Sleep Savvy examines best practices that have helped successful retailers thrive in the good times and survive in the tough times

These are some of the most challenging times mattress retailers have ever faced. And it’s not like things had been so easy before this.

Retailers that still were adjusting to consumers’ changing shopping habits, the rise of omnichannel retailing and consolidations among sleep products vendors now face the worst pandemic in more than a century.

joplimo mattress team in the store
Della and Brian Croft (from left), owners of Joplimo Mattress, closed their stores temporarily in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this photo from 2019, they were joined by Kari McKenzie (background from left), Rodney Mobley and Tyler Henningson.

U.S. retail sales fell 8.7% in March, the biggest monthly decline since the U.S. Census Bureau started tracking the information in 1992, according to an April 15 CNN report. Sales at furniture and home furnishings stores dropped a staggering 26.8%.

But you already knew things were tough. If you operate in many parts of the country, your brick-and-mortar stores may be closed under government order and your e-commerce business may be sluggish, with many consumers suddenly unemployed and others uneasy about what lies ahead. Your vendors may have been ordered to close, too, leaving you without new products.

Worse, you or your loved ones may have been sickened by the coronavirus. You might have lost friends or family to COVID-19.

It’s a lot. 

But mattress retailers are as resilient as a premium foam.

We know our Sleep Savvy readers have been thinking about how to operate in ways that will better serve customers in the months ahead as the country’s economy begins to reopen. We’re certain those changes will include an emphasis on sanitation and hygiene, both in-store and in delivery practices.

Here we’re revisiting retailers featured as Retail Road Trips in the past year or so, looking at strategies they’ve used to grow and sustain their businesses through all sorts of difficulties. We can learn from one another: #WeCanLearnFromEachOther.

Get back to basics

Why do people buy a new mattress? Because they want to sleep better — more comfortably and more soundly. And why do they want to sleep better? Because they want to be refreshed and energized for the day ahead. 

Della Croft, vice president of Joplimo Mattress, based in Joplimo, Missouri, told Sleep Savvy in the November/December 2019 issue that a key part of Joplimo Mattress’ mission is to “help others live life to the fullest.” “Yes, it’s about sleep and the mattress,” she says, “but it’s also about helping people wake up ready to enjoy life.” She and her husband, Brian Croft, operate the Joplimo Mattress sleep chain, with stores in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri, as well as Croft Bedding Co., the bedding manufacturing arm of the enterprise.

Riley’s Furniture & Mattress, an independent retailer in Monroe, Ohio, follows a similar philosophy when helping customers in its expansive mattress department.

Riley’s Furniture & Mattress keeps its focus on family — the families of its employees and the families of its customers. Chief Executive Officer Shannon Bannerman (left) is shown here with the late Riley Griffiths, her father and store founder.

“Our goal is to improve a customer’s quality of life. Chairs and entertainment centers can do that to a certain extent, but the right mattress and base can help you sleep better. People gain so much from the proper support of a mattress and the sound sleep it gives them,” said Frank Leslie, lead sleep specialist and mattress buyer for the retailer. Riley’s was profiled in the July/August 2019 issue.

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day minutia of running your operation and helping customers and to forget that a comfortable, supportive sleep ensemble can dramatically improve people’s health and well-being.

Since its founding nearly two decades ago, the Mattress Direct chain of sleep shops has envisioned its staff not just as mattress sellers but as sleep experts.

“It’s more important for us to find out what problems you’re trying to solve than to just get you to buy a mattress,” says Ty Hingle, co-owner along with founder Lee Burns. “We like to say, ‘You can buy a mattress anywhere, but if you want to sleep better, come to Mattress Direct.’ Are you rolling over into a dip in the middle of your mattress? Is your partner’s snoring waking you up? Do you have back, neck or shoulder pain? Not every mattress is made for every person. We want to know the ultimate problem you’re trying to solve so we can help you address those issues with the right mattress.” Mattress Direct, with headquarters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has about two dozen stores in Louisiana and Mississippi and was featured in Sleep Savvy’s March 2019 issue.

And as the pandemic reminds us, our health is precious. “Not getting enough sleep is linked with many chronic diseases and conditions — such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression — that threaten our nation’s health. Not getting enough sleep can lead to motor vehicle crashes and mistakes at work, which cause a lot of injury and disability each year,” the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website. “Getting enough sleep is not a luxury — it is something people need for good health.”

Focus on your community

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread this spring and governments issued stay-at-home orders, communities across the country began to come together, whether that meant sewing masks for health care workers, picking up groceries for an elderly neighbor or contributing to fundraisers for local charities and vulnerable residents. Consumers like to support locally owned businesses and may feel more compelled to do so when their community is in crisis. 

Many of the retailers Sleep Savvy profiles have deep ties to their communities, with long histories of donating time, money and products
to local nonprofits.

When the Crofts founded Joplimo Mattress, they intended to make charitable giving part of their mission, a decision sadly influenced by a family tragedy. Brian Croft’s brother, Jeffrey Croft, who struggled with bipolar disorder, died by suicide as a teenager. “My brother passed away because there was no bed available at any facility that could help him,” Brian Croft said. “I thought that one day, if I were successful, I wanted to make an impact by helping organizations that help others.” The retailer now regularly donates to local organizations that specialize in mental health and well-being.

BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, an independent retailer in Greenfield, Wisconsin that was featured in the January/February 2020 issue, also has a long history of charitable giving and reminds customers that shopping at the store is a Milwaukee-area tradition. The store features a wall near its lounge area covered in old photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia, and a hallway in another part of the store displays framed letters of thanks, shirts signed by Milwaukee Bucks players and other testimonials from happy customers.

Don’t be shy about touting your charitable efforts and ties to the community. In your marketing efforts, remind consumers that if they buy from you, more of their money stays in their community. BILTRITE uses the #BuyLocal hashtag in its social media marketing, and when Joplimo Mattress opens a new store, it partners with the local chamber of commerce to reinforce the connection in consumers’ minds that the retailer supports the communities in which it operates.

On March 20, Joplimo Mattress suspended its in-store retail business in the face of the pandemic. In a letter explaining the decision posted on the retailer’s website, Brian Croft emphasizes the idea that #WeAreAllInThisTogether and encouraged consumers to purchase mattresses, sheets and pillows online, explaining that “100% of the proceeds from any purchases during this time will go directly to our staff to help them support their families.”

Be yourself

The mattress industry is sometimes referred to as a “me too” industry, not after the movement to stop sexual harassment and violence, but because of a follow-the-leader mentality that has manufacturers and retailers often doing whatever their competitors are doing. 

30 years strong Kevin and Kristin Matthews’ marriage has grown along with their Matthews Mattress chain of sleep shops. The couple wed in 1990 and opened their first location in Vacaville, California, in 1991.
Kevin and Kristin Matthews’ sleep shop chain Matthews Mattress survived the Great Recession by building good relationships with employees and landlords long before the downturn hit.

Sleep Savvy loves to see retailers shun industry trends that don’t serve their customers’ needs or fit with their own business philosophy. During difficult times, consumers don’t have patience for hype or spin. They crave authenticity.

For instance, as family-owned sleep shop chain Matthews Mattress has grown its business, it has done so by opening new locations in smaller towns and suburbs around Sacramento, California, rather than in the core of the metro area. Originally, the retailer’s goal was to avoid directly competing with then-market leader Sleep Train by being “wherever Sleep Train wasn’t,” owner Kevin Matthews told Sleep Savvy in the May/June 2019 issue. “I was fine being No. 2. I knew I couldn’t knock them off,” he said, “so I played in their wake.” 

BILTRITE has distinguished itself in the Milwaukee area by offering shoppers products they can’t find most other places, including an extensive line of Amish-made home furnishings, small-scale furniture, and heavy-duty mattresses, sofas, dining chairs, recliners and lift chairs. 

Carrying the exact same brands as everyone else doesn’t serve customers well. When Mattress Direct couldn’t find a mattress already on the market that met the needs of customers with certain aches and  pains, the retailer created a mattress line, now called Dr. Greene’s Ideal Mattress, with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Craig Greene. 

Plan for the next crisis

The United States enjoyed a remarkably long period of economic growth before the pandemic hit, but everyone knew something would eventually make the boom times go bust. Something always does. It can be hard in the middle of a crisis to plan far ahead, but decisions you make now could help you survive not only this downturn, but the next one.

Case in point: Matthews Mattress picks store locations based not only on geography but on their leases. The retailer’s strategy of operating in areas with lower rents — and developing good relationships with landlords — helped it weather the last economic downturn when it began in 2008. 

“Leases are the No. 1 detriment to a company when you don’t have deep pockets or aren’t the No. 1 mattress retailer in your area. I’d love to have the A+ locations, but those come with $27,000 a month rent. I can afford that when times are good, but when you’re my size, you have to be prepared for when times are bad,” Matthews told Sleep Savvy. During the Great Recession, many of the retailer’s landlords reduced his rents as much as 35% and allowed the company to survive.

As a store owner, Matthews also has worked to build good relationships with his employees, earning their loyalty in return. “I don’t have high turnover,” he said. “I try to create a good atmosphere. I go to their weddings and am always here to support them, so everyone feels like part of the family.” During the Great Recession, he was honest with his team, explaining that he needed to lay off staff or cut everyone’s hours. “I let them vote and they voted for four days a week,” he said, “and then we worked to help them find side jobs to keep everyone going.”

Don’t quit

Retailers we’ve profiled have survived horrific natural disasters, the Great Recession and other setbacks. In the face of these challenges, they’ve gotten creative, finding new ways of operating, relying on solid relationships — and succeeding in the long run. 

Lee Burns and Ty Hingle at mattress store mattress direct
Ty Hingle (left) and Lee Burns, co-owners of Mattress Direct, were faced with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina just as they were expanding their business into more Gulf Coast cities. The retailer now has about two dozen stores in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“I don’t ever give up,” Matthews told Sleep Savvy. “I always make things work, sometimes by doing it myself or by getting my team to wade in and pull together so we all succeed.” 

About a year after the Crofts opened their first store in Joplin, an EF-5 tornado swept through the city, just as the couple was getting ready to open a second store in Springfield, Missouri. In the year that it took to rebuild and reopen the Joplin store, the retailer’s manufacturing partner at the time extended generous payment terms that allowed the Crofts to get the Springfield store up, running and generating much-needed income. Without that kindness, the chain might have folded, the Crofts said.

Tragedy also has struck Mattress Direct, which had eight stores and was looking to open more along the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The storm slowed, but didn’t stop, the retailer’s growth.

“One thing great about our size is that we’re strong but agile,” Hingle said. “We’re large enough to make investments in our company, but small enough to make quick adjustments.”

Riley’s founder, the late Riley Griffiths, imbued his store — and his staff — with an ability to take risks. “We’re all about trying new things,” marketing director Kyle Baker said. “Riley (was) never afraid to experiment and gained a reputation in the industry for being a bit of a ‘mad scientist.’ He always (said), ‘If it doesn’t work, we’ll learn from it.’ To survive in this industry, that’s critical.”

Close the Store (Not Permanently, Just More Often)

We don’t want mattress retailers to permanently shutter their doors, but limiting your hours can actually grow your business. 

After the pandemic, more retailers may follow the lead of BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses and close on Sundays.

Riley’s Furniture & Mattress, an independent retailer in Monroe, Ohio, learned that way back in 1988 when founder and President (the late) Riley Griffiths started closing the store on Sundays to give employees more time with their families. 

“When Riley implemented the policy, he looked at the numbers and knew it might be crazy, but it was the right thing to do for our employees and our families,” said Kyle Baker, Riley’s marketing director, in the July/August 2019 issue of Sleep Savvy. “Our customers understand and have adapted.”

In 2016, BILTRITE came to the same conclusion as Riley’s and began closing its doors most Sundays (remaining open only on big holiday weekends). The store touts the policy with permanent signage on its building and on its website with this message: “BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattress is important to every member of our family, but we are a family-owned business and family comes first.”

After adopting the six-day-a-week schedule, the store saw overall sales rise. “We got overwhelming, over-the-top support. And we still get phone calls and handwritten letters from customers telling us how wonderful it is that we’re closed. People love it. They appreciate that we value family,” Randi Komisar Schachter, one of the fourth-generation family members running the business, told Sleep Savvy in the January/February 2020 issue.

As the economy begins to reopen, retailers may find that consumers already have gotten accustomed to condensed store hours. The pandemic has forced many retailers to concentrate on their most profitable periods — and to close early to allow extra time for cleaning and sanitizing stores. And shoppers certainly will appreciate messages that highlight the importance of family.

Time to Reconsider Comfort Exchanges?

BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, a family-run retailer, doesn’t offer comfort returns.
BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, a family-run retailer, doesn’t offer comfort returns.

E-commerce players asking consumers to buy a mattress without rest-testing helped extend typical return and exchange periods to 100 days or more, but the pandemic may change how consumers feel about sleeping on returned product, which can end up resold as floor models or in a clearance center. 

BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, an independent retailer in Greenfield, Wisconsin, is among the retailers that didn’t offer comfort exchanges before the pandemic.

“We guarantee that everything you buy from us is ‘factory fresh.’ For sanitary and health reasons, we want everyone to sleep on a new mattress, so we work hard to help people make a good choice the first time,” Randi Komisar Schachter, one of the fourth-generation family members running the business, told Sleep Savvy in the January/February 2020 issue.

If you plan to continue offering returns or exchanges, now is a good time to rethink what happens to that returned product and how you can best protect the health and safety of your customers.

How Are You Innovating?

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have long-lasting effects on virtually every aspect of life, including how people shop. What changes are you making to your retail operation to best serve customers in coming months? Let us know. Contact Mary Best, Sleep Savvy editor in chief, at mbest@sleepproducts.org.

Julie Palm

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 japalm623@gmail.com.