Retailer’s ‘Locally owned, locally made’ message in Grand Forks, North Dakota, resonates with customers, community
BY JULIE A. PALM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN BROSE
Matress Factory in Grand Forks, North Dakota, counts nine mattress-selling competitors—including big boxes, sleep shops and national furniture chains—within just a mile or two of his store. Arnold never forgets about those other retailers but believes strongly that he offers what they can’t: locally made mattress sets sold in a locally owned store with retail sales associates who understand and appreciate their local customers.
In short, for Arnold, it’s not about location, location, location; it’s about being local, local, local. (Though the store does have a pretty great location, too—the corner of a strip mall in the city’s most bustling retail district.)
Arnold bought the Mattress Factory in 2001 from the Stevens family, owners also of Upper Midwest Sleep, which has been manufacturing mattresses in Grand Forks since its founding in 1928 (originally as Stevens Mattress Mfg.). They opened the store in 1997 after devastating floodwaters from the Red River forced a couple of their mattress dealers out of business. Arnold went to work for the retailer a year later as manager.
“I had been in retail all of my life and had been at one job for 17 years. I was experiencing burnout and needed a change,” Arnold says. Three years after signing on as manager, Arnold was ready to purchase the business. “I was 50 at the time. I knew I had to work at least 15 more years, so I thought I might as well work for myself. I liked the feeling it gave me to have ownership and to make my own decisions as far as products, advertising, everything. There isn’t anything that I don’t do in the store. I’ve done it all.”
Arnold’s extensive experience in retail and an appreciation of hard work instilled in him by his parents helped prepare Arnold for the long hours of running a specialty mattress shop with the help of only a small staff. Arnold is one of 10 children raised on a large farm in central North Dakota where his family grew grains and raised cattle and dairy cows—there was always something that needed doing.
“I have to give my parents credit for my work ethic,” Arnold says. “I guess I beat the odds of building a successful small business without a college degree. I’ve had only my work ethic and my desire to be of good service to my customers.”
A focused product selection
The Mattress Factory operates in an increasingly competitive environment. Other retailers selling mattresses in this town of about 65,000 people include Ashley Furniture HomeStore, Denver Mattress Co., Sam’s Club, Slumberland Furniture and Home of Economy, a North Dakota store that, like Sam’s Club, sells everything from gardening tools to tires to mattresses.
Arnold’s store is well-situated geographically among its competitors, occupying the corner of a busy shopping strip, the large windows giving customers great views of the products inside. The retailer sells Restonic and Spring Air products, both made by the store’s original owners Upper Midwest Sleep and both well-known brands in the area. Entry-level innerspring mattress sets in queen size start around $349; hybrids combining innersprings and high-end specialty foams top out around $1,499. The bulk of sales are in the $499 to $1,099 range, with the average ticket in 2014 about $540, Arnold says.
“This is a little more conservative community,” he says. “Most people don’t feel comfortable buying a $1,599 mattress.”
The Mattress Factory began as a 3,430-square-foot store but expanded in 2008 when adjacent space opened up in the strip mall and now occupies 4,750 square feet, giving it plenty of space to display 30 models, all shown with a headboard or headboard-and-footboard combination from Leggett & Platt’s Fashion Bed Group. Mattresses generally are arranged by brand and then by model.
“Most of my models have three or four comfort levels, so I arrange them side by side. It makes it easy for the customer to choose,” Arnold says. Promotional bedding is separate, tucked into that extra square footage the store acquired in 2008.
The store does a small, but steadily growing business in adjustables, which also come from L&P. The store’s opening model with a wired remote and head-and-foot adjustability retails for $950 in queen size; a higher-end adjustable base with wireless remote and massage options retails for $1,350 in queen.
“Fifteen years ago, people were interested in adjustables for medical reasons—acid reflux, swollen feet and ankles, fluid around the heart. Now couples in their 40s are buying them for comfort and luxury,” Arnold says. “We’re delivering two today.”
Located in a college town—the University of North Dakota is in Grand Forks—the Mattress Factory also does a good business in futons from Kodiak Furniture. Accessories, many displayed near the sales desk, include bed frames, mattress protectors, pillows and sheet sets, again from L&P.
“If customers purchase a mattress protector, we offer 25% off the next one,” Arnold says. “It encourages them to purchase one for another bed at home or they can put it on their bed while the other is being washed.”
Throughout the store, Arnold keeps marketing messages to a minimum: Details about mattress constructions can be found on foot protectors and attractive seasonal signage is judiciously placed throughout the store interior and on windows, “but we don’t have sales banners flashing all over the place,” Arnold says. “No ‘Sale! Sale! Sale!’ I don’t want to be known as a discounter.” The store is, however, known as the place with a striking mural on one wall. A fixture of the store since 2003, it was painted by local artists Darin Drummer and Myke Knutson and depicts the journey of a mattress, all the way from being quilted in the factory to being loaded onto a Mattress Factory truck and delivered to a happy customer’s home.
Know thy customer
One of the Mattress Factory’s greatest competitive advantages goes hand in hand with its “locally owned, locally made” message: treating customers like neighbors, friends or family, which they might very well be—or may become.
“It’s important to treat people fairly and with respect,” Arnold says. “If you do, they’ll be return customers and will tell their family and friends. I have customers who’ve bought from us several times—for their kids, for their parents, and now they’re ready to replace the mattress they originally purchased from us.”
Arnold works in the store most days, along with a team of just two or three part-time employees. His regular presence means Arnold can make customer-satisfying decisions on the spot. “Early on in the business, I had a request for a king mattress. They needed it very quickly, and the factory made it for me in four hours. Usually a mattress isn’t an emergency item, but it’s nice to be able to do something like that at a moment’s notice,” he says. “I could make the decision to get that customer that mattress and make the phone call because I have a very good relationship with the factory.”
The retailer favors a low-pressure approach to sales, emphasizing customer satisfaction and service over upselling. Shoppers are greeted with a friendly “Welcome to the Mattress Factory,” followed by a series of qualifying questions to narrow their search for a new bed set: “How old is your current mattress?” “What size is your mattress?” “Are you having problems with your current bed set?” “Do you have any health issues?”
With that information in hand, sales associates encourage customers to try an array of four comfort levels to see what feels best. “A lot of people come in and say they want a firm mattress, but then you find out they’ve never laid on a plush or euro-top. Often, they like it,” Arnold says.
Sales associates typically start shoppers on mattresses in the $899 to $999 price range and then show them models priced higher or lower,
depending on the direction they get from the customers. “If they can only afford a $699 mattress then so be it,” Arnold says. “We’re not going to push them up to a $999 just to upsell.”
Rest-testing—not always an option at some of his competitors’ stores—is critical to the purchasing process, Arnold believes. “You usually try on a new pair of shoes first and they cost a lot less than a mattress. We don’t want you to buy a mattress you don’t like. This is a big purchase,” he says. “We try to create a nonthreatening, comfortable environment for our customers. I’ll tell them, ‘Feel free to lie down for a few minutes and then I’ll come back and check on you.’ Then I turn and walk away to give them some privacy.”
If a customer is unhappy with her mattress purchase, the Mattress Factory offers a 30-day comfort guarantee—it’s even mentioned in the store’s jingle. “But I have very few returns,” Arnold says. “We do a good job of reading people and determining what they like. When it comes down to making a final choice, I’ll sometimes say to them, ‘You seem to like this one better than that one.’ It helps them to decide in their own minds.”
The Mattress Factory offers free delivery—often same day or next day—seven days a week in Grand Forks and in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, its sister city across the Red River. “I consider the delivery process an extension of the sales process,” Arnold says. Given that, he expects delivery to leave customers with an excellent impression of the retailer. Little things mean a lot: The store typically promises delivery in tight 30-minute windows and the part-time Mattress Factory employees who arrive with the new mattress set remove their shoes before entering the home, setting up the new set and removing the old one.
Keep employees happy
With a small staff, training at the Mattress Factory is informal—and personal. When someone new joins the sales team, both Arnold and a sales representative from Upper Midwest Sleep start the education process with an explainer of various mattress components and constructions.
“I have new people shadow me in the store so they can pick up pointers,” Arnold says. “I think practice is the best training, and I’m constantly giving my salespeople tips.”
RSAs receive both a base salary and commissions. “Just like with my customers, I treat them fairly and with respect,” Arnold says. “It’s important to me to be good to my employees.”
As for his own role in the store, when Arnold bought the business he expected to work about 15 years. He’s softened on that a bit, giving himself another couple of years or so and then he’d like to turn the business over to new owners, ideally local owners, and become a part-time worker himself.
“I don’t see a reason why I can’t work until I’m 70,” he says. “I enjoy what I’m doing.”
The power of popcorn
Mattress Factory owner John Arnold once read in the pages of Sleep Savvy magazine that retailers should provide small snacks and treats to
customers to make them feel more welcome—like a guest in your home. He liked the idea and now pops fresh, hot popcorn every day. Shoppers enjoy the complimentary treat, and it has the added benefit of making the store smell yummy.
Traditional media buys, plenty of events keep retailer in consumers’ minds
John Arnold admits that when he bought the Mattress Factory in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 2001, he said “yes” to virtually every advertising opportunity that came his way, making it hard to stick to his advertising budget. He soon learned that a focused marketing plan was far more effective—and far less costly. Arnold jettisoned ads he was placing in sporting events programs and other media with limited audiences, as well as sale-promoting newspaper inserts favored by many of his competitors.
“They don’t have any shelf life,” he says of the inserts, “and I’m not interested in becoming just a ‘sale’ store. I’m not going for the ‘$99 any size mattress’ market.”
The retailer’s advertising strategy is rooted in traditional media: newspaper, radio and television, with radio and TV ads including the company’s well-known jingle: “The Mattress Factory Comfort Guarantee.” The company also runs ads on a digital billboard located at Demers Avenue and South Washington Street, reportedly the busiest intersection in North Dakota.
Arnold’s not a big fan of social media, and the Mattress Factory’s website contains only basic information, such as the store’s hours and location, and links to the main websites of the brands the store carries. Arnold believes strongly that consumers need to rest-test beds before buying: Selling online—or even listing prices of the sleep products available at the bricks-and-mortar location—could work against the retailer’s goal of getting shoppers to come into the store, where sales staff can personally walk them through the process of picking the right mattress.
Mattress Factory ads emphasize the fact that the store is not only locally owned but sells locally made mattresses, too. Other key messages focus on customer service, such having mattresses in stock and offering free, often same day delivery.
And there are plenty of events to promote: Arnold has created a full schedule of special promotions, many of which have become local traditions. There’s the “Back-to-Bed Tent Sale” every August that targets University of North Dakota students (along with their parents) and the “Practical is Perfect & Santa Delivers” promotion in December—a time when many mattress retailers back off on advertising. “I know couples who’ve been married maybe 25 or 30 years and they’ll say, ‘Let’s get ourselves a new mattress. That will be our Christmas gift to ourselves.’ It’s really caught on,” Arnold says. For “May Is Better Sleep Month,” the retailer runs a radio promotion, giving away a mattress each week, starting with a twin size in the first drawing and building up to a king size in the final week. (Better Sleep Month is sponsored annually by the Better Sleep Council, the consumer-education arm of Sleep Savvy’s publisher, the International Sleep Products Association.)
Like most everything else done at the Mattress Factory, promotions are based on Arnold’s deep knowledge of his customer base: Another spring advertising campaign—this one timed to locals heading out of town to get their vacation places ready for warmer weather—promises free delivery to houses at nearby Maple Lake, Minnesota.
Something else ties all these campaigns together, Arnold says: “None of these events promote deeply discounted mattresses.”
Julie A. Palm, chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC, has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for a variety of newspapers, magazines and other publications. She served as editor in chief of BedTimes for more than nine years and was editor in chief of Sleep Savvy for two years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.