Twin Cities area sleep shop chain, owned and operated by two industry veterans, sets a new course for mattress retailing
BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN WAGNER
When Scott Michelsen and Tim Sommer met for the first time seven years ago, there almost was an air of inevitability about the whole encounter. Both men were industry veterans with long, successful careers in the retail segment of the bedding industry. Each also had reached a point in his career when he was ready to consider new endeavors.
“Scott and I instantly understood each other and talked together about possible opportunities over the course of several years,” Sommer says. “Three years ago, it all worked out.”
In 2011, Michelsen and Sommer teamed up to found Today’s Bed, a four-store chain of sleep shops in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Michelsen owns the stores, located in Blaine, Burnsville, St. Louis Park and Woodbury, and Sommer works as general manager.
Each partner had a wealth of experience to draw on as they launched the new venture. Michelsen, a self-described “life-longer,” helped build the Chicago-based Bedding Experts chain from four stores to 55, before becoming chief executive officer of the Elmhurst, Ill.-based American Mattress chain.
“American Mattress had 19 stores and was struggling when I joined them,” Michelsen says. “When I left, there were 80 stores, and we had taken over the Chicago market.”
Sommer had a similarly high-octane career. He began in Minneapolis at HOM Furniture, where he grew the chain’s mattress sales from $4 million to $20 million. He then became vice president of strategy and channel development for Dormia Classic Sleep Products, in Jessup, Md., where he redeveloped the company’s sales programs and ran its chain of sleep stores. He and Michelsen met in 2007, just after Sommer had opened his own consulting firm.
It would have been easy for the pair to use their previous successes as a template for their new venture. Both knew, however, that they wanted something different this time around.
“I think there is a perception in consumers’ minds about mattress stores,” Sommer says. “Basically, they have a very low opinion of them. We think that we have put together something that changes that. We want to be a high-quality retailer that still services all price points.”
“I want to sell mattresses as a health-related item,” Michelsen adds. “Boomers, in particular, want to do what’s right and are after sustainable health. A good night’s sleep is as close to a magic pill as you can get.”
The pair has developed a way of working with customers that they feel sets them apart from their competition. “Our selling process goes way beyond comfort,” Michelsen says. “After a quality greeting and a brief explanation of who we are, we tell the customer that there are four things that we want to look at hard with them.
“First we identify a right feel for her and then we talk about proper alignment, making sure that her body is in a straight line on the bed,” he says. An iPad photo, taken of the customer lying on the bed and then superimposed on a grid, helps bring the alignment message home.
The third and fourth steps focus on support and pressure reduction. “We ask the customer to make sure that her knees, back and shoulders are all in full contact with the bed,” Michelsen says. “Then we talk about pressure reduction by explaining that she shouldn’t feel any specific pressure on the back or side.”
The process, he believes, pays big benefits for the customer and the store. “As the customer learns to do this for herself, she becomes more committed to finding the right fit, and we have more control, higher tickets and the beds don’t come back,” he adds.
The process also includes a low-key tutorial on the fundamental techniques of mattress construction. “We talk about coils, foams and hybrids and use that to move customers around through different ‘feel’ categories,” Michelsen says.
Sommer and Michelsen say that transferring their own enthusiasm and expertise to retail sales associates is an ongoing challenge. To meet it, they developed a 30-day program that each new employee is required to complete before having any contact with customers.
RSAs spend their first two weeks learning about how mattresses are structured, as well as the nuts and bolts of invoices and inventory. After that, they spend two weeks becoming familiar with all aspects of the selling process.
When they finally are allowed to work with customers, “We’re watching and critiquing every encounter,” Michelsen says.
Setting a tone
Michelsen and Sommer have given the same careful thought to the layout of their stores. Each of the approximately 5,000-square-foot stores is designed to be clean, crisp and clutter free. Muted dark blue carpeting plays against gray, unadorned walls. Jazz plays quietly in the background.
“You’ll find no paint on my windows and not a lot of vendor clutter inside,” Sommer says. “The store is immaculately clean. I actually get weekly comments from customers about how clean the bathrooms are.”
Product is grouped by price point, not vendor. High-end mattresses are at the front of the store, lower end at the back. Today’s Bed currently carries 13 Simmons models and King Koil’s Comfort Solutions iMattress line. It also offers three hybrid beds from Sealy’s Posturepedic line, as well as the company’s promotional category and high-end Stearns & Foster brand. Three models of “backroom beds” from Englander, Sommer says, are “used only as an emergency way to close a deal.”
The store also offers a private label Today’s Bed line that includes four hybrid models and the two-model Autism Sensory collection. (See sidebar below.) “Instead of putting our name on backroom product, we wanted to put it on something that we’re proud of and that stood up well against other brands,” Sommer says. “Our four hybrids outsell, in dollar amounts, any other bed on the floor.”
At Today’s Bed, mattress price points in queen size open at $299 for an Englander and top off at $23,999 for Stearns & Foster’s Olga model. The store’s strongest price points range from $1,099 to $1,499.
Today’s Bed also offers headboards and footboards, mattress protectors and pillows. Sommer says that the attachment rate for mattress protectors, sourced from Glideaway, “is almost 90%.”
The stores only recently began offering pillows and are, Sommer says, the only retailer in the country that is an authorized My Pillow dealer. “My Pillow fits directly into our sales presentation,” he says. “They are made of breathable polyfoam and come in different sizes for different bodies. They’re an easy sale, and I expect about an 80% attachment rate.”
Michelsen and Sommer understand that they are surrounded by very aggressive competition, but seem undaunted by that fact. Mattress Firm, Mattress Giant and Slumberland have multiple locations within easy reach of Today’s Bed stores. The Woodbury store, Michelsen says, has 10 competitors within five miles of it.
The only way to beat the competition, the pair believes, is to meet it head on. The fourth Today’s Bed store opened in March in Blaine, and plans already are underway to open a fifth store in 2014. “It will be centrally located to serve as a distribution center,” Sommer says.
When all is said and done, the Today’s Bed chain is likely to include 12 to 14 locations in the Twin Cities area. “We’ll bracket the quality suburban areas and then go after the urban areas where the competition isn’t,” Sommer says.
The pair plans to manage growth carefully, however. “I’ve been in growth situations before where the growth outstripped the people to do it,” Michelsen says. “In the past, if three out of five factors were right, I’d move forward. At this point, it has to be five out of five. After I feel comfortable that we are solidly and comfortably rooted here, we’ll grow.”
Upgrading the chain’s website and putting an effective advertising and marketing program in place are two tasks that Michelsen believes need to predate further growth. The new website, he says, “will be very special because it will capture the spirit of what we do and our dedicated efforts to create sleep solutions rather than just sell mattresses.”
For now, all signs point to continuing success for Today’s Bed. Almost 50% of sales at the Woodbury store, the chain’s oldest, come from repeat customers or customer referrals, and the two newer stores are beginning to see the same trend.
“What we’re doing resonates with people,” Michelsen says. “We truly sound different to customers, and I think the sky is the limit.”
Today’s Bed, King Koil team up to fight autism
When Scott Michelsen began to plan a new chain of mattress stores, he was certained with two things. He wanted his stores to become a trusted resource for sleep solutions, but he also wanted to find a way to use the stores to generate support for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Because my eldest son Scotty is autistic, ASD is a cause that is very near and dear to my heart,” he says.
Michelsen is acutely aware of how complicated—and often expensive—finding appropriate services for children with ASD can be. He also knows that the path has been made somewhat smoother for his family because of the strength of his own financial resources.
Recognizing that, he says, “My wife Patty and I wanted to find a way to create scholarships that would allow families to buy the services that they couldn’t afford on their own.”
Michelsen approached King Koil with the idea of developing a line of mattresses that could be used to generate income for the cause. The Willowbrook, Ill.-based licensing group, he says, agreed to work with him on the project and to “sell the beds to us below market cost.” Today’s Bed, in turn, offers the line at reduced prices to its customers.
Michelsen developed the Autism Sensory line with the help of Jeffrey Sherman and Darren Sodikoff at The Bedding Group, a King Koil licensee based in Rock Island, Ill. Sherman is The Bedding Group’s owner, and Sodikoff is vice president of sales and marketing.
The line’s name, Michelsen says, reflects the sensory problems that are symptomatic of autism. The line currently contains three models—the firm and plush models retail for $1,199 in queen size, while the pillowtop model sells for $1,299.
“Because (the mattresses) include memory foam and latex, the line is a real overachiever at that price point,” Michelsen says.
In 2013, Michelsen and his wife channeled most of the profits from sales of the line to autism causes in Arizona and Minnesota. To further their efforts to educate the public about ASD and raise funds to help families coping with the disorder, the Michelsens will launch a nonprofit foundation later this year.
The foundation will be able to do much more than Today’s Bed could ever do alone. “I’d like to start by partnering with celebrity hockey players to bring more awareness (to ASD),” he says.
Hockey, it turns out, is a natural starting point for the Michelsens. Their youngest son Tommy is an avid hockey player. He also is, Michelsen says, devoted to his autistic big brother.
Dorothy Whitcomb is an Easton, Md.-based freelance journalist and editor whose work has appeared in a wide range of business and general interest publications. For 25 years, her primary focus has been the home furnishings industry. She writes about businesses, trends, products and design, specializing in profiles of companies and industry leaders. She can be reached at email@example.com.