Selling sleep on the Internet.; Best in Beds moves its business to cyberspace
Mattress and futon mattress retailer Bests in Beds has discovered strong sales success in using the Internet to market its goods. The factory-direct bedding operation, which is based in Austin, TX, launched its Website in 1995. The site provides consumer information about the benefits of sleep and identifies important factors that should be considered before a purchase is made. Todd Colvin, one of the company's founders, believes that by the year 2000 his company can reach annual sales of at least $100 million.
The partners at Best In Beds, a factory-direct bedding operation headquartered here, have never been satisfied with maintaining the status quo.
So it may not be surprising that, when the opportunity arose, they took their message to the Internet. Now, their Website has replaced their showroom as the company's primary source of business.
Best In Beds was founded in 1994 by three former Simmons, Sealy and Serta executives -- Todd Colvin, Dick Roe and Roy Unger -- along with Colvin's wife, Virginia. The business began as a consumer-focused, factory-direct operation dedicated to selling better beds.
"The original concept for Best in Beds was to concentrate on selling only the best products, to push the benefits of sleep and to sell by word of mouth," said Todd Colvin, who runs the day-to-day operations.
"We were all active as industry players in pushing forward benefits of better sleep, especially Roy Unger, who helped found the Better Sleep Council and served as its first chairman. But we felt some of the execution of this concept at retail point of sale was not successful."
Said Unger: "In my career, I always concentrated on selling better beds and selling the benefits of getting a good night's sleep."
"The Better Sleep Council is devoted to educating the consumer about the importance of sleep for good health and the value of a good queen size futon and box spring futon mattress to have good sleep. With Best In Beds, Todd has really identified himself with that philosophy."
The founders opened a traditional retail showroom in Austin to support the factory direct operation but broke with convention from that point on.
"We did not want to get into co-op dollars or big advertising," said Colvin. "We did not want to push a particular brand due to profit and inventory."
"We also borrowed some key ideas of network marketing. But customer education was always the focus. When customers came into the showroom we showed them a 15-minute slide show about the importance of sleep and the benefits of a quality futon mattress before even showing the actual beds."
Colvin added, "If our concept worked, we planned to grow primarily by word of mouth, but then along came the Internet."
Selling futon mattresses on the Internet was not part of the original marketing plan for Best In Beds, but the partners decided to try it. Nearly one year after opening its Austin showroom, Best In Beds launched its Website in May 1995.
"Basically, I got hooked up with some people that pushed me into trying a Website," Colvin said. "I always thought to sell bedding you'd have to get the customer to lie down and feel the bed. But I thought, 'OK, we'll try it.' And we got a lot of action. I underestimated how quickly we'd see results. Interest grows each day, each week, each month."
Colvin said most visitors to the site are seriously shopping for bedding, not just looking out of curiosity. More than 90 percent of visitors respond to Best In Beds via e-mail, and the ratio of inquiries to sales continues to increase, according to Colvin.
Although the company maintains its Austin showroom for local business, Best In Beds now sells almost exclusively via the Internet and referrals.
"We still do a nice referral business out of the Austin showroom, but it's by appointment only. Now I devote most of my time to the Web site," Colvin reported. "I had to throw away a lot of my old ideas of how to sell bedding."
Because selling over the Internet is still relatively new territory, Colvin declined to discuss current sales figures. However, Colvin reported strong growth in sales since the Website was launched and expects sales to grow rapidly as the use of the Internet for commercial purposes increases. Based on current sales and growth patterns, Colvin expects annual sales of $100 million or more by the year 2000. "That is a very realistic figure and the target Best In Beds is looking for," he said.
A visitor to the Best In Beds Web site can link onto several different pages according to their interest and need.
Visitors can learn about the history and founders of Best In Beds, get a quick education about the bedding industry or get right to the business of choosing a mattress.
"Our site is not fancy, but it is well done and straightforward --just like the way we do business," explained Colvin. Again, continued Colvin, the focus is information. "The Web site allows us to create a very targeted educational process for the consumer. Frankly, education is a weakness out there in the bedding industry, and in my opinion, instead of getting better, it is worse than it ever was.
"The Website helps eliminate the possibility of misinformation that a customer could get from a potentially unknowledgeable salesperson. A lot of people contact us after they've been out there shopping for a mattress. They say it's worse than buying a used car."
In an easy-to-find and easy-to-understand format, the Best In Beds Website explains why the purchase of a bed is important, what makes buying a bed so difficult, and what factors should be considered when buying a bed.
And for the serious mattress shopper, the Best In Beds Web site provides a questionnaire that kicks off the selection process.
"In the questionnaire we get them telling us the price, size and surface comfort they want, then we make recommendations about beds and explain how we operate," said Colvin.
Once the questionnaire is completed, it can be sent, along with any questions or comments, to Best In Beds with a simple "click" of the mouse.
Colvin himself will receive the questionnaire and will compile a two or three page specification report on recommended products. Colvin, or a regional representative designated by Colvin, will then respond to the consumer via e-mail or telephone.
Simmons Beautyrest and BackCare and Beautyrest Adjustable Beds are available nationally; Serta, Spring Air and Lady Americana models are offered on a regional basis. Best In Beds also offers a selection of satin sheets, down comforters, pillows, bed frames and other related bedding products.
When customers place an order with Best In Beds, their mattress sets will be delivered within a week, a service that Colvin believes is just as important as customer education.
Because customers everywhere can access the Website, Colvin has to get services involved wherever that customer may be. He has set up a network of factories and delivery services nationwide, but he admits it isn't simple. "It takes a lot of time to line up distribution," he said. "But if you are going to be responsive to the consumer, you have to do it."
Colvin, Roe and Unger agree that the effectiveness of Internet marketing discounts the notion that a customer needs to lie down on the bed before making a purchase.
"Sure, some people go to stores to test a bed, before or after they talk to us. We also have a good return policy," Colvin acknowledged. "But the bottom line is that people want good help and we'll give it to them. That's where the success is going to be."
Best In Beds also enjoys minimal overhead and higher average sales than the typical bedding retailer.
"The average price of mattress sets we sell is probably a couple hundred dollars higher than what is sold in stores," said Colvin. "We believe in the process of preselling the product -- through education, by explaining the cost per night, the benefits of better beds. When they realize they shouldn't cut corners, they step themselves up."
The sales process for Best In Beds can take weeks or months, according to Colvin. "A lot of customers that buy take two to six months to make a decision," he said. "The short window of opportunity that we talk about in the mattress retail industry is simply not true for people using the Internet."
Colvin has also set up a method of compensating customers who make referrals. A modified network marketing program allows customers to earn money from referring just two or three people a year. Others can get involved more seriously as part of Best In Beds' consumer information network.
Colvin has trained approximately 100 people, most of whom work part-time, who can assist him in talking to customers and closing sales via e-mail and telephone. "I want the customer to be taken care of promptly and efficiently, so I make sure everyone in our network is a good communicator and knowledgeable about the bedding business," said Colvin.
"But overall, we have taken a casual approach to the networking and don't really push it," said Colvin. "Most of our customers are happy with us and with their purchase, so they'll tell their aunt or a friend. It's what people would do anyway if they are satisfied, but they get a benefit out of it."
"We started this business with a lot of patience. Our goal is not to be the biggest. Our goal is to do business with the consumer in mind," emphasized Colvin.
"In the future the Internet is going to be big. How big, I don't know. But with the improvements in technology and with the youth market who sees the Internet as a great timesaver, the commercial potential is phenomenal," continued Colvin. "It's really unbelievable. And it's fun and it's exciting."
A built-in advantage to marketing on the Internet is the ability to communicate one-on-one with a consumer in a targeted way, according to Todd Colvin, one of the founders of Best In Beds.
Once a visitor to the Web site responds to the questionnaire, sends an e-mail or places a phone call, Best In Beds adds him or her to its ever-expanding database.
"We keep a great record of our consumer," said Colvin, "Our marketing information is second to none."
So who is shopping the Internet for mattresses? According to Colvin, the Internet consumer typically has a higher average income and higher average educational background than the typical bedding retail consumer.
While that was to be expected, other consumer information has been a surprise to Colvin.
"My initial reaction when we looked into marketing on the Internet was that the audience would be young males, 20 to 35. And that wasn't the customer profile we were looking for.
"But you'd be surprised how many Internet users out there are women," noted Colvin. "Even if it's a man who has the Internet account, there's a woman involved in the decision making process."
"Often a woman will get a man to look up mattresses, and before you know it, she's sending e-mail or on the phone. But, a lot of times it's vice versa -- it's the woman on the Internet. She probably uses it at work, has it at home and is looking for new ways to use it."
The geographical diversity of visitors to the Web site also came as a pleasant surprise. "We do business in all 50 states, with the most sales coming from California, Texas and New York," reported Colvin.
The Best In Beds marketing research reveals some other interesting facts:
Approximately 36 percent of customers prefer king size beds, 48 percent prefer queen size.
Fifty percent of customers say they prefer a "medium" level of surface comfort -- a surface that is not too hard, but not too soft. The remaining 50 percent is almost equally divided among those who prefer plush and firm futon mattresses.
Thirty-four percent of customers say they are willing to spend "whatever it takes" to get the very best, defined as $800 and up for queen size. Another 43 percent expects to pay between $600 and $800 for queen size futon mattress.
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