Why the glut of local mattress stores: marketing, health, hype?

Preston Soper, left and Jacquine Vehmeier tried out a Tempur-Pedic mattress as part of their new employee orientation as customer service representatives at Sleep Outfitters on Nicholasville Road in Lexington. The Sleep Outfitters location now has a Mattress Firm competitor on the same corner of Nicholasville Road.
Preston Soper, left and Jacquine Vehmeier tried out a Tempur-Pedic mattress as part of their new employee orientation as customer service representatives at Sleep Outfitters on Nicholasville Road in Lexington. The Sleep Outfitters location now has a Mattress Firm competitor on the same corner of Nicholasville Road.

Check out Nicholasville Road for a consumer phenomenon: On one side, regional bedding giant Sleep Outfitters, on the other national heavyweight Mattress Firm.

While consumers may be used to seeing fast food on both sides of a major thoroughfare, or gas stations, or even grocery stores, lately it seems that mattress stores are popping up, well, all over the place.

That’s a lot of mattresses, particularly if you buy a mattress about as often as you buy a car.

Mattresses are a key purchase in the starting-your-life over category. When people get new homes, downsize, move out of student housing, divorce or marry, there’s a mattress-buying opportunity. But the mattress industry says whether your life is changing or not you should change your mattress every eight years, by which standard many of us would be sluggards.

The phenomenon of many, many mattress stores is not limited to Central Kentucky. Freakonomics Radio in 2016 did a piece called “Are we in a mattress-store bubble?” The piece noted that mattress stores are “often clustered together, as if central planners across America decided that what every city really needs is a Mattress District.”

Nor is “why are there so many mattress stores here in our town” a novel article idea. It has been the focus of stories in Boise, Idaho; Spokane, Wash.; Chicago, and Columbia, S.C., among others. Freakonomics followed customers in Schererville, Ind., a mattress-stuffed town.

In an online forum, a Tucson resident documented and produced a map for four Mattress Firm stores in an area of two blocks — two Mattress Firm stores and two Mattress Firm Final Markdown stores. Mattress Firm now owns Sleepy’s, Mattress Pro and Sleep Train and has about 3,500 stores in the United States.

In Lexington, Mattress Firm has four stores — at 2399 and 3270 Nicholasville Road, at 2925 Richmond Road and 2160 Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University in Houston, has become an expert on mattress marketing and economics, discussing the mattress store phenomenon in a 2015 piece in Psychology Today.

During the recession beginning in 2008, “People just stopped buying mattresses, and so there was a lot of pent-up demand. And so, in the last three years or so, much of this pent-up demand has really released and encouraged many of these mattress companies to open new stores at a rather rapid pace,” Dholakia said.

He noted that Americans value their beds so much that in colonial America firemen tried to save the bed first, “simply because it was so expensive and so precious.”

Then, mattresses were handmade and stuffed with straw, feathers or horsehair.

With the advent of memory foam and the introduction of the Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress in 1991, bed technology changed. Tempur-Sealy, headquartered in Lexington, offers brands including Tempur, Tempur-Pedic, Sealy, Sealy Posturepedic, Optimum and Stearns & Foster. Tempur-Sealy is the world’s largest bedding provider.

There are online mattress vendors, too, among them Casper, Tuft & Needle and Purple. Although brick and mortar mattress stores say it’s impossible to get a feel for a mattress without literally lying down on it, online vendors rely on elaborate description of the science of sleep, how mattress materials work, and how-cool-is-that videos showing how the mattress literally inflates itself, no owner effort required.

Intellibed also sells online. A customer is quickly approached by a “sleep wellness consultant” who describes specials and offers help selecting a model (“the sleep wellness consultant,” himself, sleeps on the Posture Perfect Lo Motion model, which he volunteers is the most popular model).

Kim Knopf, chief executive officer at Sleep Outfitters, is not impressed by online competitors: “Some people might be content with the idea that one mattress fits everybody, but I would say the best way to select a mattress is to come in and lay down on it.”

“There’s so much focus on health today,” said Knopf, whose company has stores in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia, among them five in Lexington. “Now so much has come out on the importance of sleep to health, to physical fitness and weight, to how well your mind processes information.”

Knopf pairs with UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari to say the same in the popular commercials for her 160-store mattress chain. She hopes to open 23 more stores this year, predominantly in the areas where the stores are already well-known.

Sleep Outfitters’ five stores in Lexington are at 539 New Circle Road, 2303 Woodhill Dr., 1760 Harrodsburg Road, 130 W. Tiverton Way and 2398 Nicholasville Road

Knopf, 58, started her sleep empire while in her 20s, when she said the mattress specialty store was just starting to take off. (Furniture stores and even warehouse stores such as Costco also sell mattresses, as does even Big Lots, which has a rotating stock of closeout items.)

Nonetheless, Lexington has lots of mattress-only stores — from Sleep Outfitters and Mattress Firm to Jeff the Mattress Guy.

And now you can buy mattresses at the upscale Mulberry & Lime home furnishings shop, where owner Mary Ginocchio sells the Intellibed, which starts at $2,499 for a queen “basic mattress”’ and tops out at $3,899, also for a queen size in “posture perfect” or “relief perfect.”

For that price it has a 30-year guarantee.

“The thing that sets these beds apart from the memory foam is the Intelligel ... that’s used in hospital beds and wheelchairs,” Ginocchio said. “It allows you to get just the right alignment while relieving pressure points.”

And after buying the Intellibed, Ginocchio will help you “cover it with our luxury linens” from Mulberry & Lime — percale for those who like the cool crisp feeling, something sateen for those who crave a bit more silky warmth.

Jeff the Mattress Guy, aka Jeff Ginn, said that he decided to get into the mattress business nine years ago after he was treated rudely at a local mattress store. He also bought a bed at a local business that he described as “an air mattress for $2,800.”

His store, which he said includes the largest bunk bed showroom in Kentucky, is at 1747 Alexandria Drive.

Ginn describes his customers and appeal simply: “People who want to save money. I’m the lowest-priced guy in town.”

Like Knopf, he does not take online competition seriously: “I encourage my customers to price shop. This is one of the last things you can’t effectively buy on the internet.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman