Major destination store for consumer electronics in Chicagoland expands reach with new bedding department
BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
An electronics store might be the last place most consumers would consider visiting when shopping for a mattress. But in the Chicagoland area, Abt Electronics is often the first place people head when home-related products are on their shopping lists.
Located in Glenview, Ill., about 20 miles north of Chicago, Abt Electronics is a consumer electronics destination store that routinely draws shoppers from Indiana and Wisconsin as well as from its home state. The 100,000-square-foot store is located on a 37-acre campus that also is home to Abt’s 12,000-square-foot recycling center, a gas station and a depot for the store’s 108 delivery trucks.
Abt Electronics was founded in 1936 by Jewel and David Abt, the parents of Bob Abt, the company chief executive officer, and grandparents of Jon, Mike, Billy and Ricky Abt, who serve jointly as co-presidents. What customers experience when they come into the store has been of the utmost importance to the Abt family from the beginning.
“Our store is inviting, clean looking and there are a slew of smart people in every department,” Jon Abt says. “Our customer base is very heterogeneous, and we try to treat all customers the same. If you treat a customer well, (she’ll) come back for something else. We’ve always focused on making lifelong customers. That’s how we built the business.”
Abt Electronics started as a radio specialty store in downtown Chicago and steadily expanded category by category, always with customer needs in mind. “We sell things for people’s homes, and we really try to listen to our customers’ feedback,” Abt says.
Customers come first
It was customers who first raised the idea of adding bedding to the store’s product mix. They complained, Abt says, of how confusing—and at times unpleasant—it could be to buy a new mattress.
“We’re not afraid to try new things,” Abt adds. “At the end of the day, we try these things because our customers tell us that they want to buy (the product) from us.”
Abt Electronics launched its new 4,500-square-foot bedding department in August 2012. It was designed to counter all the complaints Abt customers had made about shopping for mattresses.
Because he previously had been involved in the bedding industry, Geoff Imhof, the store’s general manager, was tapped to set up and head the new department.
“We wanted it to be unlike any sleep shop or department store (our customers) had visited,” he says. “Sleep shops tend to be cramped and sometimes not that well tended. We didn’t want rows and rows of beds with one, maybe two at the most, retail sales associates on the floor. At Abt, customer experience is always our first concern and we wanted (to provide) as high end an experience as possible.”
An open, airy look
The department is located on a mezzanine above the store’s 25,000-square-foot atrium. The atrium is encircled by boutiques, including Apple, Bang & Olufsen and Sony, and features a huge central fountain patterned after the one at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
“Customers reach the department by a big escalator which takes them to an open, light-filled space with no dead ends,” co-president Mike Abt explains. To make the department look homelike, flowers adorn the showroom, pictures hang on the walls and mattresses are displayed with headboards and footboards.
Furniture also is incorporated into bedding vignettes to further enhance the homey effect.
“We want (the beds) to look as much like they will in bedrooms as possible,” Imhof says. “Getting a mental picture of how the bed will look in a bedroom really helps. The better it looks in the showroom, the more likely people are to make the purchase.”
To keep the space uncluttered, signage is kept to a minimum, and “manufacturers’ stuff,” Mike Abt says, often makes way for “store-made signs and displays. We want to control our look. It’s the ‘Abt way’ to be in control of our own destiny.”
Low-key, yet supportive
It also is the Abt way to make sure that customers get all the help they need in the least obtrusive way possible. The department has five fulltime RSAs, three of whom always are on the floor. All have retail experience, and two have extensive experience selling mattresses.
All the RSAs are trained on the products we sell by the manufacturers,’ Imhof says, “(but) Abt has a unique way of dealing with customers and they’re trained on that, too.
“Our approach isn’t aggressive, but we make sure that we present a strong consultative presentation with a soft closing finish,” he adds. “We certainly ask for the sale, but we’re not overbearing. Ultimately, we want a customer to buy the most comfortable mattress (she) can afford. We’ll make a recommendation if the customer asks for one, but (in general) we let the manufacturers’ name recognition and our longstanding reputation speak for themselves.”
Abt Electronics carries 23 Simmons Beautyrest models, Tempur-Pedic’s full line and four models from Carpe Diem Beds of Sweden. Mattress price points open at $299 for a Beautyrest and top out at $30,000 for Carpe Diem’s Skafto model. The best-selling price point hovers around $2,000, but Imhof says that the store sells at least one Tempur-Pedic Grand and two Carpe Diem beds each month. He reports that he also is “contemplating adding another manufacturer to fill the gap in innerspring products selling between $3,000 and $10,000.”
Adjustable bases, pillows, sheets and the furniture used to merchandise bedding displays also are for sale. Pillows are arranged on mattresses, Imhof says, and bed linens “are shown in a beautiful, custom-built display case.”
The store also displays all its visco-elastic foam mattresses on adjustable bases. “We’re not going to let cost dictate how we display product,” he adds.
Abt Electronics sources pillows from Tempur-Pedic, Simmons and I Love My Pillow. Pillow prices range from $79 to $399, and customers are invited to try them all. Bed linens come from Tempur-Pedic, Dream Fit and Matouk, and range from $49 to $500 per set.
Currently, all furniture in the department is sourced from Wesley Allen, but that will soon change. “We’re looking to expand the brands we offer because we want to further enhance the look of the space,” Imhof says.
Accessories sell well at Abt. “Fifty percent of the time we sell a memory foam mattress, we also sell an adjustable base to go with it, and our attachment rate for other accessories is more than 50%,” Imhof says.
Satisfaction is job one
The store crafted its return policy with customer satisfaction in mind. “We let customers exchange or return mattresses and pillows with no restocking or redelivery fee,” Imhof explains. “We try to leave it at exchange, but we have taken mattresses back and we’re not going to sweat a few returned pillows. We’re the Nordstrom of our industry and any reasonable request from our customers, we take care of.”
Advertising and marketing programs have evolved over the time the bedding department has been up and running.
“Initially, we did a very soft launch and didn’t do a full-page bedding ad until five months in,” Jon Abt says. “People stumbled into the department and the news spread by word of mouth.”
The store now takes a more aggressive approach. Color ads in the Chicago Tribune spotlight sales and specials, while highway billboards communicate lifestyle and brand messages.
The department also is tied completely into the store’s comprehensive website and extensive social media networks. Launched in 1997, the Abt website is information rich and user friendly. It includes hundreds of how-to videos that walk customers through the use and care of the products they have purchased.
A video titled “How to Select a Mattress” explains the differences between foam and innerspring mattresses. It also addresses common concerns, such as why some mattresses cost more than others and how to check the quality of a mattress under consideration.
Although the privately held company does not divulge sales numbers, store management clearly is pleased with the department’s first-year results. “We were told by manufacturers what we might expect, but they really didn’t understand how much traffic we get through this store,” Imhof says.
“Bedding sales in the first year exceeded our guess by 30% to 40%,” Jon Abt adds. “In the future, we want them to echo the steady (10% annual) overall growth of the store.”
Adhering to the Abt way of doing business, Imhof suggests, makes reaching that goal entirely realistic. “We just take each day as it comes, try to have fun and continue the tradition of providing good service to each of our customers every day,” he explains.
The Abt Way
Abt Electronics has its own way of doing things. They call it “The Abt way,” and every one of the company’s 1,200 employees, from the chief executive officer to the stock boy, can tell you, without hesitation, exactly what that is.
At its core, The Abt way is customer-centric. Everything that the retailer does flows from the firmly held conviction that customer satisfaction has been the cornerstone of past performance and is the best predictor of future success.
“Abt has a way of doing things that always puts customer experience first. Everything we do, we do as first rate as possible,” says Geoff Imhof, who is the Glenview, Ill., store’s general manager and bedding department manager.
Given the size of the store—100,000 square feet—and the breadth of its product range—tens of thousands of products in scores of categories—creating a consistently first-rate customer experience would seem like a daunting task. But to assume that would be to miss the point.
Abt Electronics manages this complexity by rooting everything in customer service. Jon Abt, co-president of the company with his brothers Mike, Billy and Ricky Abt, says that the store is staffed with “hundreds of experts,” not sales associates—all of whom receive ongoing training so that they can “guide customers toward the products that best meet their needs.
“We stock product, because no one wants to wait for anything, and install and service everything we sell,” he adds. “And we don’t disappear after the sale. We have hundreds of people on staff for repairs or fix any problem a customer has. We also give free in-store (computer and electronics) classes. Our game plan is to make sure that everyone is thrilled with us and with what they’ve purchased.”
Complete customer satisfaction is the retailer’s No. 1 goal, “and that’s why 90% of our business is from repeat customers or referrals,” he continues.
Customer satisfaction also comes from how much fun it is to shop at Abt Electronics. The huge store is uncluttered, filled with light and spotlessly clean. Its atrium features a fountain whose jets are choreographed to classical music, and the camera department features a 7,500-gallon saltwater aquarium that can be used to demonstrate the image quality of equipment under consideration.
On weekends, the smell of baking cookies wafts through the store, and shoppers have only to follow their noses to the kitchen appliance department to grab a snack. Heartier fare can be found at Jolane’s Restaurant & Bar, an onsite facility owned and operated by Abt.
Abt’s tag line, “Pleasing people since 1936,” suggests how deeply rooted this commitment to customer satisfaction really is. “At heart, we’re a family-owned business with a mom-and-pop mentality that just happens to do a very large amount of business in every category we sell,” Imhof explains.