. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
by Lauretta Converse
Is the black metal futon frame our own worst enemy?
Darth Vader peers over the edge of the space station and makes the bold, terrifying disclosure.
“Luke, I am your father!” Young Skywalker is devastated and forever changed by the revelation of his family tree. Though he wants to join the fight against the empire, he is dogged by his close link to Vader. Before he can move on, he must subdue his past once and for all.
Today’s futon frame resembles the Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker. Full of promise and distinction, the well crafted, well designed futon frame must deal with its dark relative - the black metal futon frame. Shiny, black and menacing, agent of the mass merchant empire, the black metal futon frame continues to drag down the reputation of mid and high end futon frames. Will the cheap metal futon of Darth-Mart win out? Will the stylish, quality futon frame of the specialty store be able to turn it from the dark side?
Likewise, how can specialty stores battle the black metal futons and the futon image that it perpetuates? How can retailers uproot the prejudice that customers hold as they enter futon stores? What can shop keepers do to persuade to buy futon frames at higher price points?
Sooner or later, retailers battle these difficult dilemmas. They are frustrated with these thorny problems. Here are some tactics.
Is the notorious black metal futon frame a specialty store’s worst nightmare?
As retailers spoke to me about futon frames this spring, I found strong animosity toward their enemy - the black metal futon frame. Renee Buck, of Maine Mattress and Futon calls the black futon frame “a curse.” “It cheapens our product and gives people the ‘Wal-Mart’ idea of a futon,” she laments. Keith Widlansky of Futons Plus sells the metal frame for $79, but admits that it is a “bastardized” futon. Other retailers refuse to sell the futon frame. It is a matter of conscience.
At the same time, retailers embarrassingly admit that this metal menace is actually their best selling futon frame. This is especially true during the back-to-school months of August and September. Despite the profit that comes from this promotional futon frame, however, stores are concerned that it brings the futon market down. They worry that selling the black beast is actually working against them. And they worry that the continual marketing of this futon frame will tie specialty stores too closely to the likes of Wal-Mart and K-Mart.
How can we distinguish specialty store futon frames from promotional futon frames?
Because mass-marketed futon frames are often the first image that comes to mind when customers think of futons, specialty stores have their work cut out for them. All futon retailers wrestle with the question, “how can I convince people that my futon frames are quite different and overwhelmingly better?” All futon retailers ask themselves, “how can I make buyers remark, wow! I didn’t know a futon could look like that!” when they enter my store?”
When it comes to distancing well-designed, well-crafted specialty store futon frames from mass market futon frames, there is a script for success. Specialty stores must dress the part. Larry Spayth of Futons 4 Less is firmly convinced of the importance of dressing his futon store to create the perception of quality. A futon “used to be just a futon. Now it’s furniture. And if you want to be treated like furniture, you have to act like furniture. You wouldn’t go to a dance in sneakers!”
Let’s face it. Accessories are increasingly important. As futons enter the living rooms of many homes, they need to ‘dress up.’ In the past, customers have looked to futons to fill a need in a guest room or home office. But as futons become the furniture of choice for living rooms, buyers are looking for the matching coffee and side tables that are traditionally offered with living room furniture. When frames are presented along with accompanying pieces, customers will clearly see futons as furniture and their perceived value will increase.
This means no more lining up futon frames like bowling pins. It means creating small room vignettes on your sales floor. Like a supporting cast, the presence of tables, case goods and other accessories is vital to presenting futons as quality furniture. They are crucial because they make futons look better, give them validity, and set them apart from mass-marketed metal frames.
Some retailers are not so enthusiastic about accessories. “They call them occasional tables, and I sell them occasionally,” was Lynn Hardman’s response from Southern Waterbeds and Futons. In fact, many other retailers are not excited about the tables and drawers made by manufacturers to complement their futon frames. Their complaints range from their size (too small!) to their price (too high!) to their style (too boring!). Carolyn at the Futon Shop and Crafts sees it this way: “Tables don’t move because my customers are tightwads.”
But selling a great volume of accessories isn’t the point. Successful retailers understand that even though they may not sell many, the presence of a well-appointed sales floor increases the perceived value of futons. “They make the showroom look great,” remarked George Zito of Rubber Match Waterbeds and Futons. Laura Arnovitz dresses The Futon Store with lots of tables and even adds magazines, baskets and plants to increase sales. Since enhancing her futon store this way, “we’ve done a better job selling at the high end.” And that’s the point.
How can customer objections concerning futon frames be overcome?
Ask any retailer and they will tell of their uphill battle to up-sell futon frames. Like heavy baggage, customers arrive in their stores lugging prejudices toward futons. Whether from previous bad experiences or perceptions formed by mass-merchandised products, they harbor grave concerns about futon frame quality and durability. Lots of them come in with little product knowledge. As Bill Menniti sees it, they come in with “the idea that they are junk.” Promotional futon frames? “They’re all they’ve seen,” remarked Jan Shogren of BJ’s California Futons.
Selling futons requires intense customer education. When customers come to Futon World, Angel Ramirez figures, “it takes thirty to fifty minutes for a sale because there are many objections to overcome”. To sell futons, salespeople are required to demonstrate the futon mechanism and answer questions like, “how does this one work?” and “is wood better than metal?” They must be able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of varieties of wood and how they relate to price. Customers also need education about the finish process and the futon frame’s warranty.
Don’t forget about assembly. At Right on Futon, Mark Bello takes sales training seriously and ensures that “every one of our salespeople knows how to assemble a futon frame, so that they can speak knowledgeably to customers about what is actually involved in assembly.” At Futons and More, salespeople go hands-on to educate their buyers. They have sample pieces of wood from a promotional futon frame handy to help customers compare wood densities for themselves.
How can we move customers to futon frames at higher price points?
Some retailers are stuck selling their promotional, low end futon frames much more than they want. What’s the trick to persuading customers to choose frames with higher price points, and, importantly, higher profit margins?
The key isn’t a trick at all. It’s customer education. Once customers are educated, up-selling them to a wood frame with a higher price point is easy. “If it’s done right, it’s easy!” remarks Steven Wolf of Croydon Mattress.
A savvy sales staff is able to explain to customers that better woods, nicer finishes, sturdier construction, and finer craftsmanship are worth the higher price tags. They are able to show them that step ups in price are actually a better value. They are able to demonstrate the quality differences between futon frames. Then they trust customers to choose the higher end futon frames. And customers do.
Many futon retailers, full of confidence in futons, are up-selling their customers.
Neil Zimmer’s strategy at Good Better Best Bedding is to establish a wide price range right off the bat. “Don’t be afraid to sell a pricey futon frame. Our average price for a set increased dramatically since we took that approach.” Wayne Holt of Futons and More agrees. “Don’t be cheap. Get the better futon frame and trust your customers’ ability to tell the difference,” he advises. Keith Widlansky echoes this advice, urging store owners, “don’t be afraid to show and sell the step ups”.
The most spirited advice is from futon retailers whose sales strategy revolves around their highest priced frames. These futon frames are key because they give sales staff something to talk about, of which they can say, “you haven’t seen this yet!” High end futon frames are a terrific starting point for customer education and up-selling. Ben Huth, of Huth Bedrooms, Inc. agrees. “I’d like to see an American made frame at $999. Let’s raise the bar… and have a new reference point for price.” He notes the introduction of a Wolf mattress at $449, a previously unheard of price point, and challenges the futon frame industry to do the same. “We are short changing ourselves if we don’t think we can sell a frame for $999.”
Still feel like none of your customers would go for such a high end futon frame? Maybe you are among the retailers that I spoke with that seem to be restrained from up-selling by their own inferiority complex about futons. Take a page of confidence out Larry Spayth’s book. “We are committed to the product. We love futons!”
Take that, black metal menace!
Lauretta Converse is a freelance writer here in Providence, RI. This is her second in a series of articles for Futon Life focusing on business trends and pricing issues in our industry.