One of the most popular features of Sleep Savvy is Retail Road Trip, which takes readers inside the operations of mattress retailers. The idea behind Retail Road Trip always has been that the best place to learn how to improve aspects of your business is to study retailers who already…
Photography by Brian Baiamonte
This Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based sleep shop chain thrives because of owners Lee Burns and Ty Hingle’s commitment to the value of rest – and their business acumen
Before the term disruptor was used to define direct-to-consumer online mattress brands shaking up the bedding industry, there were upstart sleep shops like Mattress Direct, which reshaped the retail landscape by focusing on mattresses and educating shoppers about the value of sleep.
Founded in 2001 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mattress Direct hasn’t strayed from its mission as a mattress and sleep expert as it has grown into a chain of 25 stores in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“It’s more important for us to find out what problems you’re trying to solve than to just get you to buy a mattress,” says Ty Hingle, who co-owns the chain with founder Lee Burns. “We like to say, ‘You can buy a mattress anywhere, but if you want to sleep better, come to Mattress Direct.’ Are you rolling over into a dip in the middle of your mattress? Is your partner’s snoring waking you up? Do you have back, neck or shoulder pain? Not every mattress is made for every person. We want to know the ultimate problem you’re trying to solve so we can help you address those issues with the right mattress.”
That means the sales process at Mattress Direct starts with a formal sleep assessment for each shopper — just one part of a carefully thought-out, measurement-focused approach Mattress Direct takes to everything from the rest-testing process to store design.
Back when Mattress Direct was only a single store, the biggest compliment a shopper could give the retailer was to ask if the store was part of a chain, Burns says. Such a question, he explains, showed that the store was presenting “a crisp, clean image” and demonstrating retail professionalism. But since its founding, the retailer also has focused on its roots in the region: The owners’ wives, Kim Burns and Allyson Hingle, are the faces of the business, and the chain’s jingle is performed by Kermit Ruffins, a renowned jazz trumpeter, singer and composer from New Orleans, who also sleeps on the retailer’s products. “We’re happy being the local guys,” Burns says.
A partnership flourishes
Burns, who had worked in mattress and furniture sales first at Montgomery Ward, then for Olinde’s Furniture and finally for Serta, opened the first Mattress Direct with his wife in Baton Rouge in June 2001.
“I saw the success sleep shops were starting to have and saw furniture stores giving up market share to them,” Burns says. “I saw the opportunity.” Within 90 days, Mattress Direct opened a second location in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Burns was eyeing other locations in the state.
While Burns was launching Mattress Direct, Hingle was national sales manager for a pharmaceutical company, traveling most of each week. “My wife got pregnant, and my mind flipped to thinking I can’t be that dad who misses kindergarten graduation and every soccer game,” he says. “We talked about it and prayed about it. I knew I needed a nontraveling position.” Burns and Hingle had been friends since high school, and Burns’ first retail sales associate hire at Mattress Direct was Hingle’s father, Barry Hingle, who had retired from a career with AT&T. A move to Mattress Direct was attractive to the younger Hingle, and when Burns got an opportunity to take over the two remaining stores in a failing New Orleans sleep shop chain, the two became business partners.
Mattress Direct thrived, adding more stores in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The growing chain had eight locations and the partners were considering additional stores along the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “Some of the places we were looking at were leveled by Katrina, and we worried New Orleans might never come back,” Burns says.
Slowed, but not stopped by the devastating storm, the chain soon opened a store in Jackson, Mississippi, and has averaged roughly two new stores a year since then, giving them “great market share,” Burns says. In August 2018, the retailer opened a new training and distribution center in Baton Rouge that services all 25 stores.
“One thing great about our size is that we’re strong but agile,” Hingle says. “We’re large enough to make investments in our company, but small enough to be nimble and make quick adjustments.”
“We’re happy with our current footprint,” he adds. “Our growth plans for the next few years are to fatten the area we have with distribution and advertising, though that’s not to say that we won’t add more stores if the right opportunities arise.”
Burns and Hingle say they work well together, dividing management responsibilities but staying connected to customers — whom they prefer to call guests — by taking their turn on the sales floor during major holiday sales. Day to day, Burns oversees administration, warehousing, advertising and merchandising, while Hingle handles all things sales.
“That’s what’s great about this industry,” Hingle says. “It coincides with our passions. We both want to help people and have philanthropy in our systems. When people ask me what I do, I tell them it’s my job to help people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and wake up refreshed and pain free.” (See story at right.)
The Mattress Direct way
Aside from a location in a historic building in New Orleans, which has its own vibe, Mattress Direct strives for store uniformity in terms of color palette, layout and merchandising. “Whether you walk into a store in Lafayette (Louisiana) or Hattiesburg (Mississippi), we want our guests to have the same experience,” Burns says. “It’s difficult to manage multiple stores if you have multiple arrangements, and it’s easier to control the guest experience if the stores feel the same.”
A model footprint is about 4,500 square feet, Burns says, which allows for roughly 40 mattress sets (two in king size and the rest queens) on the floor, plus seven twin mattresses racked in a value center.
Mattress Direct strives for a consistent, streamlined sales process that speaks to shoppers in ways they can easily understand. “We try in our sales process to eliminate the misconceptions about the mattress industry and to use, not mattress terminology, but terminology the guest will understand,” Hingle says. The retailer finds a straightforward method even more important today, when consumers can skip a visit to a brick-and-mortar store entirely to buy a mattress online with a click.
The mattress selection process starts by asking shoppers about their preferred sleeping position so they can pick a pillow (currently chosen from three different lofts in PureCare’s SUB-0° line with Frio chilling fibers) to take with them as they try beds.
“If you start with a pillow and get them to lie down with it for a little while, they relax and it sets the stage for selling sleep essentials,” Burns says. “If you (as an RSA) sell a mattress, we’re proud of you, but the guests came in for a mattress, so it’s better to work through the entire process and sell a protector, pillows, sheets and a lifestyle base.”
Unless a customer comes in asking about a specific brand or technology, rest-testing starts by using two models to determine whether shoppers like a firm or soft feel, then RSAs introduce them to various support systems.
To lead shoppers to a final mattress choice, Mattress Direct does something unusual among retailers: “We test them all the way down in price until they hit a mattress that’s no longer comfortable,” Hingle says. He explains the retailer’s thinking: “Most mattress guys say, ‘Don’t worry about price.’ But if you tell guests not to worry about price, they worry about it more. Price is always the elephant in the room, so we bring it up in our opening statement explaining the shopping process. We tell them, ‘We’ll start by seeing what mattress type feels best and then we’ll start dropping down in price until the mattress is no longer comfortable and see how much we can save you.’ ”
During the initial rest-test, RSAs will conduct the formal sleep assessment, asking shoppers about things like their current mattress, sleep troubles and health issues. The sleep assessment is so important to the Mattress Direct sales process that the store touts it as a free service, allowing consumers to schedule one online.
Each store’s merchandising highlights sleep accessories. For instance, near the testing models, Mattress Direct displays pillows and sheets. And the retailer works with its vendors to customize packaging and signage to prompt shoppers with key phrases like “sleeping hot” or “neck pain,” “so guests understand why it’s important to consider sleep essentials and what problems they can help solve,” Hingle says.
The value of sleep accessories is woven into every sales conversation. “When they choose a pillow, we put a protector over it, saying we want to keep it clean for them. And that starts the conversation about protectors,” Burns says. “We don’t want to wait until the end to sell accessories. That always feels like an add-on to guests. We introduce them early on and as a progression.”
The retailer carries protectors from Protect-A-Bed, sheets and pillows from Malouf and PureCare, pillows from My Pillow, and frames from Knickerbocker Bed Frame Co. Adjustable bases from Serta and Tempur-Pedic are placed under about half the models on the floor, and each shopper is introduced to one during rest-testing. Mattresses are priced as mattress only and as sets with box springs, but also with adjustable bases as another prompt to shoppers to consider them part of a complete sleep ensemble.
The retailer has a strong adjustable attachment rate — as high as 50% with Tempur-Pedic mattresses. Overall, attachment rates for other accessories run about 9%, Burns says. “If a guest is coming in for a better mattress — for a high-end Tempur-Pedic or a king size — accessories usually follow suit,” he explains. The retailer also has success bundling higher-end mattresses and accessories into specially priced packages.
RSAs who excel at selling accessories are rewarded for it. Inclusion in an annual trip that celebrates employees with the strongest sales is based not just on sheer volume but “on selling sleep essentials, as well,” Burns says. (See story on page 14.)
Mattress Direct carries the Corsicana, Five Star, Serta, Simmons and Tempur-Pedic mattress brands, as well as its own Dr. Greene’s line. (See story on page 12.) Mattress prices start at $299 and reach above $10,000, with an average ticket of $1,108, which has dipped slightly because of industrywide pricing pressures, particularly on adjustable bases, Burns says.
Consumers also can shop the retailer’s website, which has detailed product information and pricing for mattresses, bases and accessories. Most shoppers who buy through the e-commerce site live in the retailer’s market, though some products can be shipped farther away, Burns says. Others rely on the website for product research.
“We know 86% of consumers go online to do research,” Burns says. “But it feels like closer to 100%. Guests are generally well-educated on mattresses. They’ve done their research. They are looking at components. That wasn’t the case when we opened 18 years ago.”
Yet even knowledgeable shoppers need the assistance of RSAs, Burns and Hingle believe. “You reach a point in your life when you’re not sleeping well or you have back problems and that’s when you walk into a mattress store,” Burns says. “You may have heard of iComfort or know what memory foam is but you probably don’t know how those will help you.”
The retailer uses perks like “Double Your Warranty” (an extension of the manufacturer’s warranty on premium mattress sets) and its “365 Love Sleep Guarantee” (mattress exchanges for up to a year on most models) to distinguish itself from competitors and keep customers happy.
Mattress Direct’s main competitors include other sleep shop chains, as well as some well-established, independent local and regional furniture stores.
“We enjoy competition, especially people who run their businesses the right way and do the right thing for the guest,” Hingle says. “We also find we’re shopped against online competitors, too, but our biggest competition is ourselves and doing the best we can.” O
Shepherding the Dr. Greene Brand From Birth to a Box
When Ty Hingle first joined Mattress Direct and encountered customers with a particular ache or pain, he would sometimes call Dr. Craig Greene, a college buddy who’d gone on to a career as an orthopedic surgeon, for advice about what type of mattress construction would help alleviate their problems.
“After about a year of that, I was seeing patterns: If a guest had back and neck issues, they needed one type of support, but if they had hip and shoulder issues, they needed a different type of comfort,” says Hingle, who co-owns the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based sleep shop chain with founder Lee Burns. “We started thinking, ‘Could we develop a mattress to home in on these needs?’ ”
Burns and Hingle took the idea to Serta, a brand with which Burns had a long relationship, and the Dr. Greene Sleep System by Serta was born. The line has since evolved and now is available as a boxed bed made by Diamond Mattress and distributed nationally by the Nationwide Marketing Group/Mega Group USA, which offers it as its boxed exclusive. Renamed Dr. Greene’s Ideal Mattress, the brand relaunched in 2017 with its own website, SleepOutsidetheBox.com, and now is carried by more than 100 retailers, including, of course, Mattress Direct.
“We realized the next generation of buyers would be doing things differently and shopping online,” Hingle says. “So, we set out to make the best compressed, boxed mattress we could.” Under the new manufacturing and distribution partnerships, the mattresses are dressed in fresh covers, but still zoned for support of the neck and back while providing comfort for the hips and shoulders. Setting the brand apart from most other boxed brands is that some models contain innerspring cores. Other features include cooling cover fabrics, graphite-infused memory foam and gel-infused memory foam. Mattresses in the five-model line have suggested retail prices from $599 to $899.
“Having a boxed bed helps retailers open up the conversation with consumers who may be online or in places like Sam’s and Big Lots,” Burns says. “It helps the retailer with maybe just a few stores compete.”
Business Partners Have Intertwined Lives and Missions
Lee Burns and Ty Hingle, co-owners of Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based sleep shop chain Mattress Direct, aren’t just business partners, they are best friends, having known each other since high school.
“We’re very blessed,” Hingle says. “People ask, ‘How can you be business partners with your best friend?’ Lee and I try to be open books with each other. We believe two minds are better than one and that disagreements can foster conversations that make both people better. You have to have an open line of communication. We don’t agree 100% on everything, but we discuss 100% of everything.”
Burns explains the benefits of their close ties this way: “You hear a lot of stories about partnerships that fail or have issues, but in the 15 years we’ve been in business together, I’ve learned it’s a lot more fun to be in business with someone who’s a friend than to go it alone.”
Over the years, the partners’ families have become close, too. Hingle’s wife, Allyson Hingle, is a labor and delivery nurse and Burns’ wife, Kim Burns, works for Mattress Direct, but together the women appear in the retailer’s marketing campaigns and TV spots.
Burns and Hingle share not only business and family ties, but also a philosophy of life based in service. Both attend the same church, each serves on the boards of several charities and together they have brought a mission of philanthropy to their business. When customers buy a Serta sheep plushie, the entire purchase price is donated to a charitable partner, which varies from store to store. In addition, a portion of the retailer’s sales from the Dr. Greene’s Ideal Mattress brand are donated to charity, and the retailer has partnered with Relief Bed, a philanthropic bedding brand that provides sleep products for the homeless and victims of disaster.
“When there were floods in Houston and Baton Rouge, we sent 500 Relief Beds to help out people in those communities,” Hingle says, “and Lee has taken Relief Beds on mission trips to Honduras and Africa.”
“Training For the Marathon”
A well-trained staff is part of Mattress Direct’s success, and like the way co-owners Lee Burns and Ty Hingle approach other aspects of their business, they are deliberate and focused on the long term when it comes to employee education.
“We’re not training for a sprint, we’re training for the marathon, the long haul,” says Hingle, a runner himself. “Our mentality is you train for the 5k race, then 10k, then 13.1 miles, then 26.2 miles, so, as you advance with us you get better and better.”
Mattress Direct, with headquarters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, employs four corporate trainers and two regional sales managers who help ground new hires in the retailer’s basic procedures. After that, retail sales associates continue their education every other month at a corporate training center.
To keep its staff in top shape, the company recently opened a new training facility, which includes a classroom that accommodates as many as 50 people and a mock showroom setup, where RSAs can hone their skills.
In addition, Burns and Hingle go on the road each year, packing a visit to every store into a few weeks. The tour gives the partners a chance to inspect each location and to do on-the-spot training.
“We try to make it fun,” Hingle says. “We’ll have RSAs pick different scenarios they might encounter with a guest and role-play with us.” Points are awarded, with first-, second- and third-place winners.
The retailer has about 100 employees, including delivery, warehouse and administrative teams, with a couple of RSAs assigned to each store. RSA compensation is paid either in wages or commission, “whichever is greater,” Hingle says, adding “and we have a bonus structure to make sure we’re rewarding our top people.”
Every winter, the retailer treats its top five RSAs and their spouses to a Caribbean vacation — last year they went to Jamaica. Inclusion in the Presidents Club is based on a number of factors, including overall annual sales, success in a late summer contest and performance selling sleep accessories.
“They all look forward to it,” Hingle says. “We take along the regional sales managers and some industry people and have a great time.”
A. Palm is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has 25 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a publications director. She is a past editor in chief of both Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.