The factory-direct keeps the good old days of mattress making and personalized selling alive in the Quad Cities area
By David Perry
Photography by Todd Mizener/Quad-City Times
L&W Bedding, with its factory that time forgot, could be in the running for the title of the nation’s smallest retailer. And it’s doing just fine, thank you. Some newer ways of producing and selling mattresses are overrated, according to this factory-direct operation.
A few qualifications are necessary as we relate the story of L&W Bedding, which has a 33-year history of serving customers as a manufacturer-retailer in the Midwest.
John Wheatley, the company’s founder, doesn’t know for certain but he thinks he just might be the nation’s smallest mattress retailer. True, he does have two stores, which puts him ahead of the single-store owners out there, but his stores are open by appointment only Monday through Friday, and for just four hours — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — on Saturdays. And Wheatley has a lean operation, with just three full-time employees, including himself. The trio makes the beds, and sells them, too.
If L&W Bedding isn’t the smallest mattress retailer in the nation, Wheatley allows, it’s certainly one of the smallest. He also asserts he’s the best mattress retailer in his area — the Quad Cities corner of Iowa and Illinois, where he has a factory and showroom in Moline, Illinois, and a store in Bettendorf, Iowa.
The L&W way
The way L&W Bedding builds mattresses, Wheatley proudly acknowledges, is rooted in the 1970s and 1980s, when most mattresses still were made with two functional sides. Back then, typical box-spring foundations really were full of springs, and they worked with innerspring mattresses as shock absorbers to provide long-lasting comfort and support for sleepers.
Those were the good old days of the mattress business, Wheatley says, when he learned how to make mattresses, and those are the good modern days at L&W Bedding today.
“We haven’t changed the way we’ve done business in more than 30 years,” Wheatley says. “The quality of and education about our product is the same as it was when we started the business. We do things the old-fashioned way and that resonates with our customers.”
“Our strategy,” he continues, “has been to provide education on the craftsmanship and what’s going inside the mattresses.”
But don’t think that Wheatley disdains other advancements in the industry. Far from it.
“We have adapted a digital marketing strategy to reach a targeted audience in-market for mattresses and we focus our messaging around key benefits for the customer,” he says. “Also, I recently had our website (LWBeddingqca.com) redeveloped to be more user friendly and easy to navigate.”
The internet plays a key role in educating L&W Bedding’s customers about mattresses. “We receive inquiries and many consumers are doing their homework online before calling us for an appointment,” Wheatley says. “I think having a strong brand presence and longevity in the market with a good reputation has helped our business be successful. Additionally, I do tap into our existing customer base for testimonials and referrals to their friends and colleagues. I actually designed a Chiro’s Choice product, which has been tested by a few chiropractor buddies of mine, and we’ve leveraged those relationships with messaging.”
When it comes to mattress designs, the customer is king at L&W Bedding, which offers customized designs for humans and also their four-legged friends. “We’re able to build any mattress to specs or whatever the customer needs,” Wheatley says. “We do RV, boat, pet, youth or any custom-size order. Basically, if you can sleep on it, we can build it.”
While most of the beds made by L&W Bedding are for the residential consumer market, the company does have a few contract and wholesale accounts, including the Salvation Army, and offers wholesale pricing for those larger orders.
Two-sided mattresses are tops
What’s selling at L&W Bedding these days?
“Our two-sided, flippable pillow-top mattresses represent 85% of our mattress sales today,” Wheatley says. “The price points range from $699 to $3,000. Also, half of our pillow-tops are sold with foundations and the other half with coiled box springs. The coiled box springs provide extra longevity with the mattress.”
Those coiled box springs, a staple of bed designs decades ago when two-sided mattresses were the norm, are a point of particular pride for Wheatley. “I’m probably the only person in the Midwest who still sells box springs,” he says. “You could drive from here to Chicago, here to St. Louis, here to Kansas City, and not find a traditional box spring.”
Wheatley says his company’s traditional box springs are designed to work in tandem with its mattresses to provide comfort and support. A rigid foundation that doesn’t offer any give to the mattress will cause the mattress to wear out more quickly, and single-sided mattresses don’t have the springiness and resilience of two-sided models, he says. That combination of factors leads single-sided mattresses to break down faster and that leads to more mattress sales, which, Wheatley contends, is why many mattress producers no longer use those traditional box springs with two-sided mattresses.
In contrast, Wheatley says, he would rather sell fewer but better beds. “Why are we trying to make beds last for a long time?” he asks. “Because we can still do it. If other manufacturers wanted to, they could make a bed that would last for a long time without a problem, but they don’t do that because they want to make more money that way, so that instead of buying two or three beds in a lifetime, you’re going to buy possibly six or seven more. Our beds are designed to last and keep their shape for a long time. They not only outdistance the competition on quality, but they also beat the competition on price and customer service.”
L&W Bedding is able to offer excellent customer service, Wheatley says, because “we are a local mom-and-pop shop so we deal directly with any potential problems. We deal with the customers directly.”
He recalls a time when a customer complained about a mattress breaking down. Wheatley made a house call and discovered the customer was regularly walking on the mattress to dust the ceiling fan that hung above it. Mattresses are not designed for that type of abuse, he says.
Wheatley’s customer connections pay big dividends for the business. He has long-standing relationships with many of his customers, and even knows the families of others. Repeat customers are part of his business model, a strategy he recommends to other retailers. Consumers will pay for quality beds, he says.
“Start selling two-sided mattresses,” he advises. “The consumer wants a bed that lasts longer than four to five years. They want a product that can be flipped, with a real box spring, and is built to last.” Wheatley says L&W Bedding’s premium two-sided mattresses with box springs can provide comfort and support for about 20 years.
Special attention, not special pricing
The sales process at L&W Bedding is highly interactive and often led by Wheatley.
“We ask lots of questions to understand what customers’ needs are and we provide recommendations that align with what they are looking for,” he says. “The fact that we’re a manufacturer allows us to really customize products for them because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for mattresses.”
Wheatley says his business has been able to navigate the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic by relying on the trust he’s built up over decades with his customers.
“We have been fortunate to earn our customers’ trust over the years,” he says, “and we’ve kept their safety in mind during the pandemic by offering private in-store appointments, which has been mutually beneficial. They have trusted us to provide a safe shopping environment and the appointments give us the ability to spend more time in a one-on-one setting getting to know their needs before recommending a product solution.”
Promotional sales, a staple at most mattress retailers, are nonexistent at L&W Bedding.
“We often get asked if we have sales coming up or special pricing, and that’s never been part of our business model,” Wheatley says. “We try and price things right and build everything to order, which has given us a niche in our market.”
Wheatley is proud of the business that he’s built, one bed at a time, over the years.
“I love my customers — the new ones and the ones I’ve been serving for decades,” he says. “I guarantee they’re happy with the product we make here because it’s my life’s work.”
Ask him how many beds he’s made during his career and he pauses, as if images of thousands upon thousands of mattresses are flashing through his mind. “A lot,” he says finally, chuckling. That’s his best answer.
At 59, Wheatley still loves what he’s doing, especially making some of the higher-end mattresses that he calls “masterpieces.” “We claim we make the best beds in the world,” he says. They are filled with high-resilience foams, natural cotton batting, latex, and high quality springs and support systems, including extra support for the vital center portion of the bed, he says.
Wheatley still operates the quilt machines, preparing the panels that go on the tops and bottoms of his two-sided beds. Jose Beltran, who is co-owner, and his son, Owen Beltran, who serves as quality control manager, fill out the L&W Bedding staff. The three can make about five beds in a day.
“I enjoy working with my dad and with John, and I learn something new each day,” Owen Beltran says.
Perhaps someday, Wheatley says, he could turn the business over to the Beltrans, but he has no immediate plans to step aside. “I don’t know if I have a retirement bone in my body,” he says. “I do enjoy this job.”
In the Land of Lincoln and Deere, Wheatley Builds a Mattress Legacy
John Wheatley’s history at L&W Bedding, the manufacturer-retailer he founded, is wrapped in the Quad Cities, towns that grew to prominence because they shared a bend of the Mississippi River, one of America’s great transportation corridors.
Two of the Quad cities — Davenport and Bettendorf — are in Iowa, north of the Mississippi, and two — Moline and Rock Island — are in Illinois, south of the river.
The area boasts a rich history. An up-and-coming lawyer named Abraham Lincoln represented the Rock Island Railroad Co. when it was sued by a steamboat owner in 1856 who wasn’t happy about a railroad bridge built across the Mississippi. Lincoln’s skillful handling of that case, which ended with a deadlocked jury but was considered a win for the railroad, helped propel his career forward. He was in the White House a few years later.
Also making history in the area was entrepreneur and inventor John Deere, who moved to Moline with his steel plow company in 1848. Today, Deere & Co. is the city’s largest employer.
Wheatley grew up in Moline, and he’s proud of the city’s heritage. “Moline is the home of John Deere, the best tractors in the world,” he says. Wheatley’s career started at a bedding factory in Rock Island, where he learned how to make mattresses, and where his dream of starting his own business was born. In 1988, he and a partner founded L&W Bedding in Wheatley’s garage in Moline.
The partner soon departed, leaving the business in Wheatley’s hands. A few years later, he moved L&W Bedding into the site of the former Salvation Army thrift shop in Moline, where the factory has been located ever since. The sewing room, equipped with Singer sewing machines built in 1933 and 1951, turns out a full line of mattresses, including the first three beds Wheatley designed — the Spinal Guard, the Chiro’s Choice and the Vienna. A showroom is located nearby.
In 1995, Wheatley opened his second mattress showroom, across the Mississippi River in Bettendorf. “You need to have a presence on both sides of the river to optimize your business in the Quad Cities,” he says.
Ask Wheatley the key to his success and he gives a straightforward response. “If you’re going to be somebody,” he says, “you have to do a lot of hard work.” And that’s exactly what he has done.