BY GARY JAMES
Whether it is selling in-store, online or to other mattress companies, the company sticks with its favored component
When presented with a tough challenge, Sleep EZ founder Larry Wolfe typically has one response: He rolls up his sleeves and starts figuring out what needs to be done. This was his approach in the early 1970s, when he first started making beds by hand in a small facility near Phoenix, and later, when he taught himself the web programming language HTML to build his company’s first website.
A former accountant with a marketing background, Wolfe became interested in the bedding industry after his father, Joe Wolfe, launched Wolfe Manufacturing, a wholesale distributor of mattresses to retail stores and hotels in the Southwest, in 1966. The business represented a second career for his father, who had been one of the largest homebuilders in the United States.
In 1974, seeing an opportunity to serve a niche in the Phoenix market, Larry Wolfe left his job in the hotel industry, purchased a tape-edger and sewing machine and began making mattresses as Paradise Bedding. His first two customers were his father’s company and the Salvation Army, which used his services for mattress refurbishing.
Wolfe’s business grew to encompass both manufacturing and retailing. In 1976, he acquired the rights to the Sleep EZ brand from Vernon Autry, the owner of a regional sleep shop chain. Recognizing that the brand worked well as both a trademark and a mission statement, Wolfe adopted the Sleep EZ name for his company. By 1982, he had opened four Sleep EZ retail stores in the Phoenix area.
In 1992, Sleep EZ began producing latex mattresses at its facility in Glendale, Arizona. The category quickly became the company’s specialty. In the mid-1990s, Wolfe opted to close most of his retail operation and focus his energies on factory-direct latex bedding.
“I fell in love with the product because, in my opinion, nothing compares to it in terms of durability, comfort or sustainability,” Wolfe says. “And I knew that we could make a quality latex bed for much less than what was available.”
To provide local consumers with a venue for testing Sleep EZ beds, Wolfe kept one retail showroom. Then, in 1997, he expanded his market reach by creating a website and launching a line of drop-shippable boxed mattresses.
“Other products out there had a thick, heavy core encased in a cover that was sewn shut. They were very cumbersome to move and way too heavy to ship,” Wolfe says. “Because our beds were composed of several thin foam layers, with zippered covers, we had an advantage when it came to drop shipping.”
A family affair
Wolfe’s stepson, Shawn Medlock, began working at Sleep EZ in 1989 while still in school. He started in the factory, cutting, sewing and building mattresses. Over time, he gained experience in every aspect of the business—from sales and delivery to customer service and material sourcing. In 2012, he was named president. With 29 years of experience, he now runs the company, while Wolfe handles marketing, with the assistance of an in-house information technology department.
“Three generations of Wolfes have worked in the bedding industry and we’re heading toward our fourth,” Wolfe says, adding that he has 18 grandchildren—several nearing the age when he hopes they’ll join the company.
The continuity of experience extends to the company’s staff. Sleep EZ’s plant manager, Julio CiFuentes, also has worked for the company for 35 years, and two other employees have been on the team for more than 20 years.
In every aspect of its business, Sleep EZ tries to treat its employees, suppliers and customers like family. “We are a family business, and we take care of our employees and other partners like family,” Wolfe says. “We also are very down to earth. You won’t find any corporate jargon or overbearing executive hierarchy here. All of us pitch in and do the work.”
As one of the oldest independent mattress brands in the United States, Sleep EZ has thrived with the support of its team and loyal customers, Medlock adds. “Our business model is simple: Offer the best quality, service and value possible,” he says. “Dedication to quality always comes first, but the most important product we deliver is value, for that is how we will be judged and remembered.”
Listening to customers
Over the years, Sleep EZ has developed into a thriving factory-direct provider of latex bedding with a steadily growing list of national customers that complements a base of loyal local clients. Annual sales are in the $10 million to $20 million range, and the growth rate over the past five years has ranged from a high of 38% to a low of 12%. Wolfe attributes the sales gains to the company’s presence on the internet and mattress shoppers’ increased awareness of the advantages of latex.
“Latex is a great product with many benefits,” Wolfe says. “It completely conforms to the contour of your body while supporting it. It never needs turning, is anti-allergenic and dust-mite resistant. It’s also noiseless and has excellent motion isolation so you can move without disturbing your partner.”
Responding to increased demand, Sleep EZ expanded its production facility from 40,000 to 50,000 square feet in late 2017, adding new compression and roll-packing machinery while also streamlining operations. The 38-person company now serves about 30 to 60 online customers a day, providing custom-built mattresses and toppers, as well as do-it-yourself components for shoppers who want to build their own latex sleep products.
Sleep EZ has succeeded for more than 40 years by staying focused and nimble, Wolfe says. “We have an unparalleled knowledge of our niche, having been building 100% latex mattresses since 1992,” he says. “During that time, we have built significant trust with the consumer, which helps us maintain long-lasting relationships.”
Sleep EZ is a customer-focused business, Wolfe says. “Every decision we make and action we take is based on listening to our customers and responding to their needs,” he says. “Our customers are highly educated and do a ton of research about latex and their mattress options during the buying process.”
Wolfe adds that the company feels a responsibility to educate consumers who are unfamiliar with latex as a mattress component “so we make sure to use product education as a pillar in our marketing messaging.”
To help consumers with their decisions, a detailed buyer’s guide is available on Sleep EZ’s website. The guide includes blogs on topics such as how natural latex foam is made and the difference between Dunlop-process and Talalay-process foams.
A range of solutions
As Wolfe sees it, when he started selling latex bedding, blended Talalay was considered the Cadillac of the industry, with imported natural Dunlop trailing in demand even though it was quite a bit cheaper. That trend then reversed, Wolfe says, with Dunlop natural latex taking the lead, which then led Talalay manufacturers to offer a 100% natural latex, in addition to their blended latex. “As these shifts have occurred, we have adapted by carrying a wide range of options, so that each consumer can find the right fit for their own needs,” he says.
The Sleep EZ line opens with four Select Sleep latex mattresses retail priced from $625 to $1,250 in queen size. Ranging in thickness from 7 inches to 13 inches, these mattresses feature two to four layers of 3-inch natural Talalay latex, with a 100% cotton knit cover quilted to 1 inch of Joma wool.
Next is the Select Sleep Organic line, with a choice of Global Organic Latex Standard-certified 100% natural Dunlop latex or Talalay latex with an organic cotton cover quilted to Global Organic Textile Standard-
certified eco wool. Select Sleep Organic beds are priced from $795 to $1,250. In addition, Sleep EZ offers the innovative two-in-one Roma model, which features one soft side and one firm side for optimal versatility. It is priced at $750.
Sleep EZ’s best-selling price point both online and in its store is a three-layer, 10-inch natural latex model priced at $1,600. “Our sales ticket has held steady over the past three years because latex has not had any significant price increases,” Wolfe says. “Our suppliers have held our price because of our volume.”
With all the models it sells, Sleep EZ encases the foam layers in a zippered cover, allowing consumers to change easily the order of layers—or exchange one layer for a new one—to find the right combination of comfort and support. Customers can do this soon after delivery, if they’ve bought a combination that doesn’t work for them, or down the road if their needs change. Subbing out a layer is a simple matter of contacting Sleep EZ. After a new layer arrives in the home, the customer can open the zippered mattress cover, swap it in and then send back the old layer.
“The customer can easily change the order of the layers at any time to get that ‘just right’ feel,” Wolfe says. And for queen and king mattresses, each side can be customized at the time of order with a firmer or softer feel at no extra charge.
The consumer’s ability to adjust and swap out components has enabled Sleep EZ to keep its return rates below 4%. “It’s rare that we need to take a bed back,” Medlock says.
The adjustability of Sleep EZ’s product design also enables the company to serve plus-size customers, who sometimes have trouble finding a bed that can accommodate their weight. “We can build a bed out of latex that will support a 400-pound person,” Medlock says. “That extra weight means that the top layer may wear out earlier than it would for a lighter person, but the customer only has to replace that one layer rather than the whole bed.”
Keep. Sleep. Simple.
Adjustability also is available in a boxed-bed model Sleep EZ introduced in 2017 under its new Kiss (“Keep. Sleep. Simple.”) brand. A combination of latex and a fast-recovery “float” foam, the Kiss mattress can be ordered in either plush or supportive configurations.
Kiss is available on the new KissMattress.com website. Like other Sleep EZ products, the line is offered with a 100-night guarantee and free shipping. Priced at $1,100 in queen, it is designed to compete directly with high-profile boxed-bed specialists.
“Kiss is essentially two beds in one,” Wolfe says. “The cover can be removed in order to change the two top-most layers beneath the surface giving a different feel to the mattress. The latex layer provides a more supportive top layer, while the float foam allows for a plusher feel that contours to the body. There are benefits to both.”
According to Wolfe, the float foam feels like memory foam but provides a cooler sleep surface and doesn’t create the “sinkhole” effect of some memory foam mattresses. “It maintains enough bounce to allow sleepers to roll over throughout the night when they want to change position, but it still doesn’t transfer movement between sleepers,” Wolfe says.
The quest to help consumers find the best bed for their body type and sleeping style has led Sleep EZ to source foams from multiple companies rather than relying on a single supplier. Sleep EZ currently buys foam from five companies—Arpico, Eco-Latex, Latexco U.S., Talalay Global and Vita Talalay. The approach provides Sleep EZ with access to leading technologies from across the industry and protects the company from being overly dependent on any one source.
“The main benefit of working with five latex vendors is being able to fill orders for customers who want latex from a specific latex manufacturer,” Wolfe says. He adds that Sleep EZ also is concerned about the health of its customers and the environment. “We work only with latex suppliers that sustainably harvest the product and we choose to use natural materials as a fire barrier in all our mattresses.”
Sleep EZ’s goal is to offer its customers the best foams it can find, Wolfe says. “That’s why we offer an assortment of both Dunlop and Talalay constructions. Some customers prefer the springiness of Talalay, while someone with back issues might rather have the extra support provided by a Dunlop model,” he says. “For another shopper, organic latex is what they are looking for.”
With mattress review sites such as The Mattress Underground, Sleep Like The Dead and GoodBed providing a wealth of information about various mattress constructions and brands, Wolfe says a growing number of consumers are becoming more interested in latex. “Having a positive review on a reputable site is a huge plus,” he says. “Consumers trust these sites and look to them for guidance.”
The in-store experience
Customers in the Phoenix area can test Sleep EZ’s entire line at its 4,500-square-foot showroom in Tempe, Arizona. The location has a staff of five, who handle both in-store customers, as well as online customer service. The company drives traffic to the store via online advertising.
Customers often enter the Sleep EZ showroom already presold on a product. “In many ways, we are a destination sleep shop because the customer arrives with so much product knowledge already in hand,” Wolfe says. “The role of our salespeople is to continue that education by answering any questions.”
Sleep EZ strives to provide the “best customer service in the industry,” Wolfe says. “We believe that being dependable, honest and reliable drives our company success. We also operate on a no-pressure sales philosophy. We aren’t here to sell you something you don’t want or need.”
After the company sells a product to a customer, Sleep EZ works hard to maintain the relationship. “We’ve sold multiple generations of families over the years,” Wolfe says.
Sleep EZ’s online business has grown to the point where it now accounts for 90% of sales. The remaining 10% comes from the factory-direct showroom and a growing network of wholesale affiliates across the country that source latex beds for sale in their own stores or online. Sleep EZ ships products to its partners’ stores or, if requested, directly to their customers’ homes.
Sleep EZ launched its first website in 1997. “You could see all the products being sold online, and it was only natural to apply this new concept to mattresses,” Wolfe says. “Our latex mattress products were well-suited to being compressed and shipped in smaller boxes by UPS and FedEx, whereas regular innerspring mattresses needed to be shipped by common carrier.”
At the time, roll-pack machinery was rare and too expensive, “so we used the vacuum method of reducing the latex layers to fit in smaller boxes,” Wolfe says. The fact that the company’s beds use three or four separate layers rather than a single thick layer made the process easier. “We could ship a king-size mattress across the country in four small boxes for about a third of the cost of ordinary shipping,” he adds.
In the early stages, Medlock was skeptical about the company’s ability to build a profitable online business, “but after reaching three ambitious monetary goals, even Shawn bought into the strategy,” Wolfe jokes.
Going forward, Wolfe expects the internet will continue to play a growing role in mattress shopping and purchasing—and that more traditional retailers will incorporate e-commerce into their strategies. He also expects to see more latex products being added to product lineups throughout the industry, in part because of the components’ strong performance qualities.
At the same time, Wolfe adds, consumers are becoming more aware of latex. “There’s been a surge toward a more natural mattress, and nothing is more natural than latex,” he says.