Comfort returns are unavoidable–and frustrating. Here are ways to deal with them that will keep customers happy and your bottom line in the black
BY JULIE A. PALM
For a mattress retailer, a ringing phone is a good thing. It usually means consumers are in the market for a bed and are at least considering buying it from you. But there’s one call no retailer likes to receive: the “I bought a mattress from you and I don’t like it” call.
That call might come a day after the new bed set was delivered; it might come six months later. Maybe the mattress is too firm; maybe it’s too soft. For certain, it’s just not right. Your customer is unhappy and wants you to do something. We’re not talking about manufacturing defects and warranty issues. That’s a whole other subject. We’re talking about a perfectly good mattress that the consumer has decided is not the one for her.
For bedding retailers, comfort returns or exchanges are an unavoidable, if frustrating, part of the business. They cost you time and money and create a new problem: finding the best way to dispose of the returned mattress. Worse, if a dissatisfied customer spreads the word about her negative experience, a badly handled comfort return can damage your store’s reputation.
“The challenge is to limit returns as much as possible because there are no real winners in that situation,” says Gerry Morris, a mattress sales training coach, educator and regular contributor to Sleep Savvy. “Even if they eventually end up with a bed they like, it’s a hassle for the consumer.”
Put it in writing
When it comes to comfort returns and exchanges, the starting point for any mattress retailer is to have a clear policy.
“I think every company should have a policy-and-procedures manual on returns and state your policy upfront to customers,” Morris says. “The foundation of a successful return policy is to be fair and principally based.”
It’s a good idea to post the policy on your website and for brick-and-mortar retailers to display it near the sales desk. Most importantly, give every customer a copy in writing at the time of the sale. Many retailers find it makes sense to include details about returns and exchanges along with mattress warranty information.
“For us, it’s literally two paragraphs—the warranty and the ‘90-Day Comfort Promise.’ It’s simple and easy to understand. You don’t have to be an attorney to read it, and our customers appreciate that very much,” says Michelle Brumfield, founder and owner of Bedcrafters by Michelle, which operates two sleep shops in the Virginia cities of Richmond and Williamsburg.
Taking it back
In mattress retailing, a 30-day return policy used to be fairly standard, but return and exchange windows are getting longer. Part of that is the result of competition: As more retailers offer extended return periods, others feel pressure to do the same. But there’s another reason for the extensions: If a customer is replacing a decades-old mattress or switching from one construction to another, it can take time for her to adjust to the new feel.
“I dealt with that this weekend, in fact,” says Robin Azevedo, president of McRoskey Mattress Co., a San Francisco-based factory direct with stores in San Francisco and Palo Alto, California. “A customer bought today’s version of a mattress she had for 20 years. It has a more vibrant feel than she’s been used to.”
A couple of years ago, that customer would have had 30 days to decide if she wanted to change the mattress, but McRoskey is one of the retailers that has extended its policy to 90 days after monitoring what competitors—from big boxes to online sellers—were offering.
“We don’t have a ‘return’ policy,” Azevedo says. “Our thought is that if that comfort level isn’t working for you then another comfort level will, and we will exchange the mattress and/or box spring.” One-time exchanges are offered on standard sizes only, not custom orders. If customers choose a higher-priced bed as the replacement, they pay the difference in cost. For exchanges, McRoskey charges a $350 fee that includes a white-glove delivery within the San Francisco Bay area.
Houston-based Mattress Firm, the country’s largest specialty bedding retailer, offers a “Happiness Guarantee” that requires customers to sleep on their new mattress for at least 30 nights. If they remain unsatisfied, they can return or exchange the product within 100 days of purchase for a fee of $149. (The company notes on its website that individual Mattress Firm stores may have different policies.)
The “90-Day Comfort Promise” at Bedcrafters by Michelle also requires customers to sleep on their new bed sets for 30 days, but the retailer doesn’t offer refunds. Instead, Bedcrafters will firm up or soften the customer’s mattress either by rebuilding it in the customer’s home or by taking it back to the manufacturer for adjustments—something the retailer is able to do because of its relationships with the companies that make its beds—Custom Comfort by Winn Ltd. and Savvy Rest, Brumfield says.
“If we can’t make them happy by altering the foam, in rare cases, we’ll do a whole new mattress for them,” Brumfield says. Bedcrafters exchanges mattresses 31 days to 90 days after purchase at no cost. After 90 days, the retailer charges a minimum fee of $200 to cover transportation expenses.
The newest crop of online-only retailers, which tend to specialize in a single type of construction and which generally can’t offer in-store rest-tests to customers outside of perhaps a headquarters showroom, have some of the longer return periods in the industry. Online retailer Casper offers a 100-night “trial period,” promoting it on its website as “100 nights of non-committal bliss.” As the New York-based company says, “If the Casper isn’t perfect for any reason, we’ll send a courier to pick up the mattress and refund you 100%.” Tuft & Needle, an online seller based in Phoenix, Arizona, has a similar 100-night trial, promising “free, no-hassle returns.”
Yogabed one-ups those online competitors—literally—by offering a 101-night “money-back guarantee.” Like Mattress Firm and Bedcrafters, Yogabed requires consumers to sleep on their new bed for at least 30 nights before returning it “to adjust to the qualities of the new mattress and properly gauge their satisfaction.”
Then there’s Spindle Mattress, which promises a 365-day “comfort adjustment” to its mattresses, which are made with varying layers of latex. If a customer doesn’t like how her bed feels, the Acton, Massachusetts-based online retailer will work with her to determine what adjustment might need to be made, sending out a new layer of latex that the consumer can place into the zippered mattress cover. Such adjustments are made one time only and for a $150 flat fee, which includes shopping costs.
But not every mattress retailer believes a longer return or exchange period is better.
Hicksville, New York-based Sleepy’s, another of the nation’s largest retailers, puts stricter limits on exchanges. Customers must notify the store of their dissatisfaction within 21 days after delivery and choose their replacement mattress (plus receive delivery of it) within 30 days of the original delivery date, according to the policy laid out on the retailer’s website. The new mattress must be of equal or greater value and customers pay any applicable disposal fees, delivery fees and taxes. Sleepy’s will, however, honor the longer in-home trials that some of its mattress vendors offer.
Dave Harkness, owner of Harkness Furniture and Harkness Mattress & More in Tacoma, Washington, offers one of the shortest return periods, which applies to any piece of furniture the retailer sells, whether that’s a sofa or a mattress: If a customer is displeased with a purchase, she can exchange or return it for a full refund within seven days of purchase.
“We are a full-service furniture store and mattresses are one department among many, so we use the same policy—seven days—for everything,” Harkness says, adding that as an independently owned retailer, Harkness can make exceptions to its policy and gives department managers the ability to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. “We’re flexible. That’s the advantage of being a small, WaveRunner-like retailer over the big battleship that is a big national chain.”
Watch your return rates
Perhaps the ideal circumstance for a mattress retailer would be to have a clear, carefully worded return policy that it never has to use. Ideal? Yes. Unrealistic? Totally.
The industry consensus seems to be that, even under the best of circumstances, mattress retailers can expect a return or exchange rate of a few percentage points. If yours starts to creep much above 5%—or whatever level you deem acceptable—it’s time to review what’s happening on your sales floor. Are you showing new models that differ significantly in terms of comfort level or construction from those they replaced? Have you recently hired new retail sales associates? Are your RSAs trying out a fresh set of qualifying questions? Chances are either your beds or your team’s selling tactics have changed and you need to address the matter—quickly.
“We strive for a 5% exchange rate and we work hard to keep it down to that,” Azevedo says. “When McRoskey managers see the rate rising, we will look for anything trending and correct it. We work with production, delivery and sales associates for information and input to deliver the right product the first time. The main thing to do is always pay attention to your exchange rate and always learn from it.” Morris puts it bluntly: “If you’re selling a perfectly good product and a customer isn’t happy with it, it’s often because the RSA didn’t do their job.”
Consistently asking basic qualifying questions can help ensure consumers choose the right bed the first time around: “What kind of mattress do you sleep on now?” “How old is your current mattress?” “Why are you in the market for a new bed?” “Do you have any health issues?” “Do you have trouble sleeping?” “Are you familiar with the various comfort levels?”
At Harkness, among the first few questions RSAs ask shoppers are “What kind of mattress are you sleeping on now?” and “Why are you replacing your current mattress?” The answers to those help RSAs lead customers to an appropriate comfort level for rest-testing.
Throughout the selling process, RSAs need to manage shoppers’ expectations. If a customer who has been sleeping on a firm mattress for two decades buys a fluffy pillow-top and the RSA hasn’t prepared her for body impressions and a distinctly different feel, there is a good chance she’ll want to return the bed.
“If they’ve slept well on their previous mattress and had a successful experience with it, they’ll likely have good success with a similar mattress in the future,” Morris says. “Often the worst-case scenario is moving people from a firm mattress to a pillow-top, but an RSA can help them by explaining that you sleep ‘on’ a firm mattress and you sleep ‘in’ a pillow-top—that the mattress will start to conform to your body. Because, otherwise, they get bothered pretty quickly when they get home and start seeing body impressions.” RSAs also should keep in mind, Morris says, that shoppers’ expectations typically increase right along with the price of a mattress, demanding more from a $2,500 bed than a $250 bed.
“As an RSA, your motive should always be, ‘I want them to find a mattress they are happy with.’ Customers are always better off knowing things right from the start,” Morris says.
John Arnold, owner of the Mattress Factory in Grand Forks, North Dakota, agrees. “I think the more honest you are upfront, the fewer problems and returns you’ll have later,” says Arnold, who has a 30-day policy, during which customers can pick out a new mattress of equal or greater value, return their mattress for a full refund or have the mattress sent back to the nearby Upper Midwest Sleep factory where it was made for a comfort adjustment at no charge.
When it comes to actually handling the return or exchange process, most retailers agree it should be the RSA who originally sold the mattress, in large part because the RSA already knows the customer. It also reinforces better sales practices. “It’s hard enough to sell a customer the first time,” Morris says. “It’s even harder when you have to resell to them.” If it’s not possible for the original RSA to handle the matter, a manager should step in and do it, Harkness says.
From steaming to satisfied
If your policies are clear and your team handles comfort returns and exchanges promptly and politely, you can turn unhappy customers into happy—maybe even repeat—customers.
When McRoskey is manufacturing a new mattress for a customer who is dissatisfied with her original purchase, the factory-direct retailer will sometimes invite her into the plant for a rest-test. “It puts them in the position of feeling like they have control and are in charge,” Azevedo says. “They think it’s delightful to try their bed in the factory. It’s like inviting them over to your home for dinner.”
It helps to be able to empathize with customers who may have selected the wrong bed initially, despite your RSAs best efforts to help them make the right choice.
“It’s not all about selling mattresses. It’s about building a relationship. It’s not about a five-page warranty or return policy that covers my back and not my customer’s back,” Brumfield says. “It truly is about making the customer happy. If you make the customer happy, then you’ll be successful.”
- Be clear. Make sure your comfort return or exchange policy is concise and easy to understand.
- Put your policy in writing. Post it in the store and on your website. Give it to each customer along with her receipt.
- Be consistent. Apply your return or exchange policy uniformly among customers, but give managers authority to make limited exceptions under unusual circumstances.
- Manage expectations. Explain to customers that it can take several days, even weeks, to adjust to the feel of a new mattress. Advise purchasers of plush or pillow-top mattresses to expect body impressions.
How best to dispose of returned products
For retailers, one of the significant problems with accepting returned mattresses is what to do with them next. Even if your local landfill takes beds, sending them there is expensive and bad for the environment. Some retailers pass returned mattresses along to respected local charities that comply with applicable regulations regarding the sanitizing of beds before providing them to the needy. But the International Sleep Products Association and the industry’s Mattress Recycling Council encourage retailers to work with recyclers to have returned mattresses and foundations broken down into components, which are then used to create other products. To find a recycler in your area, visit the Mattress Recycling Council. Click on the “Recycling” tab to pull up the “Recycling Facility Locator” page.
A return policy shouldn’t be a sales tool
If there’s one thing that’s nearly guaranteed to drive up your return or exchange rates, it’s retail sales associates using the store’s policy
as a way to close the sale: “Remember, if you don’t like it, you can always bring it back.”
“Sometimes customers will ask about it during the sales process, but it’s not something we ever use to close the sale. It’s never, ‘Just buy a mattress. We can exchange it if you don’t like it,’ ” says John Arnold, owner of the Mattress Factory in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
At BedCrafters by Michelle, which has stores in the Virginia cities of Richmond and Williamsburg, RSAs typically don’t mention the retailer’s policy until the end of the sales process, often when writing up the ticket.
“We don’t want the return policy to be what sells a customer on the mattress,” says Michelle Brumfield, founder and owner. “At most, we want it to be an added bonus.”
Julie A. Palm, chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC, has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for a variety of newspapers, magazines and other publications. She served as editor in chief of BedTimes for more than nine years and was editor in chief of Sleep Savvy for two years. She can be reached at japalm623@gmail.