This family-owned furniture store and sleep shop in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, attracts and retains customers with its selection, charitable events and dedication to its shoppers. The cookies, wine and hugs help, too.
BY JULIE A PALM
Photography by Bill Hofstetter/ LMP 360 Media
Even before they cross the threshold, shoppers entering Michael Alan Furniture & Design are told in no uncertain terms how much they are valued by the retailer. A sign above the entry proclaims: “Through these doors walk the greatest people … our customers.”
In fact, customers of the store and its attached America’s Mattress showroom are treated as much like invited guests, even friends, as customers. A director of first impressions—a full-time position—greets shoppers, offering freshly baked cookies, wine in stemware or beer in a frosty glass before setting them up with a well-trained retail sales associate/designer to help them shop the full-line furniture store and sleep shop in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Later, those customers’ purchases will be delivered by the retailer’s directors of lasting impressions, full-time Michael Alan staffers who provide white-glove delivery.
Some customers will return to the store throughout the year for one of several charitable events or just-for-fun parties, like the annual shindig to celebrate the Canadian roots of the store’s founders and the retailer’s many snowbird customers, when the staff grills bratwursts and pours beers for more than 300 people. Or the retailer’s anniversary party that draws as many as 500 customers every November for music, food and drink. For that soiree, the store literally rolls out a red carpet and the staff cheers attendees as they come through the door—a celebratory process that can take nearly an hour. (When was the last time hundreds of people lined up to get into your mattress store?) There’s no pressure to shop or make a purchase: Customers simply are encouraged to have a great time.
“Without our customers, we are nothing,” says owner Chris Cooley. “They are our most valuable asset.”
This deep commitment to customer service and genuine appreciation of its customers has undergirded the retailer’s success for more than 35 years, carried it into a second generation of family ownership and earned it a 2015 Retailer of the Year award from the North American Home Furnishings Association (now the Home Furnishings Association). In the past two years, Michael Alan has remodeled its store and dramatically expanded its mattress business with the addition of the America’s Mattress showroom—all to better serve those “greatest people,” its customers.
A furnishings oasis in the desert
The business got its start as Michael Alan Furnishings, a manufacturer of mattresses and upholstery with an accompanying retail outlet founded by Shirley and Abner Schultz. Seeking warmer climes, the former owners of a poultry farm and trucking company in Canada moved to Lake Havasu City in 1979 and launched their new venture the following year. According to family lore, a combination business trip/family vacation altered the course of the enterprise when the Schultzes took their adult daughters, Cooley and her sister Carrie Hemme, on a buying trip to the San Francisco Furniture Market, where the daughters saw the furniture industry in a new way and fell in love with it. Cooley and Hemme joined the family business in 1990 and bought out their parents two years later, shuttering the manufacturing side of the enterprise to focus on retail and their passion for interior design. (About 35% of the retailer’s business today is in-home interior design). Hemme retired a few years ago.
Centered in a geographic triangle with Bullhead City, Kingman and Parker at the points, Michael Alan draws most of its customers from Lake Havasu City and those three other Arizona towns, but also pulls shoppers in from the neighboring states of California and Nevada. Lake Havasu City has a population of just over 50,000 and its location on the enormous lake creates an interesting clientele. With retirees wintering in the area and vacationers pouring in for summer weekends of water sports, many Michael Alan customers are furnishing their second homes. Regardless of age or permanent residence, customers tend to be outdoorsy, enjoying the boating, golfing and other activities the area offers, and entertaining and relaxing in their own homes’ exterior spaces. To meet those needs, Michael Alan made a major push into outdoor living furniture in 2013. Then, in 2015, the retailer doubled the space devoted to the category as part of the remodel.
A big bedding push
During that renovation, the retailer also recommitted itself to bedding, moving the department from the second floor to the ground level, adding the America’s Mattress showroom and more than doubling the space it devotes to the category to 2,200 square feet. Since the changes, mattress sales have increased by 20%.
The America’s Mattress space has a separate storefront, entrance and identity, but also can be accessed through the Michael Alan showroom and is fully part of the retailer in terms of staffing. Adding the franchise made sense for the retailer, which has carried Serta brands for more than 20 years. “America’s Mattress came to us, wanting to expand into Lake Havasu and it was a great way to increase traffic to our store. We felt like it was a great fit,” Cooley says.
While the main Michael Alan store is organized around cozy, richly accessorized room-style vignettes, the America’s Mattress showroom is more spare: A few bedside tables, lamps and other accessories warm the space but the emphasis is on unadorned mattresses, making rest-testing and comparison easy for shoppers.
In keeping with its philosophy of treating customers like welcome guests, the retail spaces are inviting: Music plays throughout both showrooms—often a classical playlist in the America’s Mattress showroom—and scent machines perfume the air. A spa-like blend of eucalyptus and lemongrass is a favorite in the bedding area.
“When a client comes in, we want them to feel like they are in their own home,” Cooley says.
The retailer displays about two dozen mattresses in the America’s Mattress space. Models include a mix of Serta iComfort, Serta Perfect Sleeper and Mattress 1st, a brand available through the retailer’s participation in the Furniture First buying group. Price points range from $299 to $3,499 for queen sizes (mattress only). The hybrid iComfort Applause II is a best-seller at $1,299.
“We’ve always done well with upper-end price points,” says sales manager Dave Williams. “People today are wanting better sleep and a better quality mattress.”
When Michael Alan opened the America’s Mattress store, the retailer made another significant change, putting an adjustable base under every mattress on the sales floor.
“Everyone comes in looking for a mattress, but what they often don’t know is they can get an even better night’s sleep with an adjustable base underneath it,” Williams says. The problem with displaying only a few bases is that you force the customer to imagine how the mattress she’s chosen for comfort and support will feel on an adjustable base that happens to be shown with an entirely different mattress on it, he says. Adjustables under every mattress make comparisons—and sales—easier.
The retailer has the numbers to prove the effectiveness of omnipresent adjustables: Its attachment rate now averages 30%. During months with special promotions—the retailer follows the national America’s Mattress advertising and marketing schedule—the rate can soar. In June, it topped 70%. The store carries five adjustable models, priced from $699 to $2,500 in queen size. The Serta Motion Perfect III, priced at $1,700, is the top seller.
Mattress shopping actually starts with selecting a pillow at a wall of options from BedGear. RSAs ask not only about a customer’s preferred sleeping position but also if she sleeps hot. A “yes” to that question means she’s a good candidate for BedGear’s temperature-regulating Ver-Tex model, priced at $149. “In Lake Havasu City, it gets up to 120 F in the summer. As soon as they hug that cool, refreshing Ver-Tex pillow, they’re pretty much sold,” Williams says.
With a shopper’s pillow type selected and a tester model tucked into a disposable pillow cover, an RSA then will lead the customer to a three-bed rest-testing area, where she can find the most comfortable option from among firm, pillow-top and plush versions of an iComfort hybrid, the top mattress price point on the sales floor. The comparison process, along with a series of questions about sleep habits/preferences and health issues, helps RSAs know what to show shoppers next. RSAs typically spend 30 minutes with a customer. Not surprisingly, having heard how important quality pillows are for proper body alignment on a mattress, most customers go home with new ones to complete their bed.
A discussion of the importance of pillows leads naturally into conversations about the importance of other accessories, including BedGear protectors and sheets, Williams says. “If they love the pillow, it’s an easy way to transition to talk about a mattress protector that will protect their purchase and then we can move into sheets,” he explains. “If they sleep hot, we’ll talk about how super-high-thread-count sheets can keep a mattress from breathing well and suggest better options. So we’ll do a whole pillow to mattress protector to sheet presentation. It’s an easy transition.”
Consistency in the sales presentation is important to the retailer.
“We train everyone the same way,” Williams says. “You want the presentation to be consistent. We don’t talk about specs—the specific springs or foams. Once you start emphasizing specs, you start losing the customer. It’s more about the experience—about getting your guest to choose the mattress that feels best for them. If you do it the way we train you to, you will sell more mattresses and better mattresses. Your success rate is based on your customer’s happiness with their choice.”
There aren’t bedding specialists at Michael Alan. Everyone is trained on both home furnishings and mattresses and works on commission. “We work on an ‘up’ system,” Cooley says, explaining that there are cameras at both the Michael Alan and America’s Mattress entrances so staff can rotate to assist customers.
Michael Alan has a staff of 24, many with long tenures. One of the directors of lasting impressions has been with the retailer for 21 years, Williams for 18 years. It’s a close group. “We’re a big hug fest around here,” Cooley says. “Our staff is very close. We are all huggers.”
Longtime customers also are likely to be greeted with a hug.
Charity begins in the store
When you look at the long list of local charities and groups Michael Alan Furniture & Design in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, supports and the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has raised for such entities over the years, it’s clear that the retailer’s mission is as much about giving back to its community as it is selling to it.
The retailer’s philanthropy is multipronged and starts with its own employees. Owner Chris Cooley encourages her team to become what she calls community service ambassadors and pays their dues to join local chapters of groups like the Rotary Club and Soroptimist International. It’s a way to reward and motivate her staff—and encourages them to be deeply connected to the community in which they work and live. Cooley proudly notes that 100% of her employees donate to the United Way through payroll deductions.
Through in-store fundraising events, direct monetary and product donations, and employee volunteer hours, Michael Alan also supports groups such as HAVEN House, which provides housing to families in crisis; Hospice of Havasu; Sally’s House, a safe haven for abused women and children; and more. Twice a year, the store hosts blood drives.
But its biggest annual fundraiser is the Michael Alan Sleepless for a Cure in Havasu that supports breast cancer prevention through low-cost mammogram programs. Women secure pledges to stay awake for 24 hours and then pile into the store for the “sleepless-a-thon.” A packed day and night of movies, games, a live auction, a fashion show and other fun activities keep participants energized. The retailer has raised more than $200,000 through this event alone.
Such events build goodwill in the community and augment the retailer’s paid marketing efforts, which include a wide range of traditional and new media—from newspaper and radio ads to direct mail pieces to social media posts and paid search. But that goodwill is more an added benefit rather than a driver of Michael Alan’s philanthropy.
“It’s vital for everyone to give back to their community,” Cooley says. “It’s not something we feel forced to do. It’s part of who we are. It started with my parents, who always said if you provide service to others it helps you understand there are many more needs than your own personal ones.”
When it comes to choosing which groups and projects to support, Cooley’s checklist is fairly short: “The money needs to stay local and have a real benefit,” she says. “It’s very important to me to support our community.”
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.