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Retail's Weak Link

Furniture World Magazine


It's been said that retail sales-people (median compensation $29,760 per year) are the weakest link in the buying chain for furniture and mattresses.

Everybody has heard the old saying, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The chain we will talk about here is the one that unites the furnishings buying public with retail furniture stores and the rest of the furnishings supply chain. It has a great many links that when woven together make up the source pipelines that nourish the furniture and mattress businesses.

Retail Sales Associates form a critical link in this chain. They are responsible for successfully completing the penultimate step required to complete the chain from raw materials to final delivery of furniture and bedding products which are the topic of this article.

A Few Statistics

According to IBISWorld, a market research company, there are 29,291 furniture stores and 16,000 Mattress stores in the United States. It's important to note that there is some disagreement in our industry regarding these numbers and the definitions used to derive them. Statistics are scarce regarding the total number of furniture and mattress retail sales associates, but 250,000 is a reasonable guess. This means that about one out of every 1,300 people is a mattress or furniture RSA.

How well paid are furniture RSAs? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the mean compensation for a furniture RSA is $29,760 per year. This equates to about $14.31 per hour based on a 40 hour week.

How does this compare to the average salary in the U.S. for all workers? According to a BLS report from 2019, the median income for a full-time wage or salary worker was $936 per week, which translates into a yearly income of $48,672 ($23.40 per hour based on a 40 hour week). If all these figures and the assumptions that underpin them are correct, furniture RSA mean compensation is only about 61 percent of the median compensation for full-time workers across all industries.

All Kinds of Salespeople

Those of us who make a living selling home furnishings know that furniture and mattress showrooms are staffed with every kind of retail sales associate, from recent high school drop-outs to PhDs in classical literature. There's also a wide range of compensation between the extreme lower rung of the pay ladder and the top. In the eyes of statisticians, all furniture RSAs are equal. But, there are pros who earn six-figure incomes and others whose earned commissions are much nearer to absolute zero.

I believe that most Furniture World readers will agree that the so-called lower average pay (let’s call it LAP)estimated at $29,760 is generally NOT for want of opportunity.

Sometimes the responsibility for poor performance sits on the shoulders of management, but often lack of initiative, discipline and hard work are the main causes.

Store Sales & Revenue

My intuition is that sales ability, incorporating natural talent, initiative, discipline and hard work follow more or less a bell curve distribution. Much has been written in Furniture World about the value of measuring sales metrics by salesperson and sales team. In his December 2017 Furniture World article on performance metrics posted to the www.furninfo.com website, industry consultant David McMahon reported, "average stores produced $604,483 per salesperson per year, while the double-digit profit club produced a bit more sales with less people at $651,460 per person. It holds true that most operations will usually produce $50,000-$60,000/salesperson/month." In addition to written sales per RSA, metrics such as average sale, average profit margin per sale, close-ratio to opportunities, RSA revenue per guest and others can and should be calculated. There are a lot of ways to evaluate RSA performance. [For more information on that subject, consult the on-line archives of Furniture World at www.furninfo.com, especially David McMahon's many articles on retail metrics found at furninfo.com/Authors/David_McMahon/6].

Once gathered, these metrics should be used for coaching. For example it might be found that an RSA is efficient at closing a high percentage of ups, but their average unit selling price is lower than average. This might be the fault of spending too little time with each up. Others may only close one up in a day, but achieve higher total sales. Each metric must be evaluated and used.

Who Cares?

I visit lots of home furnishings stores in my consulting work and also in my free time to check out how RSAs are doing. I’m almost always amazed at what I consider to be the typical RSA's careless, lackadaisical and unprofessional attitude. Occasionally an RSA will show me something new and interesting, but generally, there is a woeful state of unpreparedness among retail sales associates.

In a 2017 Furniture World article on performance metrics, industry consultant David McMahon reported that, average stores produced $604,483 per salesperson.

Sometimes sales associates telegraph the feeling that they lack product knowledge and would rather be somewhere else. People often buy, but not because of anything the average salesperson may say or do. Stores leave large dollar volumes of sales on the table because of this weak link in the chain. The main saving grace for all these stores is that their direct competitors are often in the same boat. They say, "We’ll miss some sales, yes, but we will also get some that the other stores let walk away unsold. The customer has to buy somewhere.”

Reflecting back on the chain of events, you wonder how, with the millions of dollars spent to bring a product to the showroom floor, the success of selling it to the public is left in the hands of average or poorly prepared and motivated RSAs.

Crush the Competition

Why do some RSAs make comfortable six-figure incomes and others quit after a few weeks? There are lots of reasons including a lack of focus some retailers have on attracting and hiring good people.

I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for aggressive, motivated, smart RSAs to absolutely crush weak competition in a vacuum of sales professionalism that is begging to be filled.

John F. Lawhon pointed out in his book “Selling Retail,” that retail sales associates can achieve all this without investing a dime in store rent, store inventory, store utility bills, property taxes and all the other encumbrances that come with store ownership. The RSA’s investment is energy, study, motivation, and dedication to becoming the best in the industry. Lawhon's book and its sequel are available new or used on Amazon.

As a dedicated, motivated RSA builds his or her customer base, referrals from other customers will spur and advance the growth of his or her personal business. That's because customers like to deal with sales professionals who CARE about them and know what they are talking about. Experience has shown that a modest investment by individual RSAs to cultivate appropriate attitude, knowledge and sales skill can move virtually any RSA well above the mean income level of $29,760.

What's Holding Us Back?

From my viewpoint as a sales trainer, there appears to be a problem. But, on the other hand, it has always been this way and probably always will be. I understand why store owners and managers think that money spent on sales training is probably wasted. Unless RSAs are motivated, anything presented in a sales class may be in one ear and out the other. Also, in a lot of stores, RSAs are in one day and out the next. Why spend a lot of money on temporary help?

Hire Better - Train Better

Until the recent COVID-19 situation every store in America was looking for good sales help which had been increasingly hard to find. A lot of stores had a steady stream of applicants of all stripes coming in nearly every day, killing time filling out employment applications. That will become the norm again. It is not a stretch to assume that 95 percent of your applicants will not succeed in sales. When applicants do actually show potential, hire them immediately. Put extra effort into building a sales environment that attracts good people. Then, get them properly trained. Show them the potential that really does exist in retail furniture sales. Ask them to read this article.

Until recently, every store in America was looking for good sales help which had been increasingly hard to find. A lot of stores had a steady stream of applicants of all stripes coming in nearly every day, killing time filling out employment applications."

More than anything, though, when a strong applicant begins to show strength on the showroom floor, make sure that you let them know that they have a bright future, both in earnings and job satisfaction. Guiding and developing sales talent is one of the most important jobs of management.

Invest Your Time

Store management, however, can only do so much. There is limited time to force-feed information into a new trainee. At some point, the trainee has to get out on the floor and begin earning their keep.

This means that it is ultimately the responsibility of new trainees to put in the time and effort to become competent on the floor. There is no other way around it. It takes a lot of hard work, study and dedication to become even a competent retail sales associate. Being a truly great RSA is an exclusive club. It is the one that has six-figure incomes as well as the prestige, recognition and often advancement into management or ownership that comes with it.

So, if you are one of those many retailers that don't have a formal and ongoing sales education program, you may be asking how you can help more of your sales associates to become the final, powerful link in the chain of retail sales.

Here it is. You will find that it doesn’t cost much money at all.

Even stores that haven't traditionally invested much in formal sales training can and should take the time to encourage their RSAs to read past articles in this series that cover the basics of mattress sales (visit www.furninfo.com/Series/Bedding/1). Cherry pick links to articles in the series on topics such as: Up-Selling, Handling Exchanges, Negotiating, Be-Backs, Selling Luxury Bedding, Overcoming Objections, Steps of the Sale, Boot Camp For New Hires, and many more.

Give them or suggest that they order the book “How to Win the Battle for Mattress Sales, the Bed Seller’s Manual.” At $29.99 plus shipping it is a great start for any would-be bedding RSA professional. Nobody can learn everything there is to know about selling mattresses and furniture. But just about anyone can learn way more in a couple of weekends of focused effort than many bedding RSAs I've encountered who have years of experience!

Many mattress manufacturers have informative web-sites. I suggest putting informative websites and especially those for the products you carry on your "favorites" list. Then send these links to your RSAs to review as homework.

The Internet is loaded with information about sales training, advertising, prospecting, follow-up, etc. Motivated RSAs who want to have a chance to rise above the salary mean should spend some of their spare time learning about the mattress and furniture business.

Time Management

Finally, RSA's need to be reminded that time is their greatest resource. There is a lot of down-time in retail sales; meaning time when RSAs are sitting around on Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM waiting for their first up. Future sales stars do not waste this time playing silly games on smart phones if they want to become a strong link in the chain of furniture and bedding sales with a bright future in our industry.


About David Benbow: David Benbow, a veteran of the mattress and bedding industry, is owner of Mattress Retail Training Company offering mattress retailers a full array of retail guidance; from small store management to training retail sales associates (RSAs.) He has many years of hands-on experience as retail sales associate, store manager, sales manager/trainer and store owner of multiple stores in six different American metropolitan areas.

He is the author of  “How to Win the Battle for Mattress Sales, the Bed Seller’s Manual” that systematically presents a complete, organized, but easily read and understood text book for mattress and bedding retail sales associates, beginner and experienced professional alike. It can be purchased at  http://www.bedsellersmanual.com.
Questions an comments can be directed to him at dave@bedsellersmanual.com or 361-648-3775.