What’s in the air?

There’s definitely something in the air these days. As the bedding industry continues to explore a variety of sleep surfaces, airbeds have come into their own. In this issue, BedTimes takes a stab—perhaps we should say a look—at the category, asking manufacturers about the evolution of airbeds, the challenges of manufacturing and selling air, and what the future holds.

Many manufacturers agree that the airbed—what one maker calls “the most complicated sell on the retail bedding floor”—owes some of its current rise to the successful multimillion advertising and marketing campaign launched five years ago by Select Comfort for its Sleep Number brand.

“Before the Sleep Number Bed, our main buying group was those 50 and older, but today the breadth of appeal is tremendous,” says Pete Bils, senior director of sleep innovation of the Minneapolis–based manufacturer and retailer.

The competitive landscape

Select Comfort’s Sleep Number Bed is typically what other airbed makers refer to whenever they speak of “the competition.” The company’s annual sales were almost $700 million in 2005. According to an April 2006 earnings report, net sales were up 23% compared to the first quarter of 2005, with same store sales up 18%. The company estimates its share of the U.S. bedding market at 5.4%, but wants to increase its share to 10%, Bils says.

Select Comfort sells via three channels: online, in more than 400 company–owned stores and through partner retailers. Its line has five bed series. Each model has an air core of vulcanized rubber bonded with cotton and, depending on the model, is available with options such as wired and unwired hand controls, choice of topper, and a dual or single air core. Retail prices for a queen set range from $899 to $3,800. Most popular is the 5000 Series bed, which retails for about $1,800.

Though Select Comfort may be the current brand–name leader, there are plenty of other players in the category—some in for decades; others just jumping in.

Seven years ago Comfortaire, a division of Park Place and the maker of the original airbed in 1981, introduced a new concept—air chambers in the comfort layer supported below by an Omalon foam core.

“It allows air to do what it does exceptionally well, that is to ‘posturize’ and contour to the body,” says Eric Rose, vice president of operations for the Greenville, S.C.–based company. “You end up with a very plush, very comfortable surface that never wears out.”

Comfortaire offers 15 different air models, the majority in the $1,999 to $2,999 suggested retail price range. The air chamber at the top of the bed is a proprietary urethane film: “Moisture can pass out of the chamber, but not air,” Rose explains.

Comfortaire’s line also includes the classic rubber chamber with foam collar design (see sidebar).

“Air is our core business. It’s who we are. We focus on creating materials and designs that are innovative and that we own,” Rose says.

Foamco Industries in Toronto, Canada, a specialty sleep manufacturer and components distributor for 20 years, has been building Dreameasy airbeds for six. The line includes five Dreameasy models—from tight–top to buckle–top with reversible surfaces for summer and winter sleeping. Core price points range from $1,200 to $2,500 for a queen.

“This is a healthier product and is better for people with allergies,” says Adarsh Shah, sales and marketing director for the company, which distributes mainly in Canada and the northeastern United States. “Our covers can be unzipped and dry cleaned, plus the mattress can be vacuumed from the inside.”

Ease of cleaning is a selling point for many airbed producers.

The cover of the Simmons Beautyrest LuxAire bed unzips and removes for machine–washing, points out its designer, Denny Boyd, president of Boyd Specialty Sleep in Maryland Heights, Ohio.

“The goal is to have a hygienically clean bed to sleep on at all times,” he says. “Our beds are anti–microbial, from the surface all the way down to the fabric on the vulcanized rubber. It’s healthier for the sleeper, and it prolongs the life of the mattress.”

Boyd’s company, a maker of specialty sleep products for 30 years, markets a full line of beds under its own brand and recently began the licensing deal with Atlanta–based

Simmons to manufacture and market the four–model Simmons Beautyrest LuxAire line (suggested retail prices from $1,699 to $3,199 for queen size). The Boyd sales team sells directly to Simmons retailers.

“We also work in conjunction with the Simmons sales force,” Boyd says. “Basically, we support their sales efforts and they support ours.”

American National, located in Corona, Calif., manufactures a six–bed DreamWorks consumer line, as well as 25 medical mattresses and a variety of other medical products. All of its consumer beds have two zippers allowing access to both the air chamber and to the bed’s comfort layers. Its DreamWorks 5500 has a patented euro–top, which can be unzipped and rotated head to foot for more even wear. Price points for consumer models range from $1,300 to $3,900. The company also sells airbed parts and components and manufactures private–label airbeds for an array of other bedding companies.

“We started in waterbeds in 1972 and then brought out our first computerized airbed in 1987,” says Vice President Craig Miller “It was ahead of its time—a smart system that constantly adjusted pressure. We ended up scrapping it, but reintroduced the concept in 1993 to the medical market.”

The three top price points in the DreamWorks line have nylon–laminated polyurethane cores—the material used in all its medical beds. The other three beds in the line are vulcanized rubber. The company manufactures its urethane and nylon chambers domestically and sources vulcanized rubber cores offshore (as does much of the rest of the industry). American National has a patent on its concave foam side rails, which allow the air chamber to fill out and support the seat edge, eliminating gaps.

Thirty–year–old specialty sleep manufacturer InnoMax markets three premium airbed lines, as well as foam, flotation and gel beds, sleep accessories and furniture. But the company’s core business is air. Its premium beds have a 25–gauge vulcanized rubber air chamber and the top of the line “features an interchangeable 3–inch comfort layer available in latex or visco–elastic,” says Mark Miller, president of the Denver–based company.

It’s not just specialty guys who are rolling out airbeds. Some of the larger makers of innerspring and specialty products have airbeds in the works and new beds are being introduced regularly by newcomers to the category.

Natura of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, unveiled its first airbed in April at the High Point, N.C., furniture market. The Personal Sleep Indicator Airbed (think “psi”) retails for $2,999 in queen. The bed has signature Natura comfort layers of wool and latex, a quiet pump and a urethane air chamber.

President Ralph Rossdeutscher says retailer interest in air prompted him to bring out the bed—and to start work on another that will be introduced at the Las Vegas market in July.

“Our retailers wanted it,” he says. “We present ourselves as a one–stop shop for retailers and this helps them round out their line.”

Therapedic, the licensing group based in Princeton, N.J., will officially launch two AirTouch beds at the summer Las Vegas furniture market. The bed, in development for more than a year, has a zoned vinyl core that allows the sleeper to adjust the lumbar section separately from the head and foot. Suggested retail will be $1,999 and $2,999 for the queen set.

“When you are dealing with mechanics and moving parts, it complicates the production process and makes for a slower development track,” said Jeffrey Sherman, chairman of Therapedic’s board. “The machinery and mechanics complicate any production problem that occurs along this process. Consequently, we needed to be deliberate and very careful when we brought this product to market.”

Sealy, in Archdale, N.C., is reportedly working on airbeds that are expected to debut in Las Vegas this summer.

Theory of adjustability

Air’s chief selling point is its touch–of–a–button adjustability for each sleeper.

“No other sleep surface has that,” Boyd says. “Even flotation beds are not instantly adjustable and certainly with (traditional) innerspring beds, it’s difficult to find the proper support for two people with very different body types.”

“This is beyond two–dimensional, his–and–hers adjustability,” adds Miller of American National. “It’s about changing one’s individual preferences as needed. For instance, I like a soft mattress, but if my back is bothering me, I can firm up my side for a few days.”

American National expanded the concept of adjustability seven years ago when it introduced its tri–zoned airbed—the center adjusts separately from the head and foot. The goal was to allow even “very slender people who like a very plush, soft bed to not ‘hammock’ but have very good support even when lying on their side,” Miller says. “Our retailers were very, very resistant. They said it would be too confusing for customers.”

The company proved its dealers wrong by selling zoned beds directly to consumers at regional home shows.

“Now, as time goes by, we are selling more of our three–zoned airbeds than our single–zoned beds,” he says.

To provide that adjustability, airbeds come with one, two or three hand controls. Some are wired; some cordless. Most have digital displays. Premium hand controls have an auto–fill button to plump the bed back up during the day and a memory button to recall preferred sleep settings at night. Select Comfort holds a patent on a specific type of radio–frequency cordless control available with its better beds. Most manufacturers sell wired versions. Other options include infrared, but that requires a line of sight to the pump, which is often under the bed. Some manufacturers use a receiver connected to the pump. That additional unit must sit out somewhere, like on a night table.

Wired or not, most hand controls have an LCD numerical, digital readout, though some are dressing up their hand control displays.

Boyd says its LED display is “dazzling in terms of full color and clarity.”

“The display shows a numerical value as well as a (reclining figure) on a bar graph, which demonstrates your support index as you inflate or deflate the bed,” he says. In the Simmons Beautyrest LuxAire bed, the controls stow in special side pockets.

American National has a digital remote that gives a constant real–time readout in millimeters of mercury—the same pressure monitoring system used in the medical field.

Sum of the parts

In its early days as a direct marketer, Select Comfort delivered all beds packed in several boxes via an overnight delivery service. But 3 1/2 years ago the company launched its own home delivery network, which now handles 60% to 70% of deliveries and setups. The remaining orders continue to arrive via overnight delivery.

“Bed assembly is easy and can still be done in less than one hour by the consumer, without tools,” Bils says. “It’s one of the primary reasons people buy from us. They can’t get a big bed up several flights of narrow stairs. City dwellers love us. So do moving companies.”

The component–part nature of an airbed is a good thing, Bils says, and not just for ease of transport.

Selling replacement parts for its beds is central to Select Comfort’s business model and a convenience for bed owners.

“Just about any part can be replaced—motors, covers,” Bils says. “We even have people who get married switch out their single air chamber for a dual.”

American National supplies replacement components to its retailers. Even the comfort layers in the pillow–top, which are accessible in all its beds, can be replaced.

“We like the incremental nature of our product,” Comfortaire’s Rose says. “All of our designs are meant to be U.P.S.–able. It’s more convenient for our retailers and all parts are meant to be replaceable. A customer can even replace, say, the foam support layer inside their bed if they feel it’s gotten a little soft over the years. When you replace it you’re right back to a like–new mattress.”

Foamco Industries also takes advantage of its airbeds’ component nature.

“We deconstruct our beds for shipping to our retailers,” Shah says. “The components fit into boxes 14 inches high. Dreameasy retailers do not even open the boxes till they arrive at the customer’s home. Then their delivery team can assemble the bed in 20 minutes.”

Boyd Specialty Sleep, on the other hand, delivers airbeds completely assembled.

“We prefer to do that as a convenience for the retailer and the consumer,” Boyd says. “All you need to do is snap in the hoses and plug in the pump. You set the mattress down just like a regular innerspring mattress.”

Retail evangelists

Placing product on the retail bedding floor is no guarantee of airbed sales, manufacturers say. A well–trained retail sales force is critical.

“Retailers need to spend the time to sell the product properly,” American National’s Miller says. “The problem is a lot of consumers still think ‘camping mattress’ when you say ‘airbed.’ But once they are exposed to these beds, once they look inside and see these are elaborate, high–end sleeping systems, the product sells itself.”

“Consumers are interested in airbeds,” Boyd agrees. “There is a tremendous opportunity for retailers to focus on airbeds and make it a significant portion of sales—if you advertise the beds and you sales train on them properly.”

Training also is critical to Select Comfort’s success. The company has a formal, multilayerd training process for sales associates at its company owned stores. Training includes classroom, on the job, back room and, soon, e–learning.

Rose, who was about to shoot a sales training video when BedTimes reached him, agrees that excellent training of the retail sales force and “controlling the message to the consumer” is key in airbed sales. Specialty sleep shops, as well as full–line furniture stores with specialty sleep galleries—“those who believe in spending time with the consumer”—do very well with airbeds, he says.

Boyd Specialty Sleep is patenting a process for using an airbed as a consumer–qualifying tool.

“It helps the retailer determine what type of comfort the consumer really prefers—ultra–firm, firm, plush, ultra–plush—and whether or not the shopper is going to buy air or another type of bed,” Boyd says. “One person’s ‘firm’ mattress can be another person’s idea of ‘plush.’ So retailers can get customers to lie down on an airbed and then quantify their comfort preferences using our support index.”

To assist its retailers, InnoMax created the InnoMax Rest–Test Demonstration, a protocol that engages and educates consumers about the benefits of airbeds. The demo includes its Laser Alignment Technology, which allows consumers to feel, as well as see, how the bed improves sleep posture and comfort.

Select Comfort uses pressure–mapping at retail to help consumers see the benefits of airbeds.

The future

How high can airbed sales go?

“Conservative estimates are that the air sleep industry will more than double every five years, and I think that’s highly probable,” says InnoMax’s Miller.

Six or seven years ago, what was thought to be too confusing is no longer perceived that way, says American National’s Miller.

“People are more open to the bells and whistles, and we have so many more features and benefits designed and ready to go,” he says. “We’re just waiting for the timing to be right.”

Interest in airbeds is growing internationally, as well. American National sells products to Israel, Indonesia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, manufacturing motors in various voltages and mattresses in metric sizes.

Boyd Specialty Sleep ships product to retailers in Europe and Australia.

“Interest is just beginning now in Europe, Japan and Australia. It has begun in Canada,” Boyd says. “It will grow as business owners recognize the huge dollar potential and market share potential.”

Select Comfort also sees opportunity outside North America.

“(International growth) is part of our current strategy,” Bils says. “We’re conducting field trips overseas. Our consumer insight team is on it, too, so that we will understand the landscape.”

“We believe the category is still in its infancy. In terms of technology, the possibilities for the future are phenomenal,” Rose says. “There’s an evolution going on. There will

be increased interest from the major brands, not just in partnering with air, but actually investing in and developing product and making a true commitment to the category.”

A primer: Air 101

What’s inside

The key component of an airbed is its air chamber. There are three basic types: vinyl or polyvinyl, vulcanized rubber, or urethane or engineered films. Internally, beams and columns help create even air distribution and prevent “hammocking” when someone lies on the bed. The benefits and drawbacks of each of these core types are the subject of hot debate within the industry.

Also available are zoned airbeds, in which the head and foot adjust separately from the central lumbar section.

What’s underneath

Airbed foundations are simple platforms and, as such, are rarely central to the marketing message, although Minneapolis–based Select Comfort promotes its polymer foundation with a slipcover ticking as lightweight, portable and easy to assemble. Boyd Specialty Sleep, based in Maryland Heights, Ohio, American National of Corona, Calif., and Comfortaire of Greenville, S.C., use a ticking–upholstered wood platform.

What makes it run

To provide their customized comfort and support, most airbeds have one or more hand controls (also referred to as remote controls or wands), air hoses and a motorized pump that inflates and deflates the core.

Most manufacturers offer more than one pump type—a fan–driven/blower motor or a compressor/diaphragm motor. A fan/blower motor may be louder but offers good performance. A compressor/diaphragm motor is often quieter but may not be as powerful. Typically, pumps are stowed under the bed, but some makers install the pump in the foam side rail.

Unlike traditional mattresses, airbeds must unzip to allow access to the air chamber. Some have a second zipper that provides access to the comfort layers or allows complete removal of the topper or the ticking for cleaning and replacement.