This summer has seen another big billboard rollout for a bed retailer called Tuft & Needle, one of those upstart bed-in-a-box companies that primarily reach customers online.
You may have seen them, with black and white text that says simply “Mattress stores are greedy” with the note to “learn the truth” at the company’s website.
If these billboards are meant to grab attention and provoke a reaction, they clearly work. Within a minute of seeing one off Hwy. 280 in St. Paul, I had decided to make it a priority to keep my kids from buying a Tuft & Needle mattress.
No one should be rewarded for putting up billboards like that.
Tuft & Needle seems to be one of the best-known of the online upstarts, founded in 2012 by two friends who had been working together in Silicon Valley. They sell a basic mattress, inexpensively, that comes tightly packed in a big box.
The Arizona-based company was early to an industry niche that’s clearly turned into a raucous free-for-all, and its products seem to get fine reviews online.
The company expects to do maybe $250 million in sales this year, from a standing start six years ago, said Chief Operating Officer Nick Arambula. When the bootstrapped company first had a little budget for billboard advertising, the founders decided, “Let’s just say what we wanted to say all along, as customers when we founded the company,” Arumbula said.
They had had a bad experience as consumers, he said. The company strategy is to make something that’s expensive and no fun into a better experience. Arumbula said that’s why the company works hard at things answering the phone in two rings or less and responding to e-mails in a day.
Another goal of the mattress-stores-are-greedy campaign was to cut through the marketing clutter, although Arambula did concede, “It is a little bit accusatory.”
Well, more than a little.
Greedy is not a word meant to describe a business practice, the how. It’s about the motivation of the people who own the business. My dictionary says greed is an “excessive or reprehensible” desire for money or material things.
Greed is a term often tossed around to blast business people someone doesn’t like, whether they have done anything wrong or not. Even if the owners of a store wanted to act on their insatiable lust for money, in a competitive market “excessive and reprehensible” just won’t work. At least it won’t work for very long.
Looking into the public markets to see about how well mattress retailing pays didn’t reveal that much other than Mattress Firm, a public company based in Texas that was acquired a couple of years ago. One good measure of how much money a business owner can make is return on shareholders’ equity, a simple calculation that divides profit by how much money an owner has invested in the business.
In its last year as a public company, Mattress Firm earned a bit more than 13 percent on its common equity. Not bad, but not great, either. Last year Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. earned closer to 25 percent.
If selling mattresses in pleasant stores consistently earned 30 or 40 percent on the owners’s capital, competitors large and small would jump in until it quickly became impossible for anyone to make that kind of money. Even Best Buy would have gotten into the business.
The big differences between online buying and going into a traditional store seem to be about product types and business models, not avarice.
A scrunched-into-a-box bed can arrive via FedEx, while a more traditional mattress might need to be delivered in a store’s delivery truck. And online retailing obviously needs no store, with the rent, real estate taxes and other costs of occupancy.
These are complex products bought maybe once a decade where personal touch and feel seem to make a difference, but shopping for a bed in a box is largely a do-it-yourself project. So one big innovation seems to be getting rid of the salespeople.
Ours happens to be one of the metropolitan areas in the country with a lot of retail salespeople, 56,000 as of last count, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual earnings work out to be about $28,000.
Like in other industries, the best sales reps can make a good living. Yet according to the state’s employment data, the top 10 percent of people with this kind of job earned just more than $40,000. Does that seem like enough to attract people with an excessive or reprehensible lust for money?
I would give every Twin Cities furniture store experience I have had at least an A- grade, mostly because of the staff, but this is not to suggest that the traditional sales model is simply better. The online stores have made headway, and traditional providers need to respond, improving the experience of customers or maybe trying a hybrid approach of showroom and online to reach their customers.
For those determined to figure out what to buy without any help, good luck. “There are literally hundreds” of online retailers of mattresses, said Ben Trapskin, a mattress reviewer and founder of the Sleep Sherpa mattress showroom in Edina. “If you really wanted to beat the bushes, you could come up with thousands.”
There’s simply not much of a barrier to getting in, Trapskin said, just lining up a contract manufacturer and launching a website. An explosion in the number of providers is one reason Trapskin opened a showroom for online products. The existence of lots of options for a big purchase seems to call for a place for people to lie down on the product before buying.
So for you young people out there looking for a mattress, there are lots of good choices. Do your homework and even visit a few stores. Remember that value isn’t the same as the price.
And if you buy from Tuft & Needle, fine. They run very irritating ads, but at least they promise to answer the phone.