Retail veteran builds his business around honesty, integrity and a promise of “no-fear mattress shopping”
To sell mattresses to his customers in Connecticut and surrounding states, retail veteran Tom Wholley first sells himself. And that is the easiest sale of his day.
Wholley, the founder and owner of Connecticut Mattress by Tom Wholley, has been a mattress retailer for almost half a century, knows mattresses inside and out, and is passionate about selling better sleep.
Over the years he’s sold tens and tens of thousands of mattresses to satisfied customers, and he admits he still gets a thrill when he works with a customer to find that just-right bed.
“For me, it’s not really about selling a set of bedding,” he says. “There is no better feeling in the world than helping someone find the right mattress, the mattress that will provide years of healthful, energizing sleep. To me, there is nothing more personally rewarding than providing a customer with a great night’s sleep.”
His customers like the experience, too, rewarding him with repeat business and referrals.
Not even the Covid-19 pandemic could break Wholley’s bond with his customers.
When the state closed retail businesses for 60 days starting March 20, 2020, Wholley posted his cell phone number on the company’s website, immediately began scheduling in-store appointments, and talked to customers about the safety measures that would make them feel safe mattress shopping. Hygiene was a priority, of course, so the company turned to Hygienic Mattress Testing Kits from Precision Textiles and began giving customers free pillows for comfort tests in the stores.
The testing kits provided thin, one-use sheets, placed over the mattress and the fresh, clean, free pillow gave them peace of mind as they lay down on the mattresses. They could take the pillows with them whether they bought a mattress or not — a touch that the shoppers appreciated.
After his stores reopened, business slowly ramped up, but then it took off and has been strong ever since.
How strong? Connecticut Mattress boosted its average ticket from $1,600 a year ago to $2,100 today, selling its customers a variety of mattresses, adjustable bed bases and sleep accessories, all important elements in a great night’s sleep, Wholley says. He calls that increase a “Covid bump,” one resulting from consumers’ increasing focus on the home as the pandemic made its impact felt.
Those sanitation protocols remain in place at Connecticut Mattress, and the free pillows continue to be a hit with shoppers.
A family affair
For more than a decade Tom Wholley has provided customer-focused service like that from his base in South Windsor, Connecticut, located in an upscale shopping plaza. His neighbors there include L.L. Bean and Omaha Steaks. That’s appropriate, because he’s all about selling the steak — the key benefits that a quality mattress provides. He leaves the sizzle to other retailers.
The company’s tagline, featured on the wall in his stores, is “integrity and value.”
Wholley is so intertwined with his mattress business that he’s included his name in the company name.
These days another Wholley plays a growing role in the business. That is Kathy Wholley, Tom’s wife and vice president of the company. For the past two years she’s joined Tom in TV commercials and ads, building a connection with the female shoppers who often play a key role in the mattress shopping process.
“Everybody loves Kathy,” Tom says. “Sales have been through the roof since Kathy’s been on the air.”
Adds Kathy: “I’ve watched Tom on TV for so long. I try to be as comfortable as possible. I’m happy to do this. We’ve worked together in this business our whole lives. It makes people feel like we are a team to see us both on the screen.”
Connecticut Mattress is a thriving three-store operation in the greater Hartford market, where the Wholleys have lived for decades.
Wholley says he’s thought about adding stores over the years, and he knows firsthand about running a big chain, but he takes pleasure in serving his local market with high-quality products and service in a business that’s not too big for him to wrap his arms around.
The personal touch
Wholley is playing the long game, one focused on customer satisfaction. It’s a lesson he first learned from his father, John Wholley Sr., who founded Better Bedding in East Hartford, Connecticut, in 1976. Joined by Tom and his brother, John Wholley Jr., the Wholleys built that retailer into a regional powerhouse, one with almost two dozen stores in Connecticut. The Wholley family gave honest, straightforward advice to its customers, earning a reputation for integrity.
While some see mattress salespeople as no better than used-car salespeople, the Wholleys built personal connections with their customers and won their respect for the honest way they conducted business.
The Wholley brothers soon became the face of the business, an advantage that set them apart from more impersonal retailers — “corporate mattress retailers,” Tom Wholley calls them.
For years, Better Bedding thrived by emphasizing, as its name indicates, better bedding. But then a family tragedy hit the business: John Wholley Jr. developed brain cancer. The disease struck at a time when Better Bedding faced an onslaught of competition, and Tom Wholley found himself facing those challenges largely without his brother’s support and savvy business insights.
Those hammer blows took the business down. Better Bedding closed in 2009. John Wholley Jr. died two years later.
Wholley wasn’t sure what he should do next, and it took him some time to chart a path forward.
“So, what can a person with an inordinate amount of knowledge and experience in selling mattresses really do? The logical conclusion,” he says, “was to go back to do what I do best. Fortunately, it’s also what I love to do. It’s my passion.”
A fresh start
Connecticut Mattress By Tom Wholley was born in 2011, and from the start, Tom Wholley knew he had to play a central role in the business. He decided to double down on the personal touch that he and his brother provided to their customers at Better Bedding. That’s why he incorporated his name into the company’s moniker. There are many mattress stores in the New England market, he says, but there are only three that carry his name.
That personal emphasis is not surprising for a man who has spent decades selling mattress brands. He knows firsthand the power of bedding brands, and his retail brand is one that built market equity with each bed he sold and each satisfied customer he created.
Wholley admits he’s a mattress aficionado.
“I guess you can call me a mattress ‘know it all,’ ” he acknowledges. “I know the ins and outs of every major brand like Beautyrest, iComfort, Sealy, Serta, Simmons, Tempur-Pedic, Sleep Number, King Koil and Stearns & Foster. I understand the differences between all the latest technology in the industry including memory foam and others.”
The brand lineup at Connecticut Mattress includes Beautyrest Black, Beautyrest Harmony Lux, iComfort, King Koil, Serta and Tempur-Pedic.
FRONT AND CENTER This Beautyrest Black model greets shoppers as they enter theConnecticut Mattress store in South Windsor.
Connecting with customers
On the sales floor, Wholley emphasizes a collaborative approach, one based on a dialogue with his customers.
“If you have a question,” he says on his company’s website (CTMattress.com), “I will have the answer, or I will know where to find it. I invite you to give me a call directly and ask me your questions, I’ll ask you some questions about your sleep habits, and together, we’ll make our decision. How can we do that? It’s confidence that comes from experience. I guarantee you will be satisfied.”
In addition to that personal guarantee of satisfaction, Connecticut Mattress offers a best-price guarantee, and “no-strings-attached returns.”
“If you’re concerned about prices, don’t be,” Wholley says on his website. “Connecticut Mattress offers superior products at dramatically reduced prices. We can do that because we understand the manufacturing and delivery processes and know how to get the best values.”
If customers visit one of his stores and happen to find a lower price anywhere else, Connecticut Mattress will beat that price, Wholley says.
He spells out the return policy in similarly succinct terms: “We offer a 120-day, 100% money-back guarantee. That’s it. If you’re not sleeping better, it won’t cost you one single penny to return your purchase. Pick out a different mattress, or if you can’t find one you like, you’ll get all your money back. We deliver it and pick it up, too. No extra or hidden charges. Really.”
Those policies are designed to provide “no-fear mattress shopping” to Connecticut Mattress customers, the company says.
Wholley says that strategy is built around his customer-centered sales approach, no-commission salespeople, and a “stress-free buying experience.”
TEAM PLAYERS The team is made up of retail veterans, starting with store owners Kathy and Tom Wholley (far left and far right) and including retail sales associates Walt Thompson (second from left) and Bill Derose.
He notes that each of his salespeople has worked with him for 18 years or more, a level of loyalty rare on home furnishings retail sales floors. They know from years of experience how to help customers find the mattresses that are best for them. They won’t hound customers while they shop, he promises. They are experts in sleep, he says. They exemplify the family values that Wholley has built into the business, and they embrace his “customers come first” culture.
Few mattress retailers can offer that level of experience to their customers, Wholley says. And few have woven that kind of culture throughout their company.
Tom Wholley’s lifetime of personal bedding service makes a big difference for Connecticut Mattress.
“When you’re in one industry for over 45 years,” he says, “you learn a lot about the people, products and services in that industry.” He puts those lessons to work every day for his staff and for his customers. That’s how the Wholley family does business.
Wholley’s Videos: A Library Of Education, Honesty
The mattress stores bear Tom Wholley’s name. His picture is featured on the placards inside. And he’s all over the company’s website in 18 different videos, talking about everything from upcoming sales to the finer points of his mattresses and accessories.
But don’t get the wrong idea. This is a business built on education and a promise of quality service and quality products — not ego. Customers come first at Connecticut Mattress. Wholley’s history in the mattress business, which spans almost five decades in the Connecticut market, attests to his commitment to customers. And that history drives his stores forward, generating more satisfied customers each year.
Wholley brings a likable persona to the business. He emphasizes what his products can do for his customers, and what his company can do to help them, too.
Increasingly Wholley is joined in TV commercials by his wife, Kathy. The two play comfortably off one another, each adding straightforward messages, delivered in calm, dignified tones. Don’t look for any shouting or fireworks, or any flashy graphics. The Wholleys look into the camera and talk from their years of experience.
On the company’s website, Wholley offers his thoughts on all aspects of the company’s business.
These are some of his messages:
O On why Connecticut Mattress stands out: “So, what’s the difference between large corporate mattress retailers and Connecticut Mattress? It’s personalized service. Our salespeople have been with me no less than 18 years, and they really know their stuff. They’re focused on getting you the right mattress, not the mattress that makes them the most money, which is the situation in many, many retail operations.”
O On fears of mattress shopping: “My father, John Wholley Sr., started our family in the mattress business over 40 years ago, and I’ve been doing this all my life. You know, I’ve never met anybody that was excited about buying a new mattress, because there are fears. There are fears of buying the wrong mattress and getting stuck with it, there are fears about what to buy, and there are fears about pushy salespeople. We take all of those fears away with a perfect shopping experience,” he says in a video.
Wholley’s not afraid to admit to some product problems in the past, which builds credibility with his customers, he says.
For example, he praises Tempur-Pedic, which he carries in his stores, as “one of the best products on the market today,” and says he’s sold that memory foam line for more than 25 years. But then he says: “Tempur-Pedic was known for being a hot mattress, meaning that when you lay in bed, your heat kind of built up around you.”
But, he continues, Tempur-Pedic “fixed that, and they fixed it in a number of ways.” Then he describes the combination of cooling technologies built into Tempur-Pedic beds today, and calls them “the most conforming, supportive and durable products” on the market. “You’ll love it,” he says about the brand.
Customers love his honesty, and honesty is rewarded with good business at Connecticut Mattress.
How Tom Wholley Sells Mattresses
SWEET FINISH The delivery teams at Connecticut Mattress leave thank-you cards and a box of chocolates on the beds they deliver.
Tom Wholley is one of the most experienced mattress retailers in the industry, with almost five decades of experience on retail sales floors. Here’s how he sells beds:
O He gives customers a free pillow. A “clean, fresh pillow” is a nice way to start the mattress shopping experience in these Covid-19 times, Wholley says. Customers take that pillow with them while trying out various beds, and it’s theirs to take whether they purchase anything or not.
O He breaks the ice. “I kid with them,” says Wholley, a familiar face to many shoppers because of his years appearing in mattress ads. “I tell them I’m too cheap to hire an actor to appear in our commercials.” He and his wife, Kathy, appear in many commercials together.
O He asks a lot of questions. Good qualifying is a key to selling better beds, Wholley says. “It’s listening more than anything else. I listen for what ails my customers, and I look for sleep solutions to fix their problems.”
O He encourages shoppers to lie down on various mattresses. When consumers ask him to name the best mattress, he responds: “It’s the one that’s right for you. After you try some mattresses, I’ll tell you what I sleep on.” (Answer: A high-end Beautyrest Black model.)
O He starts with a high-end bed. His comfort tests start on a $3,999 Beautyrest Black model — one of the highest-priced beds on his sales floor. Mattress retailers do “sell up by selling down,” he acknowledges. “You can always come down in price. It’s hard to go up in price.” He presents that high-end model as “a very popular bed, incredibly comfortable, and with great pressure relief.” A growing number of consumers accept that price without objection, he adds. “They understand what a good mattress costs because they have done their homework.”
O He gives his customers options. If a customer balks at the price tag — and Wholley likes to give them the cost after first saying, “You are lying down, so I’ll give you the price” — he has a quick response. “That’s one option,” he says. Then Wholley shows them other options. He doesn’t push a bed that a customer doesn’t like or can’t afford.
O He builds sleep accessories into the sale. He looks for opportunities to introduce adjustable bed bases, mattress covers and specialty pillows, keys to adding comfort for his customers, and to building his sales tickets.
O He says thank you — with chocolates. The delivery teams at Connecticut Mattress place thank-you cards on the mattresses in customers’ homes. And they include a box of Munson’s Chocolates, a premium chocolate maker founded in nearby Manchester, Connecticut, in 1946. Those treats leave consumers with a sweet taste.