How are bedding retailers weathering the coronavirus pandemic? Better than expected, especially for those who are sharpening their cyberskills
Spring often is seen as the season of renewal, when everything seems possible. But this spring is different in many aspects of life, including business. However, while the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the commercial world during the past year, e-commerce has helped keep businesses afloat. After all, for those consumers afraid to visit a brick-and-mortar store and rest-test a bed that others have sampled, buying online offers a reassuring alternative. Plus, consumers have grown accustomed to buying online — right down to their groceries.
That doesn’t mean any of this has been straightforward. For bedding retailers like Jeff Willis, bedding buyer for Famous Tate Appliance & Bedding Centers headquartered in Tampa, Florida, there weren’t any easy answers. “All we could do was our best and keep a positive attitude,” Willis says.
Chatting it up
Suddenly, a small part of Tate’s online operations — the chat function — presented unpredicted opportunities. “Before the coronavirus, we had a couple of workers put in a few hours every day on chat,” Willis says. “But as Covid-19 grew, someone was covering it basically all day. For much of it, I’ve done it or Jason Horst (director of marketing) has. You see the kind of value it has, and we won’t be going back.”
Willis quickly saw some customers were using it out of necessity, as opposed to their usual medium of choice. “I was chatting online for a long time with one woman, and then we had to get on the phone so I could explain a few things for her to really finish it up,” he says. “I would say the call took more than 90 minutes for the sale. You see what chat can do and sometimes what it can’t.”
Willis estimates that right now the chat function alone would require two full-time employees without anyone else pitching in, and he has been staffing it 40 to 50 hours a week. He says the store has someone on the chat function between 12 and 14 hours a day.
But Tate’s hasn’t settled for added attention to the cyberside alone. Willis says a key recent improvement to the retailer’s website is being able to let a customer know what’s in stock and available. This easily can be top of mind for a customer when the retail industry is experiencing shortages during the pandemic.
Still, it wasn’t just the reinforcement of being on top of chat engagement and its improved website that helped convert sales for online customers, but also a 60-night, sleep-at-home guarantee. “For so many trying to buy this way for the first time, it’s a top concern: ‘Will I be stuck because I didn’t come into the store?’ Willis says. “Give them every reason to want to give a new bed a try. It’s been an important factor.”
Willis also stresses that the e-commerce route can be what you make it. “You need to see it as whatever it takes,” he says. “It may be they buy on their own on the site or it may be first they’re online then they call or even that the site just helps them learn about what the experience would be in going to the store. Don’t get stuck on whether the customer stayed online for the purchase — if it became a sale in the store, then online still did its job.”
Give us a call
Kimberly Durjan, an owner of Cloud 9 Mattress & Furniture in Merritt Island, Florida, has a similar philosophy as an online sale is defined for her store as always involving a phone call. “We don’t have a shopping cart but get sales by eventually directing them to talking to us,” she says. “We have found this is the most effective way for our inventory to use online for sales at the present.” She believes online traffic might have had a slight uptick during the Covid-19 pandemic, but most of her customers were referral-based before and it has stayed that way.
Joel Harres, owner of Harres Home Furnishings and Appliances in Columbia, Illinois, has seen enough during the pandemic to further value e-commerce but says more sales are coming through the internet-call combination. “We’re a pretty tight-knit, localized area and, even though most start with the website, easily more than 90% (of shoppers) either come in and/or call,” he says. “We have a myriad of different beds and, depending on the buying group you’re in and the region you’re in, it’s difficult to compare apples to apples. Even having a good enough description online is tough, and it can be difficult to help them see the difference other than if they lie on the bed.”
Harres sees value in improving product descriptions and other changes to see what effect it has.
“It definitely makes you consider e-commerce more,” he says. “But where it’s just an online transaction, it’s less than 5% of all our mattress transactions at present. … But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t improve over time.”
For Dan Russell, part of a family business that has spanned generations, e-commerce has blown away his expectations. “We closed March 26, 2020, and opened around May 1, 2020, and we actually saw as much business off our website as what we’d get in the past by keeping our doors open,” says Russell, president of Russell Furniture & Floor Coverings in Staunton, Illinois. “I couldn’t believe it. Of course, customer service also played an important role — I live a mile from my business and have two employees. In the 40 days we were closed, there were only two days I wasn’t here at the location.”
Russell was amazed that he had 100 mattresses in his inventory and that, at the end of those 40 days, they’d been sold, a decent portion of them via the internet without a call.
Here’s where the investment in an easy-to-maneuver website partly comes into play.
“I definitely think it would have cost us if we didn’t invest enough in our website,” Russell says. “Many people from my area are always going to want to come in the store — always — but I think it shows that you can’t avoid the future. Think about how much has changed in the world already. Many people live their life from their phone. I’m glad I put up a good website because it definitely paid for itself. The (company that) built the website, all they do is build them for furniture stores. It helps to hire someone who is familiar with what you are trying to do.”
One current issue with e-commerce, Russell admits, is inventory. Usually, he says, his store can order on Monday and have product by Friday. Now, however, he’s waiting approximately five to six weeks to receive orders from multiple mattress manufacturers because they can’t get their product to the store any faster. But that, of course, is an altogether different and better problem to have than not needing to order more mattresses at all. “You can see how it can work now,” he says. “When we first faced this, you didn’t know what to think — and we’ve been in business more than 100 years.”
Ryan Young, store manager of Perrysburg Mattress in Perrysburg, Ohio, says e-commerce sales have been similar during the pandemic as before for his store. But he has a theory on why online sales haven’t been a larger percentage of overall revenue during this time. “I think a factor could be how much you encourage customers to come in the store,” he says. “For us, we just put a very large emphasis on that and, if we didn’t, maybe the numbers would be somewhat different.”
Young also has heard in the industry that there has been a sizable amount of more returns for online purchases versus in-store and that may be playing a role with mattress retailers not putting greater emphasis on e-commerce. “We are definitely thinking about possible changes to the online component in the future, and it’s something you have to keep paying attention to,” he says. “What I can say is we’re happy our business came back to good levels, and we’re optimistic for 2021.”
Optimism: Maybe the most important component to success right now, regardless of how you engage for sales. “People are staying at home more through this and they’re spending more time on their mattress,” Russell says. “That has them thinking about if they (want) a better one or if an old one needs to be replaced anyway. … It only takes getting out their phone to start the shopping process.”
The State of Retail
Retail stores already had their ups and downs, but the pandemic has been a whole different ballgame. However, sales have been better for many than expected.
Dan Russell, president of Russell Furniture and Floor Coverings in Staunton, Illinois, has been surprised, not only by online growth, but also by the return of his retail business, especially after being closed for about a month last spring. When Sleep Savvy spoke with him, he reported that this past summer was busier than any summer he can remember in roughly the past 40 years. He believes several factors were at play. “One was having a strong amount of inventory — buying and believing,” he says. “Also, we have 40,000 square feet of showroom space. It was easier to get people feeling comfortable about social distancing where it feels like you can have as much distance as you want. I keep hand sanitizer on hand, bleach our counter tops regularly and let people know we’re prepared.”
In Tampa, Florida, Jeff Willis, bedding buyer for Famous Tate Appliance & Bedding Centers, also saw its retail business fully come back, which he partly attributes to not letting up on advertising. “I believe many stores probably decided to cut their budgets everywhere, but that can also hurt your business,” he says. “We kept all the same advertising and it let people know we were open at a time when many potential customers assume a business is closed. You can’t put it on them to investigate — you have to let them know.”
Ryan Young, store manager of Perrysburg Mattress in Perrysburg, Ohio, says foot traffic is up from last year — to the point where it’s been one of the busiest times he has seen.
“I think some people have money that (otherwise) they would have put into areas ranging from football games to going out to dinner to a vacation,” he says. “They’re really taking a closer look at their house.”
Like Willis, Young also believes advertising helped as did getting on the news, letting people know the doors were open. “We were on both the local channels, explaining (we were) opening up and customers could even schedule an appointment if that made them feel better,” he says. “We took those videos and used social media and even Google Business to spread the word. We tried to put things more in our hands and it helped.”
Eric Butterman is a McKinney, Texas-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Glamor, Inc. and Mechanical Engineering magazine.