July 15--Shortly after Melissa Marik moved into a new apartment in February, a Mattress Firm store moved in a block or two away from Marik -- and from another Mattress Firm.
She was baffled.
"I never even see anyone in the stores," said Marik, 27, who was walking down a mile stretch of Clybourn Avenue in the Lincoln Park neighborhood that boasts five Mattress Firms, two American Mattresses and a Sleep Number.
Even the CEO of Mattress Firm, Ken Murphy, agrees Chicago probably has a few too many -- but there's a method behind what some may see as the madness of mattress stores seemingly on every corner.
In its best markets, Houston-based Mattress Firm aims to have a store for about every 50,000 people. That means Murphy would eventually like to have roughly only 200 in the Chicago area. Today, there are 235.
Some duplicative or unprofitable stores will be closing but not right away. Mattress Firm is reviewing its real estate footprint with an eye to trimming stores but hasn't yet decided how many or which stores to shut down, according to the company's first-quarter financial report. Most closures will come as store leases end, Murphy said.
Even 200 is a lot of stores specializing in a product that for many customers is a once-in-a-decade purchase.
"Car dealers come closest, but there are no other retail chains that focus on big-ticket discretionary products with that many stores," said Wedbush Securities analyst Seth Basham.
Roughly 9,000 specialty bed and mattress stores in the U.S. generated about $11.5 billion in revenue in 2015, according to a report last year from market research firm IbisWorld.
So why are there so many?
In Chicago, the answer has a lot to do with Mattress Firm's push to grow through acquisitions.
Mattress Firm, the U.S.'s largest specialty mattress retailer, got into the Chicago mattress market about two years ago when it acquired Back to Bed and Bedding Experts. It bought another competitor, Sleepy's, last year and finished rebranding those stores by July 4.
"While in many respects it's been a great opportunity to get as populated in the market as quickly as we have, the downside is we have real duplication of stores right on top of one another," Murphy said.
It still has competition from other specialty mattress chains, including Sleep Number and Addison-based American Mattress, in addition to furniture stores and big-box retailers that sell mattresses.
Furniture stores and department stores used to be the only places to buy a mattress, said Jerry Epperson, a furniture and mattress industry analyst with Mann, Armistead & Epperson. But manufacturers, which wanted to encourage people to replace their mattresses even if they weren't buying a new set of bedroom furniture, started promoting the idea of dedicated mattress stores, and they've been spreading rapidly since the 1990s, he said.
Industry analysts' take on whether the U.S. has too many mattress stores depends on how well they think generalist brick-and-mortar retailers and online mattress startups will fare against traditional mattress specialists.
But Murphy said there's "a logic to the apparent madness" of the store-on-every-corner approach.
A new mattress -- expensive and nonessential -- was an easy purchase to delay during the recession, which has likely led to some pent-up demand, said Rice University marketing professor Utpal Dholakia, who got interested in the mattress business when a British student wondered why every American strip mall seems to have its own mattress store. Industry analysts also say a spate of bedbug infestations may have prompted at least a few extra sales.
Mattresses are a relatively high-margin product, and stores don't need that many employees, meaning each location doesn't need to sell a huge number of mattresses to break even, industry analysts said. And every store does double duty as advertising -- important for a product most people don't think about until they need it.
"We want prominent, convenient, high-profile locations our customers will be driving or walking past anyways so that when they do get in the market, we're the natural default option," Murphy said.
He thinks there's room for more Mattress Firm stores, albeit not in Chicago. The company had 3,472 as of May 3, and he thinks it could support about 4,500 across the U.S.
Mattress Firm is trying to be the first truly national brand in the mattress space in hopes that scale will give it more leverage over vendors, more efficient operations and better name recognition.
But analyst Basham said he's on the fence about how big a boost national scale will provide amid growing competition.
Online upstarts are looking increasingly strong in a sector that was once considered internet-proof.
The best-known are early entrants like Casper, Tuft & Needle, Saatva and Leesa, but KeyBanc Capital Markets analyst Brad Thomas estimated there are 50 or more brands trying to get a piece of your bedding and mattress dollars.
So far, they account for a tiny but growing share of the overall market -- about 4.6 percent this year, up from 1.8 percent last year, according to Thomas' June report.
Younger customers are more open to the idea of buying mattresses over the internet without first getting to test them in stores, Epperson said. That's partly because millennials are accustomed to shopping online but also because online companies have done a better job marketing things young customers care about, like ease of purchase.
"If you think about how mattresses have been marketed, it's all about health issues. If you read the ads, mattresses cure everything but balding," he said.
When Wedbush surveyed 1,000 shoppers about buying online, only 10 percent said they were willing to do so without perks like free delivery, 100-night free trials and free returns. But when those services -- all of which many e-commerce mattress companies offer -- were included, about 30 percent were open to buying online, Basham said.
Most larger bed-in-a-box brands sell for between $500 and $999, depending on size. That is the most popular price range for all mattress sales, accounting for about 41 percent of mattresses sold last year, according to the KeyBanc report, citing data from the International Sleep Products Association. Only 5 percent of mattresses sold were priced above $2,000, though they accounted for 18.5 percent by value.
Some traditional companies have responded with their own bed-in-a-box options, including Mattress Firm's Dream Bed at $600 to $999 and Sealy's Cocoon at $549 to $950.
Meanwhile, online players are also finding ways to cater to customers who still want to try before they buy, whether through showrooms or partnerships with brick-and-mortar retailers.
Furniture company west elm is selling Casper mattresses in all its stores after the companies announced a partnership last week.
Pairing up with west elm meant Casper could get into brick-and-mortar sales beyond those at its New York and Los Angeles showrooms much earlier than the company could have done on its own, said Casper co-founder and CEO Philip Krim.
"We've tried to change the traditional paradigm a bit, but there are still people who need to sleep on it first," Krim said.
Lana Galkina, 19, sleeps on a bed-in-a-box in the room she sublets. "It's not comfortable, but it does the job," she said.
Mike Hare, who is engaged to Marik, of the North Side, wasn't sold on that option. "You're sleeping on it for hours every day. I have to feel a mattress," said Hare, 28.
He bought his last one at Darvin Furniture in Orland Park. Hare was moving and said it made sense to get the new mattress and furniture all in one place.
Some furniture stores and big-box chains see that convenience as an opportunity to take customers away from specialists.
Suburban Detroit-based Art Van Furniture, which is expanding in the Chicago area, has opened 38 free-standing PureSleep brand stores in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio since 2009. The company has 89 PureSleep galleries in its furniture stores.
Chains like Costco -- traditionally known for a more limited, low-end selection -- have benefited from customers' growing comfort with researching mattress options online and ordering directly from the retailer, Basham said.
But how much of the mattress game they can win is an open question, and traditional specialists are fighting back with efforts to improve online sales and expand their range of products to give customers a reason to shop more frequently.
Specialty stores still have a wider selection, and plenty of people are still willing to make a dedicated trip to check out options and get advice on what to buy, industry analyst Epperson said.
"It's not like before when you felt like you were walking to whichever gave the salesman the biggest commission," he said.
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