAs to use appropriate qualifying questions about the bed they sleep on now,” Shoemaker says. “Find out if they’ve had mattress failures. It’s easier to keep the conversation on the mattress and not their weight.”
Hnilicka of Sherman’s—a family-owned, full-line furniture retailer with locations in Normal, Peoria and Peru, Illinois—uses that sales tactic, too.
“During qualifying, I’ll ask how long they’ve had a mattress,” Hnilicka says. “Heavier customers will usually say they go through them pretty quickly.”
Hnilicka, who tries to put bigger shoppers at ease by briefly noting his own size, often directs those customers to products such as Stearns & Foster’s Estate line, with its IntelliCoil coil-in-coil core, or a firmer-feel Tempur-Pedic, such as the Rhapsody beds.
“I want to give the customer something that will be substantial and supportive, rather than something that feels like a big pillow,” he says. “We really want customers to be happy and go home with a comfortable bed that will last for them.”
Ruby of Ruby & Quiri says his sales associates have success recommending specialty sleep products—including Pure LatexBLISS, Serta’s iComfort, Simmons’ ComforPedic by Beautyrest and Tempur-Pedic—to larger consumers.
Morris says the “secret to mattress sales”—regardless of the shopper’s demographic—is straightforward: “Find the product that is best for them.”
“An RSA needs to have a supreme command of product knowledge and the skills to sell that product,” he says.
In general, Morris says, RSAs tend to focus too much on the idea of “comfort” when selling mattresses, forgetting that a good night’s sleep is built on a “three-legged stool” of comfort, support and durability. Those second and third legs of support and durability are especially important to heavier shoppers.
“Ideally, you get them on a mattress with maximum support and then encourage them, if they don’t want to see body impressions, to go with the minimum of comfort layers,” Morris says. He recommends retailers carry a variety of replaceable toppers that shoppers can add to customize the comfort.
Talking about durability is key to meeting the needs of this demographic, Knickerbocker’s Hunt agrees.
“You want to explain in a very matter-of-fact way that, ‘You want your sleep set to perform its best and last longer and to do that, what’s under the bed is very important,’ ” Hunt says. “You can explain that a strong, durable support system will mean no motion, no creaking and no bowing in the bed set.”
Carrying extra weight can contribute to a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, according to the CDC. Heavier people also can experience joint and back pain, acid reflux, breathing trouble and other ailments that make it difficult to sleep.
“My wife’s been a nurse for 30 years and she talks about this issue. Statistics show people are getting heavier. That’s no secret. And being heavier can lead to more health problems. So we push the health benefits of a good night’s sleep, as well as a bed that you won’t have to replace right away,” says John Opland, sales manager for Harkness Furniture, a full-line furniture store and sleep center in Tacoma, Washington.
Health problems can make larger consumers excellent candidates for adjustable bed bases, which allow sleepers to better control their body’s position while asleep and awake.
“We try to have our associates show adjustable bases. Sometimes people who are heavier will have health problems—back/neck problems, circulation problems, breathing problems—and we can show them that an adjustable may help their sleep. We want to at least expose them to that offering,” Opland says.
Ruby also finds adjustable bases a good option for larger sleepers.
“We sell a lot of adjustable bases,” Ruby says. “If you’re a larger person, you have a greater chance of having acid reflux or breathing problems, and an adjustable can help you get a better night of sleep, which is our goal regardless of your physical size.”
OBESITY IN THE UNITED STATES
• More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese.
• Nearly 40% of middle-aged adults (40 to 59) are obese, compared with 30.3% of those ages 20 to 39 and 35.4% of those over the age of 60.
• Approximately 17% of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese.
• Obesity-related ailments and conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
• Of the 50 states, Colorado has the lowest rate of obesity at 20.5%; Louisiana has the highest at 34.7%.
• Adults in the Midwest (29.5%) and South (29.4%) are more likely to be obese than those in the Northeast (25.3%) and West (25.1%).
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
QUICK TIPS FOR HELPING OVERWEIGHT MATTRESS SHOPPERS
• Be empathetic. Treat larger shoppers–and every other shopper, for that matter–the way you would want your spouse, parent or best friend to be treated. “I” or “we” language is usually better than “you” language.
• Qualify correctly. Asking about a shopper’s current and past mattresses is one of the best ways for retail sales associates to guide heavier consumers to mattresses, foundations and frames that will provide them with the needed comfort, support and durability.
• Don’t ignore a shopper’s weight. But that doesn’t mean you have to bring it up–or harp on it–either. Instead, talk about how every person has a unique body type and shape that requires just the right bed.
• Focus on the product. If customers–or you–directly address their weight, keep that part of the conversation short and move onto the features and benefits of your store’s products. Words like “support,” “durability” and “longevity” are particularly helpful when selling to this demographic.
• Sell a complete set. Heavier shoppers, especially those who’ve experienced mattress failures, need a complete bed set: frame, foundation and mattress made for their needs.
Julie A. Palm is a writer and editor based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.