What happend to Irwin (aka 'You're killing me Larry!')?

Sit 'n Sleep's kvetchy bean counter couldn't bring in enough customers when the economy began to slide. So chain owner Larry Miller (he's the one who will beat anyone's advertised price or your mattress is freeee) began looking at other marketing strategies. In my profile of Sit 'n Sleep in the August issue of Los Angeles magazine, Miller's ad man Cary Sacks explains how they decided on the health angle.

Sacks came across a statistic that provided part of the answer: After eight years, he read, the average mattress will double in weight from a combination of dead skin flakes, sweat, and the fecal matter of dust mites that accumulate inside the mattress cover. It's a shaky claim--I spoke to several university professors who specialize in allergy and clinical immunology, and they question whether that stuff can weigh down a mattress all that much. They also say that unless someone has asthma or is prone to allergies, dust mites are not dangerous. ("We often end up worrying about things that aren't worth worrying about," says Ohio State professor Glen Needham.) Of course, dust mites do look disgusting when blown up in pictures, and the prospect of them crawling under your sheets is marketing manna. The new advertising approach would be more informational and not as goofy. Instead of Larry the rap star or Larry's face on Mount Rushmore--two of the chain's earlier commercials--the focus would be on a less antic Larry talking about the potential risks of old mite-infested mattresses.

"Poor sleep can affect my weight?" a woman asks Miller in one spot.

"Studies show people tend to be hungrier and eat more when they don't sleep enough," he says.

"My lumpy old mattress could be making me fat?"

Miller nods knowingly.

That's why they're pushing eight years as the expiration date for a mattress. Miller's story is the classic stuff of Socal entrepreneurism: Guy starts from scratch, gets a few breaks, builds a retail empire. Of course, we are talking about mattresses, not exactly the easiest purchase.

Mattress retailers have never made shopping easy. They promise the best deal in town, but names and model numbers are often different from store to store, so comparison shopping becomes impossible. The trickery began with department stores, which used to command most of the mattress market and would sometimes enjoy price margins approaching 100 percent. That provided an opportunity for mattress stores like Sit 'n Sleep to offer lower prices and still make a nice profit. As with car dealers, the business can involve haggling, which, based on reviews from the Web site Yelp, leaves shoppers wondering how good a deal they really got. "Be very, very careful," warns a posting about Sit 'n Sleep. "The sales people will do and tell you anything to move you up in price--way up!" Miller says he doesn't play those games because they only alienate people. He insists that his prices are fair and that he'd like to see more transparency in the business so it's easier to make store-to-store comparisons.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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