Third-generation retailer Spiller Furniture & Mattress continues family tradition while building a strong brand in Alabama, Mississippi.
BY JULIE A. PALM
Spiller Furniture & Mattress, a 13-store chain of full-line furniture stores in Alabama and Mississippi, sells a wide selection of home furnishings and mattresses at a good price. But its real secret to success is the value it places on strong relationships. That means treating employees like members of the Spiller family, sticking with vendors who provide quality products and good service, and thoroughly understanding the needs of its valued customers.
The emphasis on solid connections and meaningful interactions has allowed the award-winning furniture retailer to thrive through three generations of family leadership—and serve—countless shoppers during its nearly 70-year history. “We’re a relationship type of business. We want to treat people well,” says Shane Spiller, president of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama-based chain.
James E. Spiller Jr. started the business—originally a moving company that also sold used furniture—in Tuscaloosa in 1948. The retailer later added new furniture to the lineup and then mattresses. The founder eventually turned the business over to his son, Mike Spiller, and today it is run by Mike’s son, Shane, who took over day-to-day operations in 2004 when his father stepped into a chairman’s role. Last year, the North American Home Furnishings Association named Spiller Furniture & Mattress its 2015 Retailer of the Year among businesses with sales volumes of $10 million or more.
“Third-generation family businesses are pretty rare,” Shane Spiller says. “I credit our success to the wise thinking and wise decisions of my grandfather and my father.” In particular, the Spillers were careful about succession planning, knowing that a poorly managed transition can sink a company and, even worse, tear apart a family. Consulting with accountants and other experts, plus discussions with other family businesses, helped the elder Spillers craft workable plans for handing the business off to the next generation.
Know thy customer
The retailer’s 13 stores range from about 6,000 to 37,000 square feet and carry a wide assortment of case goods, upholstery and accessories for all rooms of the house from Ashley (including Signature Design and Benchcraft by Ashley), Liberty Furniture and Serta Upholstery. The retailer prefers to own its locations, including its flagship store in Tuscaloosa, though it does rent some spaces. Every store includes bedding, which accounts for 18% of overall sales.
For years, the retailer was a partner in MasterCraft and carried that mattress brand exclusively. In 1980, Symbol Mattress purchased MasterCraft bedding and the retailer’s relationship with Symbol Mattress continues to this day. In 2010, Spiller Furniture & Mattress decided to add a nationally recognized brand to give shoppers more options. At the time, Bob Sherman, then at the helm of Serta’s largest licensee, was talking to Spiller about opening an America’s Mattress franchise. “He really sold me on the Serta brand,” Spiller says. The retailer chose not to go the America’s Mattress route but put Serta-branded beds on its floor. Given the decades-long relationships it has had with its mattress vendors, it’s a bit of an understatement when Spiller adds, “When we have a good relationship with a manufacturer, we typically stick with them. We’re pretty loyal.”
The retailer’s deep roots in the small and mid-size communities it serves give the company an equally deep understanding of the needs of its shoppers—in this case generally middle-class and working-class folks who appreciate a good value. And the retailer curates its mattress selection with the budgetary needs of those shoppers in mind.
For instance, while many Serta dealers these days focus on the high-end iComfort series, Spiller Furniture & Mattress has success with the manufacturer’s more moderately priced Perfect &Sleeper line. Retails start at $699 for a queen set and top out at $899; a $799 model featuring gel-infused memory foam with an innerspring core is a best-seller.
At some locations, the retailer offers two Serta-branded adjustable bases—a basic model with a wired remote at $799 and a step-up version with wireless remote, massage and other features for $999. Adjustable bases are a potential area of growth for the retailer and the step-up model (newly added to store floors) was highlighted during a recent sales meeting.
In the spring, Spiller Furniture & Mattress refreshed its entire Symbol selection when the manufacturer rolled out a fleet of new products emblazoned with a redesigned logo and supported by updated marketing materials. For the first time, the retailer is offering a hybrid Symbol mattress featuring a foam core topped with a pocketed microcoil unit in the panel. It also has added three Symbol mattresses containing gel-infused memory foam. Prices for the Symbol lineup range from $299 in queen size to $899. A swift mover is a foam-encased innerspring model priced at $499.
In general, Spiller Furniture & Mattress customers prefer innerspring or hybrid models over memory foam mattresses, but in its larger stores, the retailer does offer two foam-only beds from Serta, priced at $799 and $999. Across all stores and brands, the company’s average mattress ticket is $850, an increase from $750 just a few years ago, Spiller says.
“Our part of the world does tend to lag behind the nation in terms of trends and the economy, and we’re still feeling the effects of the recession,” he says. “Our customers are just now getting back to work, and we’re starting to see more confidence in them.”
Knowing that the mattress department is a destination for many shoppers, the retailer places bedding in the rear of most stores, drawing customers through other departments as they arrive. When they do, they’ll find beds displayed in a straightforward fashion, by brand and then by price. Smaller stores tuck mattresses into bedroom furniture groups; larger stores display the mattress sets solo. Each store carries a core selection of four Serta models and four Symbol models, with larger stores showing a wider array.
Any retail sales associate can help shoppers with their bedding purchase—everyone on the team knows the products. The sales conversation typically starts with a discussion of a shopper’s current bed set. “I like to ask what people are sleeping on now and what they like or dislike about their current mattress,” Spiller says. “I also like to ask them how they sleep—side/back/stomach—to determine the best fit. It all starts with comfort.”
Customers appreciate the “Made in America” message, and RSAs tout the fact that both the Symbol and Serta products it sells are made at factories in Alabama.
Online sales are a tiny but a growing portion of the retailer’s business, and Spiller is considering a boxed-bed program from Symbol. “We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of sales being written online,” he says.
Not surprisingly, some of the retailer’s toughest competition comes from big-box stores and discounters, including Sam’s and Big Lots. Other competitors include bedding specialists, such as Bedzzz Express, a 46-store chain based in Birmingham, Alabama, and the ubiquitous Houston-based Mattress Firm.
RSAs are part of the family
At Spiller Furniture & Mattress, customer service actually starts with employee relations. “We see our employees as Spiller Furniture & Mattress family members,” Spiller says. “Our philosophy is if we treat our employees right, they’ll treat our customers right.” About 20% of the retailer’s staff roster of 115 has been with the company for more than 20 years. While Spiller is proud of his employees’ level of engagement and longevity, respecting them sometimes means supporting someone’s decision to take another job.
“I want to do what’s in the best interest of our employees, even if that means finding an opportunity elsewhere that’s better for them,” Spiller says. “I tell our people, ‘You don’t work for me. You don’t work for the Spillers. You work to support you and your family.’ Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to run anybody off, but I want what’s best for people.”
The retailer favors on-the-job training of RSAs provided by managers and supplements that with quarterly training of all sales staff, which often means bringing in manufacturers’ representatives to talk about products and sales strategies. Occasional trips to bedding factories give RSAs a better understanding of mattress components and constructions. Again, the idea of relationships is important to the retailer’s training philosophy: Spiller Furniture & Mattress wants manufacturers’ reps to regularly visit stores to get to know RSAs so each group feels comfortable reaching out to the other when there are questions or problems.
RSAs are paid an hourly rate, plus commission, and are given monthly sales goals. “We set monthly goals to keep them focused and break them down to a daily goal. Each person and each store has a goal,” Spiller says.
Spiller Furniture & Mattress offers delivery of mattress sets and other large pieces of furniture—typically the next day—for $79 within 25 miles. Each store has its own delivery truck and team. Years ago, when Spiller was working his way through all the retailer’s departments to better learn the family business, he was part of one of those delivery teams. It was his favorite job. “I loved getting out there and into customers’ homes, helping them set up their new lifestyle and seeing how happy they were to have new mattresses and furniture in their homes.”
As we noted earlier, many Spiller Furniture & Mattress customers are just now recovering from the Great Recession and want to stretch their dollars as far as they can. The retailer provides in-store financing, with about 70% of its sales done on credit. It also offers a 90-day layaway option, a relative rarity in retail these days. Shoppers, Spiller says, appreciate the options.
An expansion plan
Spiller would like to grow his business by adding stores within its current territory of Alabama and Mississippi. The most attractive areas are those contiguous to the retailer’s current locations so it can make the most of marketing efforts and distribution networks.
And he’d like to pass the business along, though it will be several years before that can happen. Spiller and his wife Emily have five children (Major, Ella Michael, twins Mike and Mack, and stepdaughter Madeline) ranging in age from 8 to 15. As the eldest, Madeline might be the first to jump in: Spiller says she has been hinting at ways to earn a little spending money.
“I really enjoy coming to work every day with our Spiller Furniture & Mattress family,” Spiller says. “My dream is to continue to run the business and keep it successful—to continue to have people who are in the business who like working here so they can provide for their own families.”
Surviving tough times
Within a few years of taking over his family’s business in 2004, Spiller Furniture & Mattress President Shane Spiller faced two enormous and unexpected challenges. First was the dual collapse of the financial and housing markets that ushered in the Great Recession in 2008. The downturn eventually led the Tuscaloosa, Alabama-based furniture chain to close two underperforming stores.
Then, just as the broader economy was beginning its painfully slow recovery, the retailer was hit with a more localized but tragic calamity when an EF4 tornado plowed through Tuscaloosa and nearby Birmingham on April 27, 2011, killing more than 60 people and causing $2.4 billion in damage.
One of the retailer’s stores in Tuscaloosa was destroyed but, thankfully, no one in the Spiller’s immediate family or the larger store family was injured or killed. The retailer promised no employees would lose their jobs as a result of the storm damage and none did. The store was later reopened in another location.
“The tornado went through one of the busiest intersections in our town—right through the center of a business district,” Spiller says. “It’s been incredible to watch our city rebuild. There’s been some great progress made.”
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 email@example.com.