BY GARY JAMES
This family-owned retailer in Worcester, Massachusetts, elevates customer service the old—and new—way with a well-trained sales team, extensive product offerings in a set of historic buildings and a sophisticated digital strategy
Photography courtesy of Rotmans
What’s the one word you never hear in Rotmans’ bedding department—or anywhere in the store, for that matter?
The answer is the word “no,” or any similar negative language, such as “can’t” or “won’t.”
“We go out of our way to do what is necessary to make sure our customers are completely satisfied,” says Steve Rotman, president and chief executive officer. “If a customer has an issue, our customer service department coordinates with sales and delivery to solve the problem immediately.”
The customer service team also monitors online reviews of the store on Google, Yelp and Facebook, responding quickly to any negative comments or unhappy customers. “It’s made a huge difference, and we now have one of the highest Google ratings for a furniture store,” Rotman says.
In today’s world of 24/7 social media and online reviews that never go away, Rotman believes businesses can’t afford to have unhappy customers. “Some stores contend that ‘the customer isn’t always right.’ But there is no such thing as a customer with a problem that we should not try to solve—it is our obligation, not theirs. We’re going to fix it, even if we have to bend over backwards and take a loss on that sale,” he says.
The retailer’s customer-first philosophy started in 1945, when Murray Rotman moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ida, and took a job as a carpet salesman and then a buyer in the former C.T. Sherer department store. In the 1950s, the couple purchased the store’s carpet and furniture concession, naming their business Murida (Murray + Ida). When the Sherer store was about to close, they moved their business to the Barnard’s department store on Main Street. In 1964, seeing an opportunity to develop more business, the Rotmans opened a 10,000-square-foot branch store in the historic Whittall Mills, creating Barnard’s New World of Furniture and Carpet. Then, when Barnard’s closed, the Rotmans took over the lease in the Whittall building and renamed their business Rotmans.
From those humble beginnings, Rotmans grew into a five-story destination store serving consumers throughout central Massachusetts with 175,000 square feet of display space and 60,000 square feet of storage. The retailer also has a 90,000-square-foot, fully racked warehouse with 17 loading docks in Clinton, Massachusetts, 30 miles away.
Near several major highways, Rotmans is promoted as “New England’s Largest Furniture & Carpet Store.” Bedding has always been a big part of its success.
“My parents felt proud of the fact that with their own name on the door, they and their employees would always be reminded of the need to be accountable—to treat their customers with the highest degree of honesty and respect—as one member of the community to another,” says Steve Rotman, who joined his family’s business in 1962. Today, more than a half-century later, those principles are still core elements of the retailer’s mission statement—and they pay dividends every day in terms of customer loyalty and new business referrals.
“We have one of the highest Google review ratings there is for furniture stores,” he says. “Our rating is 4.6 out of 5, and it’s based on the feedback from hundreds of customers.”
Over the years, Rotmans has garnered many honors in recognition of its customer-friendly approach. In 2011, it was named Retailer of the Year by the National Home Furnishings Association. In presenting its award, NHFA cited Rotmans’ reputation for being family-oriented and honest, along with its outstanding customer service and involvement in the community.
Power of positive reviews
In the mattress category, where Rotmans faces new competition from dozens of national boxed-bed specialists, having a solid customer rating online is proving to be a big plus. Like Yelp and other review sites, Google review posts testimonials along with its scores, and such comments prove highly valuable to customers when they’re determining which stores to shop.
Here’s an example:
“John was a terrific guide through the byzantine process to buy the right mattress at the best price,” wrote one recent Rotmans’ customer on Google reviews. “(He) kept us informed about delivery. The two gentlemen who delivered the mattress as promised were courteous, efficient (and) professional. As a result, delivery and installation was a flawless process. I’ve a bought a lot of furniture in the last 40 years. This was my best experience.”
According to Rotman, when customers visit the company’s website for information, there’s a good chance they’ll end up also visiting the Worcester store. “They come to our website to get educated, and once they see our range of products and the positive reviews (a link to Google reviews appears at the top of the home page), within a few days or a week they often come in to shop,” he says.
Since Rotmans generates about 2,500 hits a day on its website that means the store attracts a steady stream of customers to its Whitall Mills complex. And many of the online visitors come to the website because they’ve seen Rotmans’ online advertising campaigns, which include search and display ads, along with video “pre-roll” spots. Rotmans recently added a live chat feature on its website that has been a successful draw. Closing rates have been 25% when live chat is used.
“In bedding, we spend about $4 to $5 a hit to get customers to come to our website, but each hit, in turn, translates into about $55 in store sales,” Rotman says. “In the end, it’s much cheaper than traditional advertising, and we can target our messages to specific audiences we want to reach.” For example, if Rotmans wants to promote more sales of higher-end mattresses, it will run pre-roll videos as part of an online sports or news broadcast that reaches its target demographic.
Rotmans also supplements its digital advertising with a range of traditional media, including billboards, catalogs, direct mail, newspaper circulars and TV.
Accounting for about 20% of Rotmans’ annual sales of $38 million in 2016, mattresses are a core category for the retailer, which, in addition to home furnishings, sells consumer electronics, carpet and flooring products, and window treatments. Mattress offerings take up about 10,000 square feet on two floors of the store, with an additional 6,000 square feet of clearance and promotional bedding spotlighted in a separate area known as The Attic. With a total of 16,000 square feet of display space dedicated to the category, Rotmans is one of the largest mattress stores in the country.
Sleep products and bedroom case goods are managed as one department, or “store within the store,” with a single sales force trained in both categories. Other such departments include dining room, living room, electronics, and carpets and flooring.
Within the sleep department, products are organized by brand. Within each brand, mattresses are then further differentiated by construction type and price range. Rotmans’ assortment includes a full range of models—more than 150 mattresses in all—including Beautyrest, Chattam & Wells, King Koil, Mattress First, Natura, Sealy, Serta, Spring Air, Stearns & Foster and Tempur-Pedic, as well as the Evaya house brand. (See story on page 20.) The store’s average bedding sale in 2016, including clearance items, was $925, a figure that has been rising at a steady 5% rate for the past few years.
“If a consumer wants a deal, they’re going to head straight to our Attic area, where we keep all our clearance and promotional goods,” Rotman says. In the main bedding department, however, Rotmans focuses on selling higher-end products. The upscale Beautyrest Black line, for example, accounts for 30% of Rotmans’ total Simmons brand bedding sales—a much higher rate than most stores. The same is true for Tempur Sealy International Inc., where the
Stearns & Foster line leads the way in sales for Rotmans.
Leveraging product knowledge
Rotmans’ sales force works hard to sell the best match for the customer’s needs, and that often results in the sale of a higher-end product. “Across all our brands, we tend to do more business at the higher end since our salespeople are so skilled at explaining the features and benefits of all our models,” Rotman says. “We offer a very deep selection, so all the key price points and constructions are covered.”
This year, because of its growing focus on adjustable bases, the retailer expects its average bedding ticket to be much higher than in the past. “We are converting all of our displays, including our bedroom sets, to accommodate power bases. And if you’re buying a new bed with a power base, you’ll also need a new mattress, since the old style with a firm edge won’t work,” Rotman says.
Rotman sees a huge opportunity emerging in adjustable beds. “They will be a major factor going forward, just like power recliners and sofas. Consumers love the added comfort an adjustable base provides, and they’re willing to spend more to get it,” Rotman says.
To make consumers more aware of adjustables, Rotmans is updating its mattress and bed tagging to reflect prices with and without the option. “It’s a new approach for us,” he says. “It presents this step-up option right away so that the consumer can factor it into their thinking rather than have a salesperson bring it up toward the end of a sale.”
When it comes to helping shoppers figure out which mattress brands and constructions to consider, each retail sales associate tends to have a slightly different approach. “Our salespeople in the bedroom/bedding department are very skilled and have been with us an average of 12 years,” Rotman says. “Some have been with us as long as 20 or 25 years. They each have their own way of greeting and qualifying the consumer so they can help them find the right models to test.”
To help consumers find the perfect combination of support and comfort, Rotmans also is considering incorporating diagnostic technology. But if it does, the retailer won’t put the equipment in its bedding department, Rotman adds. “We would probably install a couple of machines in other high-traffic areas of the store for consumers to use. Once they get their scores, they could then take that information to the bedding department.”
Since Rotmans’ bedding department often is quite busy, this approach would ensure that RSAs have time to focus on what they do best—selling.
Making sure RSAs have the tools they need to be successful is one of the management team’s most important jobs. The retailer works hard to hire the right type of person, with intelligence, character and personality among the key attributes it looks for in a salesperson.
“Today’s consumer shops on reputation,” Rotman says. “To be successful, we need to hire positive, motivated people for whom customer service is always going to be a high priority. They need to have as much passion for the store’s reputation as they do for the income in their pockets.”
Training, training and more training
Once hired, new employees go through a rigorous period of training to learn the ins and outs of the store’s key systems, as well as its product lines. Employees then are tested on that knowledge before hitting the sales floor. And the education process never stops, since Rotmans requires all RSAs to participate in ongoing training to stay current with new products and evolving features.
To support this effort, Rotmans requires its vendors’ bedding sales representatives to visit its store at least once a month. Many reps are in the store on a weekly basis. In addition, it sends its own salespeople out in the field to visit bedding factories, and department managers have the opportunity to attend furniture markets in High Point, North Carolina, Las Vegas and other regional shows.
“By attending market, our managers have the chance to preview products that will be coming to our store in a few months. They are fully aware of what’s coming down the pike and ready to sell once those products arrive in the store,” Rotman says.
Armed with the latest product information, Rotmans’ RSAs consistently record closing rates in the 70% range. “We take training very seriously,” he says. We want our salespeople to be experts in their categories, and we do everything we can to support that. The way we look at it is if you’re not closing the sale, then you’re not giving the customer the service they want.”
Consumers today are much savvier than in the past, Rotman says, and to serve them effectively, RSAs must be prepared and knowledgeable. “Shoppers are using the web to do their research, and by the time they come into your store, they are ready to buy,” he adds. They also visit far fewer stores, making the initial store visit a critical time in which to clinch the sale.
In addition to skilled RSAs and a deep assortment of products, the retailer has another secret weapon, according to Rotman—“our building, which is a one-of-kind experience.” Built from 1884 to 1889, the former multistory carpet mill was completely renovated and expanded over many years into the unique showcase it is today.
“Consumers love all the vintage touches such as the original, exposed brick walls and hardwood floors,” Rotman says. “All our displays—including bedding—are impeccably presented and accessorized, so shoppers always come away with a host of creative ideas for their own homes.”
With competition from online merchants increasing, traditional retailers need to find new ways to entice shoppers to visit. “Our building sets us apart and creates a reason for shoppers to come here,” Rotman says. “To stay competitive, brick-and-mortar retailers need to make the in-store visit as pleasurable as possible, whether that’s through their displays, special events or some other twist that makes shopping a special experience.”
A collection of its own
Along with a core lineup of name brands, Rotmans carries its own house brand of mattresses called Evaya. According to Steve Rotman, president and chief executive officer of the Worcester, Massachusetts-based retailer, the collection is allergy free and environmentally friendly. The beds are produced by Jeffco Fibres Inc., headquartered in Webster, Massachusetts, with Vytex natural latex, an “all-natural raw material” with a patented manufacturing process that removes the nonrubber particles and allergen-causing proteins, he says.
The Evaya line includes latex mattresses and hybrid latex mattresses in five firmness options. Price points range from $1,599 to $2,499 in queen. Rotmans also carries Vytex beds from Chattam & Wells, King Koil (Laura Ashley), Natura and Spring Air.
Atlanta-based Vystar Corp. is the exclusive creator of Vytex latex, and Nature’s Home Solutions—a joint venture owned by Steve Rotman and Vystar shareholders—has the exclusive U.S. distribution rights to Vytex foam for the home furnishings, home goods and other markets, and nonexclusive rights for other Vytex products.
“Our customers increasingly want natural, sustainable, allergy-friendly furnishings for their homes that are healthy, environmentally sustainable and safe,” Rotman says. “They’re accustomed to seeing these types of choices when they’re shopping for food, clothing and makeup, and they’d like to see the same options available in mattresses and other furniture.”
Rotman says Vytex represents a small portion of Rotmans’ total bedding business, but sales are steadily growing, with new models set to be introduced in the coming months. Produced in Vietnam, Vytex originates from certified farms and forests and has Forest Stewardship Council chain-of-custody certification that traces its path through the supply chain.
Starting with founders Murray and Ida Rotman, and continuing to today, Rotmans in Worcester, Massachusetts, always has taken seriously its commitment to give back to the community. In addition to supporting numerous local charities and community service efforts, Rotmans has played an active role in the fight against homelessness.
In 1992, Rotmans partnered with the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance and its Donations Clearinghouse division to create a program that provides gently used furniture at no charge to those in need, such as victims of fire, medical emergency and job loss. Through the program, customers who have bought new furniture from Rotmans can donate the furniture they are replacing—as long as it’s in good condition and free of tears or structural breaks. Good-quality, “clean” mattresses also are sanitized and donated.
For a small fee of $10 to cover expenses, Rotmans will pick up the donated furniture from consumers and deliver it to the individuals or family in need. Mattresses that are no longer fit for use are delivered to a separate site, where any reusable materials are recycled. Rotmans also donates its own slightly damaged or slow-selling merchandise to the program.
“Last year alone, we donated $500,000 worth of merchandise,” says Steve Rotman, president and chief executive officer. “More than 1,000 of our customers also donated furniture, a gift that benefited more than 600 families in central Massachusetts.”
Gary James is a freelance writer who spent more than 20 years with Furniture
Today, serving as case goods editor and special projects editor, directing the editorial content of numerous supplements, sections and features. He also has served as managing editor for a variety of other business publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.