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Mattress retailers have been forced to take a hard look at their business model in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We chat with Chris Schriever, publisher of Sleep Retailer, about the modernization of the mattress category, and more.

 

Rob Stott: All right, we’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and diving into an episode here on our trade partner series and excited to have Sleep Retailer on. Chris Schriever, publisher at Sleep Retailer, I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule. Love the microphone. I think it’ll be in the shot on the podcast when we get this rolling, but I like that you’ve got the podcast set up ready to go.

Chris Schriever: We’re ready. I love it. Thanks for having me on. It’s great to be here today.

Rob Stott: No, I appreciate you, like I said, coming on and getting to know a little bit about what you guys are covering and a little bit about you too. We’ll start there, publisher for Sleep Retailer. Tell us a little bit about yourself and about your publication.

Chris Schriever: Sure. Well, I’ve been in the publishing industry since 1998, actually, a while working with a variety of consumer B2B and association magazines primarily in the advertising end. Working on creating revenue and revenue packages to make magazines sustainable for our partners. For over 20 years, Sleep Retailer has been a dynamic industry resource helping retail store owners, their buyers, RSAs and managers stay up to date on the industry information that’s necessary to help the store succeed.

Rob Stott: Got you. Well, since 1998, that means you’ve seen a couple of waves come and go here, obviously this latest one being COVID.

Chris Schriever: Absolutely. It’s interesting, I acquired Sleep Retailer, which was then called Bedroom Magazine, in 2008, so during the 2008 recession. I acquired this magazine and at the same time we were in the process of launching another one for the drug testing industry, and both of them are still thriving, which is good. It worked.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Tell me a little bit about the history of Sleep Retailer. I guess you say you acquired it in 2008, what attracted you to the publication?

Chris Schriever: I had been working with the previous owner of the publication for a number of years. We were their design partner and their print partner. It was the other side of the business that I have, and it just got to the point where they were struggling, and so I had said we can jump in here and really deploy some of our best-known practices to keep the publication going.

Rob Stott: Got you. I know we said that you came in at an interesting time. We’re going through an interesting time right now, obviously, working at home. The nice thing about the publication side of things, and it’s a part of my history as well, as long as you have a laptop and an internet connection, you can get the job done.

Chris Schriever: No, that’s absolutely right. I mean that’s really, it’s fantastic. It’s nice to also be connecting with people from the industry and see where their home is and see what they’re up to and know that they’ve got kids running out as well. We’re all doing the best we can, and I think it’s proving, this time is proving, that it’s all doable. It may not be as easy or in some cases, maybe it’s easier, but it’s all manageable.

Rob Stott: For sure, for sure. Something I know I’ve joked about across the different product categories that we have here at Nationwide, but it’s also for everyone staying at home, giving you a chance to really put those products, those major products, through the paces and mattresses are one I’m already thinking, man, what am I getting next?

Chris Schriever: I think many consumers are thinking the same thing.

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s crazy. But what have… you talk about the, obviously, the working from home side of things, but the industry you cover, what have the last few months been like for sleep retailers and mattress dealers out there as they navigate COVID?

Chris Schriever: It’s interesting and like everything right now, the sentiment has been evolving over the last three months. Initially, manufacturers were scrambling to figure out what they could and should be doing? How they were going to keep their employees, whether they should be bringing them in and having them make things, or whether things were just at a complete standstill? Things did come to a standstill.

Then we saw manufacturing companies figure out really how to switch gears, how to create PPE and how to make hospital beds. Those two things allowed them to be determined essential businesses and to stay open. With their doors open, they were able to keep their employees employed. I think that was really a very important and critical time for a lot of manufacturers. That was really where the first wave of coverage was focused. It was on that charitable, that survival sort of mode, right?

Rob Stott: That’s always cool too because I mean, obviously, Nationwide, all of our independent retailers, one of the things I think the theme that always stands out is how nimble small businesses are and independent businesses.

Chris Schriever: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: Just able to adjust on the fly to adapting to new environments or challenges or what have you. But that’s awesome. I mean you think about the ways that a mattress retailer or manufacturer can adjust and serve in a time like this and hospital beds. I’ve heard a bunch of different ways that this space, specifically, can adapt and that’s one that didn’t even ring… hadn’t come to mind until you just mentioned it. That’s awesome.

Chris Schriever: Sure. Yeah, no, it’s interesting. Most people thought immediately about the building, creating masks.

Rob Stott: Right, right.

Chris Schriever: … impacting people that way, but the need for additional hospital beds during this time was huge, and it’s nice to see how the industry really stepped in, figured out what products were necessary to keep everyone safe, not just while they’re making the beds, but also for the beds when they’re in the hospital setting. Then one major licensee, in fact, had this binder that they create that showed what those guidelines were and they were able to hand it to all of their manufacturing partners throughout the country. Each one of them had the option then of staying open, so it’s pretty substantial. Right?

Rob Stott: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean and that goes to the challenge of staying open, which I know there were some in the independent space, our members that were fortunate enough to be at the outset declared essential, but many weren’t.

Chris Schriever: Right.

Rob Stott: Aside from the challenge of staying open, what were some of the other big challenges that this space faced that you were able to find through coverage?

Chris Schriever: Well, I’m glad that you mentioned that because in those early stages, as that was being determined, whether retailers would be determined essential or not, I mean it really depended on where in the country they were. We heard a lot of frustration from retailers and a lot of confusion.

But then what really started to happen is you saw manufacturers shift towards e-commerce programs, which allowed retailers to step up their e-commerce game and be a part of this through a sales vehicle that was working for them. Right. But honestly, both retailers and manufacturers alike have had to pay very close attention to what was going on, and also watch consumer spending habits and see how those were evolving so that they could adjust their own operations to better meet those needs. I think that’s been something that also has proven how nimble small businesses can be, right, and how nimble you have to be

Rob Stott: For sure. I mean the digital side of things is one… That’s where you talk about the opportunities available through Nationwide out there as far as website management, building websites, that sort of thing, getting those online services. But the e-commerce side for the sleep business, when I think about shopping for a mattress, you want to get that look and feel, you want to see how comfortable it is and that sort of thing. Walk us through what that looks like for mattress retail, online retailing for a mattress retailer? How does that happen? How do you still get that experience of shopping for a mattress while doing it online?

Chris Schriever: Well, honestly, I think that this pandemic has accelerated the online mattress market immensely. In general, I think it’s made a lot more people comfortable with the idea of shopping online, not just for mattresses, right? For many, many other things. My in-laws, for example, were not Amazon shoppers to begin with. Now they’re like, “We could just buy it online.” I’m like, “Yes, you can. You do not have to leave your house. In fact, please don’t.” It’s been interesting.

But I don’t think the user is all online. I think we’ve seen a lot of companies introduce some safety and cleaning protocols, and certainly you’re up on that as well. Tempur Sealy, Precision Textiles, and Bedgear, all have products available to keep that mattress clean once consumers are able to start returning to feeling comfortable returning to stores. Right?

I think, in a lot of ways, the new cleaning procedures probably should have been happening before COVID, right, to help everyone feel a little more comfortable. So having them in place moving forward may offer a greater sense of comfort for consumers.

Rob Stott: I don’t know, what specifics? I mean, obviously, there are things like mattress covers that could be used in single, almost like you think about shoe shopping and you see those little things that… The sock covers and things like that, that people can put on. Is it similar to that or what other types of measures are there for… 

Chris Schriever: It is, yeah, in those cases, it is. Bedgear’s got a … they created a clean… Sorry, Bedgear created a clean guideline that includes a patented sleep napkin that covers the bed and the pillow for people to test mattresses out, and Precision Textiles did the same thing. It’s this great pad that goes over the top of a mattress, so a consumer can feel comfortable knowing that they’re the only one that has laid down and tested that clean sheet. Right?

Rob Stott: Right.

Chris Schriever: It’s pretty cool.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Any other… any stories like that of people finding unique ways to adapt through this or find ways to separate themselves or tell a different story maybe that you’ve come across?

Chris Schriever: Well, I think the other side of that is also that brick and mortar retailers are going to have to provide a markedly different retail experience, one that separates what consumers can get online to make it more unique for them to come in the store. We’re seeing a move towards a more consultative sales approach that helps build trust and creates a sense of connection between the shopper and the retailer.

That might require some new RSA training, and we’ve covered some of that, but it also might make appointment only stores more popular. Right?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Chris Schriever: I mean, when you think about some of the brands that were doing that already, that sales approach allows retailers to limit the number of people in their store and adequately prepare for safety guidelines, right? They can change those protectants on top of their bed before each new customer comes in, so the consumer isn’t standing there waiting for the salesperson to change it. It’s going to create that better experience. Right.

Yeah, there are stories that are showing how… stories from retailers, that are showing how this can be spun in a different direction to help consumers feel comfortable during that retail experience.

Rob Stott: Got you. No, and I mean, lots to come I think from what we’ve learned as we’ve talked about throughout this. Just the ability of the retailer to adjust has been key. It’s been kind of, not kind of, it has been inspiring to watch, but more to learn, I think, too looking ahead to the second half.

Chris Schriever: Absolutely

Rob Stott: I think there’s trends in that way that we could look at it as far as what the retailer’s doing. But not to switch off of COVID, but are there any… When I think I told you at the top, I came from trade publications and my line was CE, so consumer electronics, and innovation was always happening every day and that’s the reason there was something new. What does innovation in sleep, in mattresses and sleep tech look like that you guys are tracking? What excites you about the second half or what you see coming down the road here?

Chris Schriever: Yeah. I think it’s interesting, and we touched on this at the top of the podcast where people are spending more time at home, right, so they’re looking at that mattress, they’re looking at the quality of sleep they’re getting. I think they’re more hyper-aware of it at the moment. They’re looking at some of these tech products that are tracking their sleep and analyzing how long they’ve spent in bed and how many times they’re tossing and turning.

In terms of sleep tech, we’re always looking for products that provide actionable support. It’s great to know that you didn’t sleep well, but what can I do with that? As a consumer, how is that helping me? Or is it just making me feel more anxious. I don’t need to feel more anxious. I want to sleep better.

Rob Stott: Thank you for telling me I toss and turn. I know I do it. Now what?

Chris Schriever: Exactly. For us, we’re really looking at products that are providing information and data in tangible ways, rather than simply dumping a lot of raw data and confusing the customer.

Rob Stott: Got you.

Chris Schriever: I think as we, as an industry, focus more on the health and wellness benefits of better sleep, and we take a more holistic approach to sleep wellness, we’ll see bedding and mattress products that have informed scientific data and intentionally improving a consumer’s health.

Rob Stott: Got you. Now, is a show like… Having gone to shows with Nationwide, continue to go to shows to see what’s happening in the different spaces. CES is one that we go to. Sleep tech has really infiltrated that show. Specifically-

Chris Schriever: Incredible, right?

Rob Stott: I know. I mean for mattress toppers that have sensors on them and things like that to full-blown mattresses that are integrated with this sort of stuff. I mean when you go to a show like that… Well, do you go to shows like that? What’s the takeaway of seeing just how much sleep tech has become more of a presence at those shows?

Chris Schriever: What’s interesting to me when I attend CES, which I always find completely fascinating, is watching the consumer or watching who I think is a consumer, right?

Rob Stott: Right.

Chris Schriever: Interact with those products and just seeing their reaction and knowing what’s behind it, right? Knowing that they’re there, and they’re there interacting with that because they have some sleep issue. They have something that’s not allowing them to rest at night. I think that if we can take what that consumer… If we can take the reasons behind why that consumer is interacting with those products, we as an industry will be very… will be more informed and will be able to move forward and improve things dramatically.

That, for me, is what I think is fascinating about CES. Not to mention, of course, how much that category has expanded. I mean it used to be a couple of products here and there. Now there’s the whole section devoted to sleep.

Rob Stott: Yep, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that… The thing that stood out to me, and it’s not only because I get kneed and elbowed in the side at night to stop snoring. But it was this one piece of tech. I can’t remember the name of the company off the top of my head, but they had a pillow that could sense if you were snoring. If you were, it would rather than kneeing you in the side, it would slightly inflate itself, so it would turn your head to get you to roll over and potentially stop snoring, being in a position that would make you stop snoring.

But is there any piece of technology or something that doesn’t… maybe not necessarily a piece of technology, but something like that that you see, you don’t think gets enough attention, or you think has the potential to really impact the space?

Chris Schriever: I think as we see the complete sleep system, the intelligent sleep system with the power base, with the integrated mattress, I think as we see the pricing structure on those come down a little bit, and we see more awareness on the consumer end on what those products can do to prevent you from being kneed or kicked in the middle of the night. Right? But to help you stop snoring or to help you breathe better, I think we’ll see an uptick in sales on that end.

I mean those products are fantastic, right. The bed adjusting so that you stop snoring or you breathe better, or it senses that your body is warming up and you’re getting too hot and you’re going to start being restless, so it cools itself down. That’s an immense technology that is, I think, incredibly helpful.

Really, when we think about how our home is becoming so smart, right. We pull in the driveway, the garage door opens, the lights come on, maybe there’s music, the door unlocks. Why not have your bed react to you in the same way?

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean for the retailer out there, and even potential consumers as well, easy solution to say, “Hey, get on the Sleep Retailer Newsletter list, so you could stay up on all these things, but what are you guys doing? How do you stay up on these trends and know what’s coming from a tech perspective to be able to cover this and pass this information on?

Chris Schriever: That’s a great question. We’re a team of three. We have Gretchen Kast, our managing director, and Elaina Hundley, who handles marketing and sales, and then myself. I think between the three of us we are as intrigued by sleep as anything. We’re constantly looking for news and watching the trends and looking at what’s out there.

I think between that and our PR partners who are continually feeding us information, we feel like we’ve got our finger on the pulse in the industry and are happy to help encourage retailers to learn the most about bedding and mattress products that are coming online and the innovations just continue to come, which is pretty cool.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Chris, I’ve taken more of your time than I anticipated, but it’s cool to learn about a space that honestly, prior to Nationwide, didn’t have too much contact with. It’s clear that innovation is happening here, even in the face of some serious disruption, whether it’s COVID and other things. I appreciate you taking the time and chatting with us and tearing the layers back on Sleep Retailer.

Chris Schriever: Rob, it’s absolutely my pleasure, and thank you and Nationwide for the opportunity. It’s great to connect with you today, and if any of your listeners want to learn a little bit more, they can tune into sleepretailer.com.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Appreciate it, and hope to catch up again soon, maybe in person before we know it. We’ll see how this thing goes.