With an all-specialty lineup, an Oklahoma bedding retailer testifies about the saving graces of memory foam, latex and gel
BY GARY JAMES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRETT NCNEILL
Joe Maple, owner of All About Backs in Ardmore, Okla., is a specialty bedding evangelist. His belief in the merits of alternative sleep surfaces runs deep, with roots connected to his experience as a weight-challenged person of 300 pounds suffering from chronic back pain.
“I am passionate about the health benefits of alternative bedding, particularly memory foam,” he says. “I’ve seen for myself what a difference a quality specialty bed can make in reducing joint problems and other difficulties that get in the way of a good night’s sleep. I didn’t think foam could hold up a big guy like me. I considered it a gimmick, but then I saw what it could do.”
Today, somewhat older and much lighter, Maple says his goal at All About Backs is to help customers find the best solution for their particular sleep needs. While the store carried innerspring models at one time, it now focuses solely on a comprehensive lineup of specialty sleep surfaces—memory foam, latex and gel.
All About Backs shows the entire Tempur-Pedic line, from the Simplicity collection to The GrandBed. In addition, the retailer carries a selection of beds from Pure LatexBLISS, as well as the Sealy Optimum line. Adjustable foundations from Tempur-Pedic and Leggett & Platt also are an important category. All 30 beds shown on the floor work with an adjustable base, and the retailer’s attachment rate runs about 50%.
Retail price points for mattresses start at $1,299 and extend to $13,000 for top-of-the-line models with power bases. The store’s core business falls in the $3,000 to $5,000 range.
“Our price point range has risen steadily ever since we committed to an all-specialty lineup about four years ago,” Maple says, adding that he decided to phase out his innerspring offerings because of ongoing challenges with product quality.
“We were having warranty issues relating to breakdowns,” he says. The store’s rate on returns sometimes reached as high as 15%, versus less than 1% for its memory foam models. “We were spending too much time fixing problems, and it was hurting our reputation. In a relatively small community like ours, having a good reputation is critical.”
Still, making the switch to an all-specialty lineup wasn’t without challenges. “It was very difficult in the beginning,” Maple says. “We missed some deals when customers would walk in expecting to find a $499 queen bed, and we couldn’t show them anything in that range. But we stayed the course and, today, consumers throughout our area recognize us as the place to go for quality specialty bedding.”
From cars to bedding
A former car dealer, Maple and his wife, Kathy, a longtime schoolteacher, opened their first bedding store in Sherman, Texas, in 2005. “My best friend, Darrell Stowe, was the founder of the Mattress King chain in Arkansas,” Joe Maple says. “I had dabbled in furniture with a small store on my car lot, and later, when I was a general manager for another dealer, Darrell inspired me to try bedding when that business was sold.”
The Maples operated their store in Texas—offering Tempur-Pedic and a range of innerspring lines—for two years. Then, in 2007, seeing a lack of specialty sleep stores in the Ardmore, Okla., market, the Maples moved their store and started anew.
A city of about 35,000, Ardmore is located in south-central Oklahoma, about 100 miles equidistant from Oklahoma City and Dallas. The city sits on the edge of the major Healdton Basin oil field, and it’s also home to the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, one of the nation’s 50 largest private foundations. The foundation supports a long list of local philanthropic and cultural initiatives, helping to make Ardmore a desirable place to live, as well as a popular tourist destination.
“We are very blessed in this area,” says Maple, who grew up in Antlers, Okla., a couple of hours east of Ardmore, as did his wife. “There’s a good deal of oil and gas wealth in the community, and the Noble Foundation attracts leading cancer researchers and other scientists from around the world. Even during the recession, our economy proved to be very resilient.”
While All About Backs struggled during the downturn, business began to pick up recently and Maple expects good growth this year and in 2014. “There were days when I questioned our decision not to sell $299 to $599 mattresses, but we got through that period and our commitment to better-end specialty sleep is paying off now.”
Finding the right spot
When it first moved to Ardmore, All About Backs spent three years struggling to draw consumers to a low-profile location before moving to its current 3,200-square-foot store in the city’s newest shopping center in 2011.
“Moving to this new site made a big difference in our business,” Maple says. “It’s a highly visible location near Interstate 35 with steady traffic and activity. Since we’re the only specialty bedding store in the area, and we have a deeper selection than other stores in bigger markets, shoppers come from miles around to see us.”
To build awareness, All About Backs runs ads in the local newspaper, The Daily Ardmoreite, and on local TV. The store also reaches out to prospective customers with its website, produced with the help of Mega Group USA, a leading buying group that offers Web-related services as part of membership.
With its ads and online messaging, All About Backs stays away from price promotions, Maple says, since pricing on its lines generally is determined by manufacturers. Instead, the store highlights its deep assortment of specialty sleep products and friendly, personal service.
“When you come in our store, 99 times out of 100, you’re being served by either my wife or me,” Maple says, who also gets occasional help from his daughter and another part-time employee. Maple and his wife take a hands-on approach to every aspect of the business except delivery, which they contract out to a group of local schoolteachers.
“We have four very dependable guys who do all our deliveries in the afternoons and on weekends,” he says. “We own the trucks, but they take care of set-up and delivery.”
Simple and honest
When customers come into the store, the Maples greet them and ask a few opening questions about what they are looking for. “For starters,” he says, “we find out whether they have any back, hip or knee issues, and any other big factors that might influence their sleep.”
Based on that information, Joe or Kathy recommends an initial mix of three or four beds to try, including at least one memory foam and latex model, as they begin the process of identifying which models best suit the consumers’ needs. “We don’t push a particular brand at the start,” Maple says. “We want them to see a variety of surfaces, then help them determine what works best for them.”
The All About Backs team takes a very low-pressure approach to sales. “Our biggest credo is based on the Golden Rule—to treat people like we would want to be treated,” says Maple, a devout Christian whose father was an ordained minister as well as a car dealer. “We believe in these products and we sleep on them ourselves. Our main job is to clearly explain the key features and benefits so customers can make an informed decision.”
With everything it sells, All About Backs emphasizes wellness, Maple adds. “While our beds don’t cure anything, they do have tangible health benefits. By relieving pressure on the lower back, hips, neck and shoulders, and eliminating bedbugs and dust mites, our specialty products create a better environment for sleep—and that makes people feel better throughout the day.”
Because pillows are such an integral part of the sleep experience, Maple makes a point to include them as part of any mattress discussion. The company’s accessory assortment includes a range of pillows from Fabrictech, Tempur-Pedic and Pure LatexBLISS, as well as Fabrictech mattress protectors and encasements, sheet sets and fabric headboards from Bassett.
Having a strong assortment of sleep accessories gives customers a reason to return to the store between mattress purchases, Maple says. “It builds loyalty and keeps us top ofmind for anything relating to bedding.”
Also helping draw traffic is the one nonbedding category that All About Backs carries—the Human Touch line. The store sells a variety of the company’s massage recliners, including the Perfect Chair Zero-Gravity, AcuTouch, ThermoStretch and iJoy models.
“Human Touch makes a perfect complement to our bedding presentation because of the health benefits. Like a quality set of bedding, these recliners take pressure off the lower back, and the massage elements aid circulation in the feet and ankles.”
Making customers comfortable
All About Backs’ emphasis on comfort and wellness is evident throughout the store, which is designed with a “cozy professionalism,” Maple says. On one side is the complete Tempur-Pedic line, supported by colorful banners and posters detailing product features and benefits. Grouped together on the other side are Pure LatexBLISS and Sealy models, along with displays devoted to pillows, protectors and fabric headboards.
“We offer an upbeat, comfortable environment that encourages customers to take as much time as they need to test our various sleep surfaces,” Maple says. “We want to put people at ease and create an atmosphere of trust. Since our selection is so extensive, they have a chance to learn about a range of specialty sleep surfaces all in one visit.”
Moonlighting as a rep
Operating a retail store isn’t the only work challenge that Joe Maple, owner of All About Backs in Ardmore, Okla., faces. Along with all the responsibilities that come with that job, Maple also serves as a sales representative for two of his stores’ lines—PureCare by Fabrictech pillows, mattress protectors and encasements; and Pure LatexBLISS Talalay latex mattresses, toppers and pillows. His territory includes Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas.
“I love these products, and I love to travel,” Maple says. “As a bedding retailer myself, I have unique insights to share about these products when I’m on the road meeting with customers. Since my travels give me the chance to see a number of stores, I’m also always picking up new ideas for our business.”
Maple is usually on the road a few days every week, and during that time his wife, Kathy, manages the store. “We both have a deep understanding of every aspect of our business,” he says. “Since our store is small, we’re able to keep things running very smoothly.”
Being both a retailer and a rep, Maple makes a point of attending as many markets as he can. He always attends the Las Vegas Market and Mega Group shows, and now that he reps two lines—he added Pure LatexBLISS this summer—he probably will attend the High Point and Tupelo markets, as well.
“Markets are great opportunities to learn,” he says. “We’re constantly looking for new products and new ways of serving our customers.”