By Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — The owners of a small Midwest furniture chain are tinkering with a quirky idea: mattress stores with no salespeople, or anyone else, around.
Three towns in the Milwaukee area have received applications for the shops, which would open and close remotely, be fitted with security cameras and have no staff on the premises.
“I’ve seen a number of retail models in my 30 years of covering the mattress industry,” David Perry, executive editor of trade journal Furniture/Today, said by email. “But I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
Arvid Huth, co-owner of Penny Mustard with his brother, Ben, confirmed that they are experimenting with what they have dubbed HASSLEss Mattress, but declined to speak in detail.
“It’s a work in progress at this point,” Huth said.
Officials in the three suburbs, however, described plans submitted to them that sound consistent and appear to be well on their way to being put into play.
Brookfield building and zoning administrator Gary Lake described the basics of the operation: an electronically opened shop stocked with test mattresses, a computer on site for further information and online ordering, a telephone number to contact and intensive monitoring by video cameras to deter would-be mattress thieves.
HASSLEss has a website and leased a space in shopping mall for two months as an experiment. That temporary shop closed this past weekend.
Underlying the Huths’ approach is the notion that many shoppers would rather not have a salesman hovering nearby as they lie down, roll about and do whatever else they might want to do to test a mattress.
“People are not particularly comfortable just flopping down,” said Anne Brouwer, senior partner with Chicago retail consultant McMillanDoolittle.
The Huths’ idea solves that problem, she said, but raises other questions: Will customers want to try out mattresses if other people are in the stores? Will the places become hangouts?
“This is a big-ticket purchase,” Brouwer said, “so how many customers will feel they have enough information and confidence in their choice, in the retailer, in how the process will work, in giving out their credit information? How many people will feel comfortable in that environment with no human representative of the retailer present, to pull the trigger and actually make a purchase?”
But Brouwer also knows the Huths’ track record — the onetime northern Wisconsin farm boys started P.M. Bedroom Gallery, now Penny Mustard, in 1993 with money gleaned in part from selling some cows — and likes their style.
The brothers have three stores in the Milwaukee area and four in suburban Chicago. They hope to open two more Chicago-area stores in August, Arvid Huth said.
“They’ve done a great job of building their distinctive personality in their business,” Brouwer said. “They offer a quality product. They do it with a sense of humor. I think these are some young, creative guys. I applaud them for being courageous and trying things.”
The mattress industry has been experiencing only modest growth, Perry said in an interview.
U.S. mattress makers shipped just under 36 million units last year, up 1.2 percent from 2012, according to the International Sleep Products Association. Through May of this year, shipments are up 0.1 percent, Perry said.
Like Brouwer, he has questions about the no-sales-staff notion, but he called the HASSLEss approach “a smart, catchy idea.”
“While I do believe that a knowledgeable retail sales associate can usually help a consumer make a better mattress selection, some consumers may be attracted to this self-help model,” Perry said. “This is an interesting retail concept that bears close scrutiny.”