From Home Furnishing Business
At first glance, it may seem like Colorado-based bedding chain Urban Mattress is doing everything … well, wrong. The stores give a percentage of all sales to charity. They don’t do big promotions. They’re very selective in what they carry, avoiding most of the big mattress brands. They encourage employees to own their own franchises.
Thing is, these unconventional principles are working. The eight-store chain (with more locations in the works) is thriving, experiencing growth in a still-hurting economy, with no end in sight. How did they do it, and why is it working so well?
“The driving force behind what we do … our value system … it’s really about justice, fairness and humility,” said Steve Von Diest , a co-founder and franchise owner in Urban Mattress who also coaches new franchisees.
“How justice plays out in the mattress industry is fairly deceiving,” Von Diest continued. “The bait-and-switching, even the labeling of mattresses from the same vendor between two different stores is very different … so we said, ‘What products can we choose that are going to eliminate the three-to-six-year turnaround (between beds)?’ We focused on products that we believe (are) right for the customer. We may not see the customers back for 10 to 20 years. That may not necessarily be right for our bottom line, but it’s right for them.
“We’re very upfront. We don’t do sales (promotions) because we’ve noticed a pattern in the industry—sales are typically a markup with a dropdown … we’ve lowered our margins to as low as possible because we’re owner-operated and we can do that.”
As for the second part of the equation, mercy, Von Diest defined that as “the driving force for what we believe a for-profit business can do in the community. … We care about our customers—not just what their mattress feels like, but also what’s going on in their marriage, their lives, because it all fits into taking care of people.
“We also tweak their mentality on how they too can give back to the community. So our giving program is not just me and (co-founder) Ethan Rietma giving in the background. We’ve actually put it very upfront in our stores, so our customers know that 1 to 2 percent (of sales) is going to go to a local non-profit (charity), and our customer gets to choose the emphasis. … In each of our stores, there are four to five local charities that the owner or their staff is passionate about.”
Addressing humility, Von Diest said “I wouldn’t necessarily call the mattress industry a humble industry. There’s not a lot of admitting of fault and errors. Ethan and I know that many of our customers may know more than us. They’ve done research, so we’ll humbly say we’re sorry, we’re ignorant. We’ll also own our mistakes, and we’re going to make it right with the customer. If we’re replacing something, we want to be very upfront.”
A Chat Between Neighbors
Urban Mattress started out in 2008 as nothing more than a friendly exchange between neighbors. “Billy Williams, who owns the franchise, was my neighbor and a good friend, as was Ethan,” Von Diest recalls. “We all lived on the same street, and Ethan and I had done non-profit work, community development, we were former pastors. … Billy said ‘Hey, I’m going to start a mattress store and I’d love to have you and Ethan join me to infuse the non-profit values—caring for people, caring for the community—into Urban Mattress.” Williams launched the store in Boulder, Colo., with Von Diest and Rietma, who eventually started three more franchises.
To Von Diest, it was crucial that they bring in like-minded people to open new stores. He recalled, “What Ethan and I said was ‘We’re going to take on young guys—upper 20s to mid 30s—and we’re going to teach them how to do this non-profit value set/for-profit mattress business. … We’ll help them launch new stores of their own because I really believe that the owner-operated model allows for care and an opportunity to sell that’s really different than your big box stores.”
The leaders of Urban Mattress bring their carefully thought-out mindset to their selection of products as well. “We’re an elite retailer of Tempur-Pedic, and we love them,” Von Diest said. “Most of our staff sleep on them. Also, we are an exclusive retailer for Vi-Spring out of England. … We carry Sherwood Bedding out of Phoenix. Those are our main manufacturers. We do carry Sweet Sleep out of Boulder, Colo.—she is the provider of most of our organic pillows and accessories in the natural world.
“We’re not in bed with Serta, Sealy and Simmons and some of the big brands, so it allows us to differentiate product in our stores. It’s very difficult oftentimes to find our product style and quality in the big box stores … we’ve chosen our product to give (customers) a wide variety.”
No Push, Push, Push
Von Diest and his fellow franchisees pride themselves on Urban Mattress’ no-pressure sales approach.
“Our new staff, we script them that ‘You have to talk very upfront,’” he said. “Let’s just use the idea that there’s going to be no additional add-on prices of delivery, set-up, removal. All of that is very clear: It’s free. … We talk about why we price things the way we do. … The product we carry is good enough to sell itself. I just want (customers) to discover the best thing for them according to their pocketbook, as well as what’s good for their body.”
While he was explaining the features and benefits of the product, I casually mentioned a feature I saw on a similar product in another showroom. The feature I mentioned is a definite benefit and could easily be adapted to most any product you see at Market.
It addresses a problem most consumers have had an issue with at some point before. The fix was a very simple one, but one I had never seen. When I mentioned this, the manufacturer said in jest, “Thanks for the tip.” When I heard his response I just paused and thought, “oh damn, I just let the cat out of the bag.” After a couple of seconds, we both chuckled and our conversation began on how long it would take before others in the industry began knocking off this particular feature.
I’m guessing I’ll see it again in High Point at the April Market, but not from my manufacturing friend. He’s far too reputable and classy to blatantly “take” someone’s idea—but there are others, I’m sure, who are implementing this into the design right now.
I’ve heard it said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”, but maybe not in this case. Designers spend months working on a concept, picking the right materials and coming up with the perfect lines to create the perfect piece.
Once they are happy with the product, work begins with a manufacturer to produce it. The manufacturer builds and markets it, with hopes of getting it to retailers and in front of the consumer. A lot of time and effort go into this piece. It was an idea in someone’s head just a few months ago. Now the whole world can see it, draw inspiration from it and well, knock it off.
I’m really not sure how I feel about this. When does a person cross the line from drawing inspiration to outright knocking off an idea? You all have seen a number of bedroom suits with similar designs and features, someone was first up with the idea, so did all others knock it off? Do you or your customer really care?
I’m guessing the deciding factor is whether or not it moves off your showroom floor; and I’m OK with that. Maybe the original manufacturer that made this piece should have done a better job of marketing this item. They need to make the potential buyer aware of why the original design is hands down a better product.
They have to distinguish a value at that price point. Then, the consumer has a better understanding on why the price point is set as such. As they decide on which product to purchase, original or knock off, maybe that saying “you get what you pay for” will echo in their heads.
This issue of Home Furnishings Business magazine takes a look at intellectual properties and potential issues that could arise from buying and selling copyright infringed goods. Please take some time to read this issue and make sure you aren’t putting your business in a potential situation that you may regret later.
My second position was with a client that I worked with by way of the Fortune 500 that asked me to come to work for them. It was a dedicated third-party logistics provider that was privately held and employed just over 120 people. Less structured than my previous job, but attempting to become a “real” company.
This brings me to my present position as publisher of Home Furnishings Business. A team of five, the majority of us work from home, with some support from our parent company. Each company has had its share of pros and cons, but each was driven by the fact you must have good employees to deliver on the promises you make to your clients.
At one time or another with each place I have been employed, I have hired, fired or have been counted on to keep morale up within my group of employees. I know the old saying, sh*t floats downhill but it amazes me how quickly a senior manager will run when such tasks come up.
Right or wrong here are a few things that I have learned along the way.
When hiring, don’t try to just fill a vacancy. Use this time to find an “upgrade” and find someone that will work well within your team. If you hire a person that is motivated, smart and has a good work ethic, you can train them on the necessary skills to help them be successful in the position. They will grow into the role. Don’t rule out hiring from outside your industry, sometimes a fresh set of eyes, ears and ideas is what the position needs as a jumpstart. Explain what is needed for them to be considered successful and supply the tools to make that happen.
Firing, this is a tough one for most people. In today’s world of documenting potential issues, problems and inch-thick personnel files, it’s my thought that a person has a pretty good idea which path they are on before the firing takes place. If you have completed your supporting documentation and included it in this file, you should have no concerns about your next step. You have outlined what was needed for that employee to be successful, and they have not reached those goals. Lose no sleep when terminating an employee; you’ve had discussions along the way about performance issues and addressed this with each item that was put in the file. Cut the cord and move on, your team will be better for it.
Happy employees are more productive employees, but keeping employee morale up is a difficult task. Management needs to keep an eye on morale. Good employers will make sure an employee is feeling happy and secure in the position, so they can focus on doing their job and not have concerns about the “what ifs”. It’s a fact that an employee will be more productive if they feel good about the company. Remove any doubts employees may have, and you will be rewarded by them. Be sure to acknowledge employees for the effort they give. Celebrate the wins and always be sure to include families in your celebration. The family may not be on your payroll, but they are a vital support for your employee. It’s important for family members to feel included and part of your team.
This issue of Home Furnishings Business delves into these topics. Take a moment to read it and learn from others who are much more seasoned than me in what makes a successful team in the furniture industry. I’m sure you will walk away with an idea or two that will help you become more successful and create a team environment that will exceed your expectations.
The jury’s still out on the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, on businesses.
Jill Benson , an attorney specializing in employment issues in the Greensboro, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle, noted that employers will have to provide coverage in companies with 50 or more full-time employees. The next big deadline is March this year to give notice to employees, but that could be pushed back.
“It’s not clear yet what minimal essential coverage will be,” Benson said.
Taylor Ganz, vice president of finance, planning & administration at Profitability Consulting Group, said he’s spoken to a number of retailers who are reducing some full-time positions to part-time; and all part-time positions to 28 hours a week or less in order to reduce the number of employees they must cover in a health insurance program under the law.
“Some are raising prices, but they should be raising prices anyway,” Ganz said. “Up to now, a healthy benefit package has been a useful retention and recruitment tool, but because of the uncertainty around the new regulations it’s unclear how many retailers can offer the full level of benefits. … It’s the uncertainty about the law’s mechanics.”
With a huge number of retail associates spread over its Thomasville store network, Furniture Brands International has stayed abreast of health-care reform developments, said Beth Sweetman, senior senior vice president of human resources.
“We’ve been on top of health care reform for a couple of years, and we already comply with the legislation—we know what’s coming,” she said. “For us I think it will be an attraction and retention tool. Benefits are a significant spend for Furniture Brands, so we watch that carefully.”
Susan Brashears, at Brashears Furniture in Berryville, Ark., doesn’t expect much impact from Obamacare on the retailer’s benefit packages.
“We were already providing insurance for our people, and we have under 50 people,” she said. “We actually got a small rebate back from our health insurance company last year.”
The relationship usually begins with fair pay and adequate benefits that are the cornerstone of a successful company in recruiting and retaining committed workers. If you provide a living wage for your staff, you then have the luxury to implement additional motivation tools. Without the competitive compensation, you risk losing your top talent.
Once you have pay and benefits in place, then it all falls under the manager. People normally don’t quit the company … they quit the boss. In the past, managers predicted the most vital motivational aspect of work for people was money, although personal time and attention from the supervisor has been cited recently as most rewarding and motivational for them at work.
Feeling valued by a supervisor at work is essential to employee motivation and positive morale. Your words, body language, expression on your face telegraph your opinion of your staff’s value.
Your arrival at work sets the mood daily. Smile. Walk tall and confidently. Walk around your workplace and greet people with sincere good mornings. Mornings can be the hardest part of the employee’s day. They are fighting off fatigue, have trouble focusing and getting excited. Offer fresh brewed coffee to help start the day. Not only will they be grateful for the caffeine, they’ll be more productive throughout the day.
Ordering pizza or taking the staff out to lunch occasionally keeps spirits high. Socializing without worrying about the bill puts them in a good mood and helps them enjoy their work environment and colleagues. Get to know them. Ask about families, hobbies and interests. They will appreciate it. People are often motivated by camaraderie. People don’t want to come to work to fight. It is important to understand employees’ basic desire to work collaboratively … a fundamental goodwill.
Treat them with respect. Use simple, genuine, powerful, motivational words such as please, thank you (and hand-written thank you notes), you’re doing a good job … ask about their day off … recognize birthdays, anniversaries and personal accomplishments to demonstrate caring and value.
Always remember a satisfied employee knows clearly what is expected from them daily. No surprises. Hold individual weekly meetings with staff to discuss progress and upcoming expectations. Consistent communication is the key. Establish employee recognition programs to acknowledge notable contributions and to incentivize others to improve.
Challenge them. Whenever you task an employee with a project, you want them to succeed. Be aware that if you only give assignments/goals where success is assured, you’re hurting yourself in the long run. If your associate is not going to learn something, the assignment/expectation you gave likely wasn’t robust enough. Pushing people out of their comfort zones allows them to develop new skills. Control, creativity and challenges in their work inspires motivation.
Continue training them to stay up-to-date with trends in their field. Enroll them in seminars, have them read relevant books/articles and discuss the content. Keep them fresh and inspired.
The ability of the employee to speak their mind is another key retention factor. Do you solicit ideas and provide a comfortable environment for honest feedback? Ensure that your open-door policy is meaningful. Conduct periodic employee satisfaction surveys. Be sure to address any issues you uncover promptly and thoroughly to avoid losing staff for good. The perception of fairness and equitable treatment is imperative for morale.
In short, when word of your company culture gets around, it will significantly improve retention and make it much easier to recruit the most talented workers in the job pool.