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From Home Furnishing Business

Training Day

By Powell Slaughter

Mattresses Have Distinct Training Issues From Other Furniture Categories.

Imagine you’re a customer walking into your bedding department. No matter how well it’s lit, or relaxing the atmosphere, you’re looking at a selection of products with little visual difference. Getting customers to understand why there is a difference is a key to training staff for selling mattresses, whether you have dedicated associates for the department or not. Morris Furniture Co. in Fairborn, Ohio, has been busy opening Better Sleep locations dedicated to the mattress category. Vice President Rob Klaben said the retailer is fortunate to have the one of the best mattress manufacturer reps in the industry who makes sure Morris staff knows current sleep technology and represents its showrooms and their products well. “Since mattress customers make purchase decisions faster than furniture buyers, sales associates need to make sure prospects receive all the right information to buy on their first visit to our showrooms,” he said.


At Florida retailer City Furniture, selling mattresses is all about comfort, support, value and brand. “If someone likes a dining room set, it’s because they like the style,” said President Keith Koenig. “With mattresses, it’s first about comfort, then value, not so much how it looks.” Art Hunt, product specialist at the Tamarac, Fla.-based retailer, handles advanced training for sales associates in all categories, including mattresses. He creates manuals and processes for City’s proprietary training programs. He said stores specializing in mattresses are at a distinct advantage when it comes to training: “That’s all they have to know.”

Many salespeople, Hunt believes, have an ingrained reluctance to get involved in the process of selling a bed. “There’s so much information, and it creates a natural barrier,” he said. “You have a gallery with 50 or 60 beds, and there’s a lot of information to remember, and that’s a mental challenge.” That’s one reason City, which expects all salespeople to sell the entire floor, is moving away from selling on product specifications to concentrating on highlighting support, comfort and better health. It’s a good match with so much of the bedding industry’s marketing the past couple of years, which touts the benefits of a good night’s sleep. “We’re trying to sell someone on the idea of how to improve their health,” Hunt said, adding that product knowledge is still important—just not a starting point for the conversation. “When a customer comes in and asks how many coils a bed has, you still need to know since it’s a relevant fact when building a mattress.” Still, the comfort approach toward selling mattresses has eliminated the challenge a lot of City’s salespeople faced with the category. The training certifies each salesperson on a proprietary two-pronged approach that combines product knowledge with a seven-step sales process. Even though a customer might not sit still for all seven steps, the salesperson has to be certified on each one so he or she can fit the process to individual customers. “We do the sale very conversationally,” Hunt said.

“Are they an all-foam customer, a hybrid coil shopper, etc.” City utilizes a bed-testing area where customers can check the feel, say, of a foam bed vs. a coil mattress. Customers also can check out which pillow they prefer. When it comes to product information, City recognizes that it’s hard to keep specs for 50 or 60 mattresses in one’s head. “We supply a tone of information in our online learning management system on our Intranet,” Hunt said. “Some customers want that information—say an engineer comes in and asks for the indentation load defection of the foam in a bed. The salespeople don’t memorize things like that, but they can access it via the computer in seconds.” While City Furniture sales staff are expected to sell mattresses, each store has a mattress specialist responsible for the overall department, as well as additional training at the store level. In recent months, City Furniture has taken its staff at all stores through off-site training blitzes for vendors including Serta, Sherwood Bedding, Simmons and Tempur Sealy.

“It puts the category front-and-center in everyone’s mind,” Hunt said.




One debate for training in bedding: Should a retailer have dedicated sales staff for the category or not? “It’s a touchy subject,” said Michael Kua, senior consultant for Impact Consulting Services. “It’s an employee-retention and happiness issue. You have people who’ve been with you for many years that might resent losing out on those sales.” sure anyone you have slated to sell mattresses has the ability and drive to do so. “A lot of salespeople at high-end stores don’t like to sell mattresses—it’s not ‘sexy,’” Kua said. Going with a dedicated staff also risks what he called a “sense of betrayal” from lost potential commissions; and dilution of sales in other categories, especially in small to medium-size stores. “If you have 10 people and put two of them selling mattresses, you’ve reduced your sales staff for everything else by 20 percent,” Kua said. “And when you move two of those 10 into bedding, they might be used to getting three or four ups a day, and now they’re down to one or two.

Their opportunity has been reduced financially, and calls for additional training, maybe even more advertising.” The other problem is with training. It’s not as costproductive for the rep to train a couple of dedicated sales people in a full-service store versus the entire sales staff.

“That’s different at a Mattress Firm, where they might sell hundreds of thousands a month with three people,” Kua said. Jerry Epperson, managing director, Mann Armistead & Epperson, Richmond, Va., said dedicated sales staff vs. generalists depends on the store. “If you look at Jordan’s, they have people in lab coats they call ‘sleep technicians’ that the other salespeople send customers to,” he said. “That’s not possible in a smaller store, though.” While City Furniture has “sleep specialists” in each store, the retailer’s business model relies upon salespeople having the knowledge to sell the entire floor. “We, like most furniture stores and good mattress specialists, have an ‘interview’ process,” said President Keith Koenig. “Most people are buying a mattress for themselves, and they’re concerned about getting a good night’s sleep. “People have a lot of sleep issues. The wrong pillow will exacerbate some problems; budge; brand preference; sleep surface preferences—always try several. The mattress customer is self-selecting, but the sales associate is critical to getting them to that point.” (For more on dedicated sales vs. generalists, see the accompanying sidebar, “Dedicated Mattress Staff: Yes or No?”)




Bedding vendors such as Kingsdown have developed instore diagnostic systems to help consumers narrow down their mattress choices according to body size, sleep habits (back or side, for example) and other personal preferences. Kingsdown’s retail partners using its program include Art Van, Sleep Fit, Sit n Sleep, Baers Furniture and Mattress Warehouse. The key with such programs is to make sure your staff, first, knows how to use them; and second, can “process” customers on the floor. “Sometimes I think they don’t have enough machines available,” said Kua at Impact. “If you have three customers shopping for a bed, do you want them to be standing in line waiting to be tested? “It’s either part of your process or not. The old fashioned way still works if you don’t have the machine. It does work though, and retailers do need to hold salespeople accountable to use the machine. People do trust what a machine says more, sometimes, than what people are telling them.” City’s Koenig is more confident in the sales process the retailer developed over the years.

“My experience with diagnostic programs over the years is mixed,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything better than trying out a number of mattresses.” If you do choose to use diagnostics, hold your salespeople accountable for putting them to work—and the reps from vendors with such programs. “If you have the diagnostics, reps need to know those stats and tell your sales staff,” Kua said. “What are different comfort levels they’re selling? Make sure they’re running reports on what’s selling in terms of firmness and price points. “Look at bad performers, and see how they can do better.”



Mattress sales training might demand more qualification than any other category. After all, the customer will be spending a third of her time on this product as long as she owns it. “If someone wanders into the sleep section, you know they’re qualified at the get go,” Kua said. “Ask qualifying questions. Incentivize with (compensation) for hand-holders who bring customers to the mattress department. “If they look at anything in the bedroom category, they’re more qualified.” Are you selling a bed, or are you selling the mystery of sleep? If either, make sure your associates are trained to keep tabs on the mattress department’s appearance. “Watch your floor,” Kua noted. “The most popular mattress might be the dingiest, footprints on the base protector. Change out the cover. Is it really clean compared with the rest of the bed?” Good training helps build tickets because salespeople are better equipped to help customers understand the difference between a $500 mattress and a $2,000 unit that might not look very different on the sales floor. “Anything you lie on in the store is going to feel better than your mattress at home,” Hunt said. “The question is what will it feel like six months

from now.”

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