BY JULIE A. PALM
In Southern California, fun-loving Spencer Ace and Robin Stuart attribute success at Sweet Dreamzzz to personalized service, differentiation and promoting sales
Photography by Brian Valente
Years of selling mattresses and managing stores for other retailers taught Spencer Ace and Robin Stuart how they would run their own bedding shop. Their philosophy is simple: Help every shopper select the mattress that is best for her—not the mattress the store is promoting that week or the most expensive one on the floor, just the best mattress for each customer.
Now that they own Sweet Dreamzzz in Southern California that viewpoint does indeed drive what they do. The conversation with each customer is highly personal—no pointing shoppers to an app or kiosk that will choose a bed for them based on data points and no scripts for retail sales associates. Sweet Dreamzzz displays about 50 beds and bases across nearly a dozen brands to give shoppers plenty of options and allows them ample time to make decisions.
“We want people to come into our store and feel comfortable, like it’s their house, even their bedroom,” Ace says. “Our job is to help them narrow their choices because no one knows what’s comfortable to them except them. Here, no machine or RSA being spiffed will tell them what bed to buy.”
Co-owners Ace and Stuart believe making the right choice is important because of the role the mattress plays in sleep and good health, and they chose “Improving Your Health Three ZZZ’s at a Time” as their company’s tagline to emphasize the point.
“This is one of the most important items in your house, arguably the most important because you spend eight hours a day on it—22,000 hours over the life of the mattress,” Ace says. “You should love your mattress.”
Striking out on their own
Ace was a mattress evangelist long before he started selling the product. He began his professional life in Houston, working as a personal trainer who preached to his clients about the importance of investing in two pieces of health equipment—shoes and mattresses. “You spend half your life wearing shoes and about a third sleeping in bed,” he’d instruct them.
“When I was a trainer, I could tell when people hadn’t slept well,” Ace says. “A poor quality mattress leads to poor quality sleep, which hurts people’s health.” Still, he didn’t have any interest in mattress sales when an acquaintance who worked at Mattress Firm promised he could make more money selling beds. Ace doubted him until the guy shared his W-2 showing a six-figure income. “I put in my two weeks’ notice that day and went to work for Mattress Firm,” he says.
An opportunity to help his father launch a construction company after Hurricane Katrina pulled Ace away from mattress retailing for a time, and when he returned to Houston he went to work for America’s Mattress, a concept created by Mattress Firm co-founder Paul Stork. Later, when his girlfriend got a job in Los Angeles, Ace followed, figuring he could sell mattresses anywhere. Soon, he was managing a Leeds Mattress store in Hollywood—a job that would introduce him to the man who would later become his business partner, Robin Stuart.
Stuart moved to Los Angeles in 2003 for an acting career, arriving without a job or a bed.
“I was shopping for a bed and talking to the manager and he said he could get me on at the store with no experience. Within three months, I was managing the store, but I learned the company was shady,” he says. Stuart may not have liked the retailer but he liked mattress sales and went from there to Leeds.
“For six years, Spencer and I were the top salespeople, and it was a great gig,” Stuart says. “Then we started talking about how we thought we could improve on things we’d seen in the business and start our own company.”
In 2012, they opened their first Sweet Dreamzzz store in LA. The location—near the Santa Monica Freeway in the Mid-City neighborhood—wasn’t ideal, and it wasn’t long before Ace and Stuart were looking for a new spot. (The original 1,500-square-foot store still displays and sells some mattresses but mostly is used as a warehouse.)
It’s become common for mattress retailers to cluster: Store A across the street from Store B and Store C in an adjacent strip mall. So, when Ace and Stuart wanted to expand Sweet Dreamzzz, an available store across the street from two other mattress retailers didn’t dissuade them. The location at 12345 Ventura Blvd. was too perfect, in part because of its easy-to-remember address on a high-profile street but also because of the surrounding Studio City neighborhood, a vibrant, eclectic place bustling with a mix of entertainment executives and studio people, plus bohemians and artists from nearby West Hollywood.
Turns out, lots of other retailers liked the area, too. Within a few months of Sweet Dreamzzz opening, another store opened and then another until, Ace says, “We had six mattress stores along one block. I could throw a baseball and hit every other store. Then, a couple blocks down we had two others. We literally had eight mattress stores within 1 ½ miles. People would ask us, ‘How do you stay in business with so many mattress stores?’ Our answer was, ‘This is a mattress destination spot.’ ”
Standing out in a crowd
A few of those retailers already have closed, but Sweet Dreamzzz still has several mattress retailers in close proximity.
With that kind of intense competition, the retailer has to distinguish itself. Differentiation starts outside: The store enjoys a lot of pedestrian traffic and wants to make an impression on those passers-by. The message on a sidewalk whiteboard changes daily—often something like “Smile: You’re Awesome” or “Have a Bottle of Water on Us.” Those free bottles of water are kept chilled in a bucket of ice, while dog walkers are provided fresh water and biscuits for their canine pals.
Instead of typical printed promotional signs for the store windows, Sweet Dreamzzz hires an artist who hand paints clever images: A Presidents Day sale was touted by George Washington. More unexpected: Cupid, on the same window, saying, “Spread the Love” while aiming an arrow at the first U.S. president.
Inside the 3,600-square-foot store, Sweet Dreamzzz displays 48 mattresses—a mix of major mattress brands iComfort, Sealy, Serta, Simmons,
Stearns & Foster and Tempur-Pedic, as well as Ergovea, a line of natural and organic mattresses. A best-seller is Sleep Therapy from Wickline Bedding Co. In 2016, after launching an e-commerce site for their own line of boxed foam mattresses, Pacific Mattress Co., Ace and Stuart added it to the Sweet Dreamzzz floor, too. (See story at left.)
The retailer’s average mattress ticket is about $1,300, “but we do a lot of business below and above that level,” Stuart says. “We’ve got lots of starving and not-so-starving artist customers.”
The not-so-starving customers are especially fun for the retailer: A Warner Bros. executive recently sent his three children into the store to choose whatever they wanted, and they all picked Tempur-Pedic mattresses with adjustable bases. After actress and singer Hilary Duff bought a bed, her assistant returned with “a bucket of booze on ice” as a thank you, Ace recalls. (He later asked Duff to try a mattress from their new online mattress brand. She did, posted about it on social media and boosted site to the traffic by 4,500 visitors in one day.)
Sweet Dreamzzz carries a wide variety of adjustable bases from Leggett & Platt Inc., Sealy and Tempur-Pedic. Accessories aren’t a large part of total sales but include pillows from Ergovea, Malouf and Tempur-Pedic, and a comprehensive selection of linens, toppers and protectors/encasements from Malouf.
Improv on the sales floor
Sweet Dreamzzz customers generally fall into two types, Ace explains. The first type already is frustrated by their mattress research and shopping experience.
“They’ve been to other stores and been told what to buy. They’re tired of salespeople and don’t understand why mattresses have to be so expensive,” Ace says. “When that customer comes in the door, we give them a bit of space. I’ll say, “Hi. My name is Spencer. Take your time and look around, lie on the beds.’ I stay at the desk and leave them alone for a few minutes. You don’t want to pounce on those people.
“The other type of consumer will come in and say, ‘I’m here to buy a mattress.’ With them, I’ll start right in asking questions like, ‘What positions do you sleep in?’ ‘What hurts when you wake up?’ ”
Stuart still has a penchant for acting, particularly improv, and that informs how he and Ace handle customers. At Sweet Dreamzzz, he says, “no computer” is going to tell shoppers which mattress to buy and there’s no memorized script. They rely on years of sales experience, playing off cues and answers from each shopper to help her select the right mattress.
Rest-testing typically starts on Stearns & Foster models that have a nice range of feels, but again, there’s room for improvisation. If a shopper comes in interested in latex mattresses, rest-testing starts with a few latex models.
The sales process at Sweet Dreamzzz is all about comfort: Ace and Stuart avoid talking about prices, components and constructions until a shopper has narrowed her choices.
“We don’t try to sell the bed while they are on it,” Stuart says. “If they start asking what it costs and what’s in it, I’ll often joke, ‘I’m not telling you until later.’ We want to blind test people, and we show them a variety of prices and brands. When they are deciding between two equally comfortable mattresses, then we’ll talk about details so they can make an educated decision about those two products.”
And there’s no rush. One customer became a store fixture, spending a few hours a day on five different days before finally making a purchase.
“What has made me and Spencer successful at Leeds and here is we care about people. This is an important item for people and their health,” Stuart says. “Our goal is to guide people to the best mattress for their health and their needs—the bed that will still make them happy in two years.”
Going social and embracing sales
In many ways, Ace and Stuart are Sweet Dreamzzz. The retailer has only two other employees, a part-times sales associate and a manager/sales associate who runs the warehouse location.
Ace concentrates on day-to-day marketing and vendor relationships; Stuart manages operations and finances. “We call ourselves the “dynamic duo” but we’re also yin and yang,” Stuart says. “We have different strengths and our best qualities complement each other.”
They work together on strategy and special promotions. “And we both sell mattresses,” Ace says. “If a mattress needs to get sold, we sell it. If a toilet needs to be cleaned, we clean it. When the store floor needed to be resealed, we did it.”
Because traditional marketing—newspaper, magazine, TV, radio—doesn’t effectively reach the retailer’s target customers, Sweet Dreamzzz relies heavily on digital media, including Facebook advertising and paid search on Google and Bing. Plus, Ace isn’t shy about asking customers for good reviews on sites like Yelp.
“We have 85 five-star reviews for our Studio City store, and when you read them you can tell they’re real customers writing real reviews,” he says. “We had a customer who bought a mattress and called saying the box spring was squeaking. I personally went over to the house to see what the problem was—he was expecting a kid—and took care of the problem. He was happy I came over and said he wanted to give us a good review and I said, ‘Sure. But be honest that you weren’t happy at first with the box spring.’ We always encourage customers when they tell us they’re happy, ‘Great. Let us know on Yelp or Google.’ These days the average consumer makes decisions based on reviews.”
And, unlike many retailers featured in Sleep Savvy’s “Retail Road Trip,” Sweet Dreamzzz embraces sales. “With this level of competition, you’ve got to have sales,” Ace says. “We’re not afraid of sales.”
To prove the point about both online marketing and the value of sales, they tell this story: When they first opened Sweet Dreamzzz, they spent about $8,000 on direct mail to advertise a Memorial Day celebration, but not an actual sale. They had a DJ, gave out free drinks and had good traffic. Sales were terrible, despite the fact that they were selling mattress models cheaper than their competitors—they just hadn’t advertised that fact.
Compare that to last year’s Memorial Day, when the retailer spent a few hundred dollars on Facebook ads, promoting big savings on some beds. Traffic was similar, even a little slower than at the other event, but the store did nearly $50,000 in sales.
Brick-and-mortar diehards go digital
With years of experience in sales at brick-and-mortar stores and a sincere belief that people should spend time rest-testing mattresses before they buy one, Spencer Ace and Robin Stuart aren’t the most likely guys to start an e-commerce mattress company.
But they’re also pragmatic and attuned to the changing market. In April 2016, they launched Pacific Mattress Co. to sell boxed beds online.
“If you’re going to spend 22,000 hours on a mattress over the course of its lifetime, you need to make sure you buy something that can’t hurt you in the long run,” Ace says. “But as much as we’d like everyone to come into our store, we know there is an online shopper—mostly the millennial market but also Gen X, too—who wants to buy a mattress online. They aren’t going to come into the store and you need to capture their business.”
Remember how a look at a retail sales associate’s W-2 from Mattress Firm got Ace to jump from a career in fitness training to mattress sales? A conversation—and a look at some sales figures from mattress industry veteran Joe Alexander—helped convince Ace and Stuart to embrace e-commerce. Alexander is founder and co-owner of Nest Bedding, a chain of sleep shops and a robust e-commerce operation that recently formed a partnership with Brooklyn Bedding. Like Ace and Stuart, Alexander got his start as a successful mattress RSA. (See the May/June issue of Sleep Savvy or SleepSavvyMagazine.com for a profile of Nest.)
As Ace recalls: “We had wanted to stay away from e-commerce, but watching Casper’s boom and then talking to Joe about how his company was doing made me say, ‘We need to do this. And we need to do it the right way. We’re mattress guys with a lot of heart and integrity so let’s put a great product out there.’”
They met with a mattress manufacturer about the latest foam technologies and discovered what they call Float Foam. Ace describes it as having the same pressure-relieving and body-contouring properties as memory foam but a lighter feel, improved breathability and a better loft that reduces the “sinking feeling” associated with memory foam. That manufacturer, which Ace and Stuart declined to name, produces the beds and handles distribution.
Pacific Mattress Co. offers two models, a Medium Soft and a Medium Firm. The beds are made with varying densities and heights of Float Foam and latex in the comfort layers and polyurethane cores. Core and Float foams are certified by CertiPUR-US; latex layers are certified by Okeo-Tex. Both models feature removable, washable top panels and retail for $999 in queen size.
“The whole reason we resisted online sales is we want to make sure we give people the best mattress for them,” Stuart says. “But we’ve created a great product. For people who want to shop online, we’re providing a quality mattress that will impact their health and wellness in a positive way.”
He continues: “A lot of the guys selling online are marking gurus, not mattress guys. We’re mattress guys and the mattress matters most to us.”
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.