Photography by Josh Salley/Frozen in Time
Residents of south-Central Kentucky know—and adore—Trent Ranburger through his sleep shop’s hilarious commercials, customer service and commitment to area charities.
Folks in and around Bowling Green, Kentucky, have gotten used to the likes of Uncle Sam, Fred Flintstone and Austin Powers telling them about the great mattresses and outstanding customer service they’ll find at Trent Bedding.
For more than a decade, they’ve watched founder and owner Trent Ranburger don costumes and take on alter egos to tout his eponymous bedding shop. Whether they star Ranburger in character or as his own enthusiastic self, the commercials are goofy, funny and, most importantly, memorable. They have made Ranburger a local celebrity and Trent Bedding a success in a crowded market that now includes upwards of 40 retailers selling beds in Warren County, population about 120,000.
Last summer, Ranburger introduced a new character to customers: his sidekick, Lil Trent. The custom-made puppet, ostensibly a new employee at the retailer, made his debut in a quintessential Trent Bedding spot, arriving late for his big reveal—the sound of a toilet flushing in the background when he finally appeared on screen. (It’s probably best seen rather than described. Check it out at TrentBedding.com.)
Such marketing tactics risk coming off as gimmicky, but Ranburger’s antics are tempered by a charming authenticity and underlying seriousness about his business. Amusing ads get consumers’ attention, but what makes them loyal Trent Bedding customers is the retailer’s commitment to quality bedding (“If I won’t have it in my house, I won’t deliver it to yours!” Ranburger promises), fidelity to the platinum rule (“Treat others the way they want to be treated.”) and commitment to his community (“Without the community, we’re not open.”)
Starting on the truck
Ranburger opened Trent Bedding in November 2006. He had several years of experience both delivering and selling mattresses and was managing a pool and spa store when he saw that an established mattress shop was moving from its spot in a strip shopping center.
“I knew people were used to coming to that location to buy a mattress,” he says. “I saw it as an opportunity to open my own business.”
Though eager, he was not fully equipped to become a store owner.
“I knew about managing a store, but I knew nothing about owning a business,” Ranburger says. “I didn’t know much about how the back office really worked—bills, taxes, payroll. I was learning on the fly.”
About six months after opening, he joined a local business networking group where he could ask questions, get advice and find mentors—all a huge help to him as he was figuring things out. And then the Great Recession arrived. “It was tough—a tough few years,” he says. “Honestly, Trent Bedding probably shouldn’t be here today. We were so new when the recession hit and big businesses all around were failing.”
Difficult as it was, the downturn showed Ranburger that his business’ small size was a strength. “Big businesses that have been around for a long time are like big boats. It takes them weeks, months, years to make a decision and change course,” he says. “We’re a little bitty speedboat. I can be on the phone tonight with Steve (Hanner, vice president of operations) talking about something and make the change tomorrow.”
And making changes is something Ranburger’s always ready to do.
Trent Bedding has been in the same shopping area since 2006, but has moved around to four different spots within the center. In the past few years, the retailer has doubled both its showroom and stockroom (6,000 square feet total, equally split between the two) and has doubled its number of employees to eight, including adding Hanner to the team.
“Steve has really helped grow the business. I had been doing all the decision making myself and he adds a different viewpoint and set of ideas,” Ranburger says. Hanner, who had worked in automotive parts before joining the retailer, brings a fresh perspective but also knows and understands Ranburger. The two have been best friends since they were 8.
Everyone who works at Trent Bedding starts not on the sales floor as is typical, but on the delivery truck. That’s in part because Ranburger’s first job in the mattress business was on a truck, and he wants everyone to understand and appreciate how hard the job is. He also knows the importance of that final step of the mattress selling process: A shopper can enjoy the highest level of customer service in the store, buy a mattress she loves and then have the entire experience marred by a delivery team misstep.
“The delivery guys are the last people who interact with our customer,” Ranburger says. “They’re wearing their Trent Bedding shirt and driving that Trent Bedding box truck, and they can ruin our relationship with that customer by being rude, being disrespectful, breaking something.”
So, the delivery team is expected to be unfailingly polite and accommodating. “Our guys will do whatever the customer needs. They set up the new bed, take out the old. If the customer needs a recliner moved into another room, they’ll do that, too,” Ranburger says. And the guys (they are all guys right now) are punctual. “If we tell you we’re going to be there at 1:15, we’ll be there at 1:15,” he says. “And if you get a phone call from us before that, it’s probably because we’re running early. We pride ourselves on being efficient.”
The dedication to delivery works. “I get a call at least once a week, if not two or three times a week, from customers complimenting our delivery guys,” Ranburger says. As a practical matter, delivery is free within Warren and neighboring counties and offered anywhere in a 150-mile radius for a fee.
Adjustables, competition push tickets up
Of course, before they can have that new bed set delivered, shoppers need to make a purchase. Driving that process is Ranburger’s belief in the precious-metal-themed edict we mentioned earlier. “The golden rule is to treat everyone how you expect to be treated, but everyone is different and wants different things,” Ranburger says. “I like the platinum rule: Treat everyone the way they want to be treated.”
The retailer’s typical customer is a woman or married couple between the ages of 30 and 55 with family incomes of $65,000 or $75,000. In the late summer, students at Western Kentucky University flood in, shopping for mattresses for their dorm rooms and apartments.
Retail sales associates are expected to greet all those customers before the door closes behind them and then to quickly assess not only their bedding needs but also how best to interact with them.
RSAs are trying to figure out, Ranburger says, “Are you a serious-minded customer? Are you a joking-around customer? Are you an ‘information’ customer? We want to treat people as individuals and approach them in a way that’s comfortable for them.”
After a series of qualifying questions, including if the shopper likes a “firm, soft or medium” mattress, RSAs generally show shoppers a range of three beds in their preferred comfort level and at three different price points. Many retailers have formalized the initial rest-testing process, leading all customers to the same series of beds to start, but that goes against Ranburger’s philosophy of treating each customer as an individual.
Trent Bedding floors about 30 mattress models from Simmons and Southerland, arranged by brand, comfort and then price. Prices for queen sets start at $399 for a basic Southerland innerspring model and top out at $2,999 for a Simmons Beautyrest Black bed.
The store’s average mattress ticket now is $1,299 to $1,499, up significantly in the past few years. “When we opened in 2006, I lived on the $499 and $599 price points,” Ranburger says, adding that retailers like Select Comfort’s Sleep Number helped introduce Bowling Green consumers to higher priced bedding—a benefit of increased competition Ranburger appreciates.
Trent Bedding puts every mattress that’s adjustable friendly on an adjustable base (also made by Simmons or Southerland) and promotes three private-label Trent Bed gel-infused memory foam mattresses made by Southerland as coming with a “free” adjustable base, also from Southerland. Retail prices for the Trent Beds—mattress and base together—are between $1,499 and $2,099.
Adjustable attachment rates are an impressive 50%—pushed that high not only because of the prevalence of the bases on the showroom floor and the Trent Bed deals. The retailer also promotes adjustable bases heavily in ad campaigns and has taken space in the center court of Bowling Green’s biggest enclosed mall where it displays a continuously moving base. Ranburger and Hanner take turns checking on the display at Greenwood Mall to ensure the bed stays tidy and that a cache of Trent Bedding brochures and discount cards remains full.
Accessories account for 15% to 20% of sales and are discussed with customers throughout the sales presentation— again while the RSA is finishing up the sale if they haven’t made a firm commitment to a pillow or protector. The store carries a range of bed frames from Glideaway; a contour pillow model from the I Love My Pillow brand that’s been a customer favorite for several years; and a broad assortment of pillows, protectors, pads, sheets, duvets and other sleep products from Malouf, including its popular rayon from bamboo sheets and 5ided Omniphase mattress protector. There’s another option for customers needing a new pillow. Trent Bedding teamed up early with the Fill Station Group LLC to have a Fill Station pillow kiosk in the store.
“We love the fact that we can make a custom pillow for an individual and it brings people back through the door to refill and refluff their pillows,” Ranburger says. Spoiler alert: The retailer recently filmed a commercial in which Lil Trent learns about the station. Apparently, there’s a bit of a mishap as Lil Trent gets stuck in the machine, but no worries. Ranburger assures Sleep Savvy Lil Trent is fine—and thrilled with his custom-designed pillow.
Someday, Lil Trent might even have his own store: Ranburger would like to open a second location though he hasn’t yet found the right spot. In the meantime, Ranburger is aiming for Trent Bedding to be named for the eighth time as the best place to buy a mattress—an honor bestowed by readers of the Bowling Green Daily News. And this time around, he’ll have Lil Trent to help rally voters.
Marketing the Ranburger way
When you’ve shot commercials from the roof of your shopping center, been a one-man band and created a chain of mattress dominoes in the parking lot, you can’t be blamed if you start thinking, “What am I going to do next?”
Trent Ranburger, founder and owner of Trent Bedding in Bowling Green, Kentucky, got his answer from another local business, a pest control company using an army of puppet ants created by Sublime Media Group. Ranburger had worked with Sublime in the past, and during one of his regular late-night phone calls with Steve Hanner, Trent Bedding’s vice president of operations, he told Hanner about the ants. “I was thinking, ‘I want a puppet, too.’ So, Steve and I are talking about it and brainstorming what would our puppet be. Of course, it had to be a Trent puppet—and the idea of Lil Trent was born.”
Bringing Lil Trent into the world required the talents of Ed Eyth, a central California-based designer who created the puppet, and Sublime’s James Kemp, who built it. Eyth once served as creative director for the Jim Henson Co. “So, it’s like I have a real Muppet,” Ranburger says.
When Lil Trent’s not starring in commercials—or on display at the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center along with other puppets created by Sublime as he was in August and September—he hangs out at the store, riding along on the delivery truck, fluffing up the pillows or doing whatever else needs doing.
Ranburger’s key marketing goal is “stand out,” and Lil Trent certainly does. Trent Bedding has never done much print advertising, with the exception of occasional buys in a small weekly paper. Ranburger has, however, gone all in on lighthearted, memorable radio and TV spots.
Check out the most recent, Halloween-themed commercial below, and then find past commercials on Trent Bedding’s YouTube channel.
“When I first opened, we were shooting ‘We’re family friendly. We’re local. Come see us. Blah, blah, blah’ commercials and that’s what everyone was doing,” Ranburger says. “I wanted to be different.” After the epiphany, his next commercial found him dressed as Uncle Sam on the roof of his store.
Ranburger also puts money into highly targeted, community-supporting advertising, for instance, ads in the programs of high school sports teams. And during the second quarter of every Western Kentucky University home game, two people from the crowd take to the field and then race to put on a T-shirt, fill a pillow and jump on a mattress. The winner gets a free pillow—and Trent Bedding gets the attention of 18,000 to 20,000 football fans.
“I’ve been a parent with a kid on a high school team,” he says. “I appreciate any sponsor that helps the team out.”
In its market, Trent Bedding competes with dozens of sleep shops, big boxes, mattress chains, department stores, discounters and others.
“I don’t want to do anything like my competition,” Ranburger says. “I know there are 40 places to buy a mattress. I want to be a stop on your list of places you’re going to go. If we get an opportunity to get you through the door, I’m confident we can convert most people to sales.”
Giving—and giving and giving—back
When it comes to philanthropy and community involvement, Trent Ranburger says if he weren’t careful, he could just about give away his entire store—products and profits—and most of his free time, too.
Since he opened Trent Bedding in 2006, he has been committed to supporting the community that, in turn, supports his store. That community includes Bowling Green, Kentucky; Warren County (as well as the counties adjacent to it); Western Kentucky University; and all the charities and other organizations working to sustain and improve the area.
“We have a real hometown feel to the store and that’s on purpose,” Ranburger says. “We are a part of this community.”
Among the organizations that Trent Bedding and Ranburger support through marketing partnerships, donations and other efforts include the Barren River Area Safe Space, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central Kentucky, Boys & Girls Club of Bowling Green, Hospice of Southern Kentucky, LifeSkills Inc., Salvation Army, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Toys for Tots. Every summer, the retailer helps promote Stuff the Bus, a communitywide effort to collect school supplies organized by the “Tony Rose Morning Show” on station D93 (WDNS-FM). This summer, the event pulled in 17 tons of pencils, backpacks, notebooks and other supplies.
Ranburger donates his own time, as well, serving on the boards of the South Central Kentucky Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Franklin-Simpson Community Arts Council and as a trustee of the Goodnight Memorial Library. And he’s a frequent speaker in Western Kentucky University business and marketing classes, where he always talks about the importance of giving back.
“I joke that you can give your business away if you’re not careful and it can be time-consuming and difficult sometimes. I go to a lot of events,” he says, “but supporting the community has been a core of my business since I opened.”
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.