Nestled quietly in Minnesota is a small company seeking to launch a revolution while America sleeps. The company is called Select Comfort, and according to its president and chief executive officer, Bill McLaughlin, his organization is engaged in creating a “sleep revolution.” With its new sleep system based on air chambers (as opposed to traditional metal-spring mattresses), Select Comfort is successfully working to improve people’s lives by changing the way they sleep, says McLaughlin.“We have a fantastic product with over 1 million customers,” says McLaughlin. “Our challenge is to help others discover this new sleep system. We’re in the middle of a big, well-established industry, yet we’re bringing a whole new advantage to the market.”
This mindset can be traced back to the company’s beginnings, when its founder, Bob Walker, decided that there had to be a better way to make a comfortable mattress. “Bob Walker started his career in an inner-spring mattress factory. There, he saw pictures of how they made the mattresses from the early 1900s and realized that they were still making mattresses the same way,” McLaughlin says. “He evaluated and tested a full range of materials – metal springs, water, foam and gels – and concluded that air was the best medium to provide comfort and support, and to allow the unique attribute of personalized adjustability.”
Since that time, says Mark Kimball, senior vice president and general counsel, Select Comfort has perfected its product and supply chain, and has seen significant sales growth – from slightly less than $1 million in 1991 to $276 million in 1999. Through a carefully planned strategy of both direct marketing and the establishment of more than 320 retail stores throughout the country, the company has made its mark in a field dominated by the so-called Four S’s: Sealy, Serta, Simmons and Spring Air.
Select Comfort has done so by establishing itself as a true sleep-technology leader, the holder of 24 U.S.-issued or pending patents. The company equips its mattresses with a patented air-chamber design, in which individual air chambers contour to the body for optimum comfort and support on both sides of the bed. The chambers are made with a durable, double-reinforced I-beam construction. Each chamber consists of 24-gauge vulcanized rubber bound to tightly woven, non-stretch cotton for superior strength and support. These chambers are covered with high-quality, hand-sewn fabric. A high-density foam perimeter surrounds the mattress for optimum structural support.
Floating on Air
Select Comfort beds and mattresses are unique, McLaughlin says, because of their innovative construction: “The air chambers allow independent adjustment for comfort on each side of the bed, done easily and electronically via remote control. No inner-spring bed can do that. This adjustability allows consumers to find their personal preferences of support and comfort. Air chambers also deliver lower pressure points on the sleep surface because air dissipates weight over the entire surface. Air also provides superior support and spinal alignment because it contours to the back whether you’re on your side or your stomach. The bottom line is that the Select Comfort bed helps people get the best night’s sleep.” The firmness control system is small, with a superquiet electric blower unit that tucks away neatly under the bed. It’s activated by an easy-to-use, handheld controller that operates at the touch of a button.
Delivering real benefits to the consumer is a phrase heard often around Select Comfort. Yet these words are not just those of company managers wanting to promote a product. Independent studies and unsolicited testimonials have proven that Select Comfort’s air-chamber technology provides a more comfortable night’s sleep. Numerous studies by medical and research institutes have supported Select Comfort’s claim. For example, in a recent study by Sister Kenny Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, 67 percent of the people asked to test Select Comfort beds reported reduced daytime sleepiness, 89 percent reported improved sleep quality and 93 percent reported back pain relief.
“We were recently recognized as the No. 1 bedding retailer in Furniture/Today magazine,” says Diane Utzman-O’Neill, vice president of brand management. “We’ve received more than 15,000 unsolicited testimonials from people who say they’ve received a better night’s sleep on our beds.” The company has also received testimonials from celebrities who sleep on the bed, such as Demi Moore and the Minnesota Vikings’ Cris Carter, who reports, “What I’ve experienced on the Select Comfort bed is a rejuvenated body when I wake up in the morning. If I didn’t believe in this product, I wouldn’t use it.”
Dave Beres, director of strategic intelligence, explains, “The comfort our bed gives has been documented internally and in medical communities. It’s tested in a variety of ways with a device called an Ergocheck, which is a mat with pressure-sensitive sensors that you lay over the sleep surface and hook into a computer. It shows a diagram of the body and measures pressure points. As you make the right adjustments on our mattress, the pressure points dissipate.”
Select Comfort’s array of products includes the Classic series, the original air-cushioned, adjustable-firmness mattress, which is 71/2 inches thick. The Elite, at 91/2 inches thick, is soft but supportive with an extra layer of foam for added plushness. The Ultra series, at 111/2 inches thick, is the most popular Select Comfort line, and is covered in white Belgian damask. The Imperial series’ 131/2-inch thick mattress takes comfort to a new level and provides unparalleled sleep. All come in standard mattress sizes, from twin to king, and all except twin offer the option of dual air chambers that allow each side of the mattress to be adjusted independently.
Awake to the Future
While the company is enjoying success, it still faces real challenges as well. “First, we are working on our cost structure,” McLaughlin says. “We had built an infrastructure to support expansive growth of our distribution base, but we’re now working to bring that back in line.” The second challenge, he says, is to promote more awareness of the company’s products. “We are launching a new brand and a wide-ranging promotional program in 2001, and our supply-chain team is ready to support increased demand. We have plants in Minneapolis, South Carolina and Salt Lake City, all staffed with high-quality people dedicated to making and distributing a superior product,” says McLaughlin.
Select Comfort also recently acquired Sleep-Tec, the supplier of its Sofa Sleepaire Collection™. “This acquisition allows us to incorporate the manufacturing into our plants and bring the supplier onto our programs,” McLaughlin says. “Our sleep system is a perfect solution to the problems of traditional sofa sleepers, such as the bar in the back, the sagging sofa and sheets that don’t fit. While traditional sofa sleepers carry a 4- to 7-inch thick mattress, the Select Comfort Sofa Sleepaire™ features an 11-inch deep mattress which offers unmatched comfort and support. It also offers the added convenience of allowing standard sheets to fit properly.”
“Until recently, we’ve maintained a direct channel of distribution including sales by phone, via our Web site and through our own retail stores,” Kimball explains. “Now we’re looking for additional avenues of distribution. Recently, we began selling beds through high-end furniture retailers such as Gabberts, in Edina, Minn. This store became the first traditional furniture retailer to offer Select Comfort beds. We have also been running successful sales programs on QVC.”
Enjoying an average annualized sales growth of 133 percent since 1991, Select Comfort will continue on its drive to develop the best beds on the market. And no one can support this claim better than the consumer who has had a gratifying night’s sleep on a Select Comfort bed. “Amazing,” reads a testimonial the company received. “Six hours on this mattress is more relaxing and refreshing than eight hours on the inner-spring type. It is truly a great sleep system and one I would recommend to everyone.”