Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Back to Bed Loses A Customer to American Mattress

The Internet is a wonderful place and surprise, it's addictive! Admit it, you know you're one of us. We are up all night, blurry eyed and unable to walk away from our keyboard, unable to pull our gaze from the screen. The late night images fuel our imagination, the words on the screen seduce us with urgings to "click here to enlarge."

Nothing gets my juices flowing like the need to make a major household purchase, which of course, cannot be made without countless hours of research. Such was the case when it was time to buy a new mattress to replace a trusty predecessor, retired after nearly two decades of service that has been with me from bachelorhood through two Midwestern states, a wife, two children, three dogs, a couple of cats other assorted life measures.

Let's just say I left no stone unturned in comparing brands, models, technologies, coil gauge, foam, gel, prices, industry practices, sales techniques, and customer ratings and testimonials. I considered online offers, newspaper specials and the in-store discounts offered by eager sales people. After all the research and comparisons, I had my mind set on a higher end Beautyrest model.

Back to Bed, a retailer with numerous locations in Illinois and Indiana, which carries the Beautyrest brand opened a new store in Michigan City, IN and ran ads touting its grand opening with significant discounts. My wife and I took a ride over on a pleasant fall Sunday afternoon fully intending to make our purchase.

The store was cold looking, poorly lighted, uninviting and had the appearance of a strip mall "box" that was unfinished and a temporary location. The products were in lines and aisles that reminded me of an old fashioned  hospital ward. It gave me the feeling that Back to Bed just plopped its beds down in a space where the rent was cheapest, and they spent nothing to create a showroom. It was also empty except for a single sales person who was stationed in the far, back corner of the deep store. He was leaning with his elbows propped on the counter as he listened to a football game being piped through the store's sound system.

He yelled out to us, "Hey, how ya doin'? Have anything in particular in mind today?"

I yelled back that we were just browsing. He pointed to different sections of the store to show us how the styles of coil, foam and "hybrid" beds were arranged. We wandered around, honed in on the Beautyrest display in the very front of the store and tested different firmness options.  That's when I noticed the listed sales prices varied significantly from what I thought I'd read in the newspaper ads. I walked back to the sales person who had yet to move off his elbows and asked about the sale prices. He got immediately defensive, maybe because I was interrupting his listening to the game, whipped out the newspaper ad from under the counter and suggested I misread the ad. "Sale prices are based on the original list price. The percentage discounts you read are already reflected in the yellow prices." The yellow prices were no better than we'd seen advertised by other retailers as their regular prices.

My wife and I took a look at each other, silently agreed we'd had enough of his lazy attitude and the misleading offers, turned and walked out. We left the parking lot somewhat deflated.

However, directly across the street was an American Mattress store and I decided to stop there just to get my wife's enthusiasm back for finding a mattress that met our needs and budget. It turned out to be a watershed experience,

Unlike the store we'd just left, this one was bright, inviting and products were arranged in small groupings that included bedroom furniture, carpets, decorator pieces and accent lighting. This store was also empty except for a single salesperson. Soothing music was playing overhead and I would swear they were pumping fragrances throughout the showroom because the store smelled fresh and inviting.

Before we got five feet into the store the salesperson shouted a friendly hello and began moving in our direction. He shook our hands and then backed off about ten feet before asking us how much we knew about mattresses. "A knowledgeable customer is the best kind of customer" was how he opened. He asked for permission to walk us through how mattresses are constructed and how the categories varied without concern for manufacturers, models or prices. He was most interested in us determining the type of mattress that suited us before considering a choice.

After walking us through his Mattresses 101 course, which proved to be very helpful despite my extensive advance research, we honed in on a couple of choices and decided we'd go home and consider our options. Although he offered us a sale price that was significantly below the posted prices, I avoided haggling at that point. The next day, I stopped back to tell him we'd settled on a particular model at which point he and I entered into price negotiations in earnest.

His informative approach, low key but friendly demeanor and desire to match our needs all contributed to outstanding salesmanship. We spent considerably more than we originally intended and were happy to do so once we fully appreciated the differences in mattresses. Furthermore, he got us hooked on adding a motorized, adjustable foundation, the purchase of which we postponed to serve as an incentive for something my wife and I agreed we wanted to save for first. Where do you think we will be going when it's time to make that purchase?

The American Mattress salesperson might believe a knowledgeable customer is the best customer but I would add a fully satisfied customer who spreads the word is even better. 

The Sinner and Samaritan That I Am

A group of dedicated women spent months preparing for the John Marshall High School (Rochester, NY) 44th Reunion. We hadn't had a reunion since our 20th in 1990, so it seemed an odd year to have one but I've been eager to see long lost friends, some folks with whom I'd reconnected on Facebook and a number of people with whom I wasn't close in high school but curious about nonetheless.

Prior to the event, an eight-hour gathering seemed a little excessive to me but I was game since it was planned as a casual, catered party in a local park. In hindsight, eight hours was far too little time together. I intended to spend extended time with my friends Vern and Kris, Sandy and Mike, as well as Jim and Sandy for whom I stood at their wedding forty years ago. I was sure the other Kris and I would spend lots of time face to face given how we'd sent each other a series of notes over the months via Facebook. I don't think I spent more than five or ten with any of these folks because there were just so many people to see, so many hugs to share, so many memories to relive.

However, the day was defined for me by two polar opposite exchanges that took place about ten minutes apart as I was preparing to leave at the end of the day.

Dan and I were not only schoolmates but I was in his wedding when he married my dear friend and childhood neighbor, Mary Ellen.  Dan and I worked together at two different employers during and following high school. After they married, Dan and Mary Ellen lived in the apartment above my brother and me. (Dan's father owned the apartment building.) We hadn't been in touch in decades and were catching up when a fellow walked up and interrupted our conversation.

After a full day of encounters it was pretty easy to gauge the degree of warmth and sincerity behind each greeting. "Hi, Jim." was said in the most unfriendly tone accompanied by an equally icy look. Before I could respond, the fellow turned to Dan and said in an accusatory tone that sounded like it had been brewing for forty years, "He doesn't have any idea who I am." When I admitted I didn't recognize the man, Dan gave me a single clue, "Peanut."

That nickname was given to a boy who was small in stature and did not resemble in any way the man in front of me with the shaved head, perfectly trimmed gray facial hair and medium but fit build. Even after studying his eyes closely, I didn't see any resemblance. His expression never warmed toward me and he quickly turned his attention toward Dan to discuss dates of some upcoming social events. When they were done he turned and walked away.

As I reflected on my strongest recollection of this fellow it revolved around an incident where someone took his jock strap and lined it with a heat ointment when he wasn't looking. About the time he finished getting dressed in the layers of clothes we wore for wrestling practice he began to feel the burning sensation on his testicles. Most of the team was aware of the prank and we pretended to busy ourselves waiting for the unpleasant effect to kick in. We howled when he went running to the showers. A flood of other incidents rushed to mind and it struck me he was the target of many pranks that today would unmistakably be called bullying. While I never actively participated in any of the pranks, I witnessed many of them, laughed heartily and made no attempt to intervene. Forty years after the fact, I realized I was indirectly guilty of being a bully.

"I'll be right back," I said to Dan.

"Peanut" was sitting alone at a table eating his meal. He never looked at me or stopped eating as I began to explain how sorry I was for witnessing the bullying he endured and doing nothing to stop it. When I finished, he offered me his hand and despite not looking directly at me, I could see the hurt in his eyes. My apology didn't begin to make up for the suffering he endured or the forty years it took someone, anyone to acknowledge and apologize for it. I walked away feeling very ashamed of myself and equally somber recognizing that by my failure to stand up, I was a contributor to his being bullied. I was ready to leave the reunion.

Making the rounds to say my goodbyes I became aware of another fellow who appeared to be waiting for me. Although we had a number of mutual friends in school,  he and I didn't know each other well. He was an outstanding musician and performed with a folk group that I followed regularly so we were familiar with each other but never really spoke. I thought of him as a gentle, quiet and deep, thoughtful person. Unfortunately, those weren't the characteristics that I was always draw to in high school. Prior to the reunion, we friended each other on Facebook and I've come to enjoy his frequent, interesting posts but we haven't communicated directly.

He approached me as I headed to my car in the parking lot and asked if he could walk with me. He began telling me about an evening he was walking home from school and got accosted by a group of guys who were threatening him and who he was certain intended to hurt him. He didn't tell me why they wanted to hurt him but I could hear the fear in his voice and see the hurt in his eyes more than forty years later. "I don't know where you came from but  suddenly you were standing up to these guys, they backed down and never bothered me again. I've always appreciated what you did and I've retold that story every year since, including to the freshmen I meet each year." (He's in higher education at a major university.) As he spoke, I had absolutely no recollection of the encounter.

The contrast of emotions from facing my own failings only minutes earlier and then been informed of my actions to protect someone from bullying and possible physical harm was perplexing and a little overwhelming. I shared with him the general details of my recently extended apology and we agreed we'd both continue to tell the combined stories going forward. For me, the sequence and timing couldn't have been more powerful - from shame to redemption in under ten minutes. It took over forty years for my past to catch up with me in a ten minute flurry. It reminded me each of us has both good and bad in us. Which of those will prevail is as simple as each individual act we choose.

Friday, May 23, 2014

U.S. Soccer Signals "Wait 'Till Next Year" Attitude Toward World Cup

The American soccer community is all a flutter about Landon Donovan being left off the U.S. Soccer World Cup team.

I don't think the decision is about him. It's about protecting the brand.

The U.S. will be lucky to advance out of the opening round group play. Anything beyond that would be gravy but far short of a victory. Regardless of far it gets, this team will not come close to winning the cup.

So why include arguably the best player to ever wear the team's jersey and reinforce the opinion that even our "best" can't get the job done? Losing with Donovan leading the team sends a message to sponsors and television executives that American soccer is still not ready for prime time. To gauge the state of American soccer all you had to do was watch any of the English Premier League games on NBC this season and then tune in to any MLS game. The contrast is like moving from Major League Baseball to a Double AA minor league game.

Back to the subject at hand, losing by mixing in relatively unknown, up and coming younger players sets the stage for saying "the team is well poised to improve by 2018." Why else would you give the coach a contract extension ahead of the tournament when traditionally contracts are designed to be renewed right after the tournament?

The U.S. National Team and Major League Soccer are marketed as a package. That's why 15 of the 30 invitees to the tryouts are MLS players. The World Cup is being used as a means of promoting MLS players to build local market visibility in the U.S. These largely unknown MLS players will be seen by American TV viewers who normally wouldn't be interested in soccer on TV. Just maybe some of them will stand out enough to entice a viewer to attend an MLS game. After winning five MLS crowns, Landon Donovan has largely exhausted any ability he has to attract new fans to MLS.

Of course, they'd never admit it but the leadership of U.S. Soccer, MLS and the coaches of the National Team are already conceding the World Cup and trying to make the best of a losing proposition. It's actually a pretty shrewd strategy. Better to invest in the near term career potential of these MLS players and help to bolster the League's growth. No doubt the players who are chosen will play their hearts out despite the likely outcome.  Think that I'm being defeatist? Overly negative? Unpatriotic? Suggesting an outlandish conspiracy? Then you don't know the people involved or the underpinnings of the sport as well as you think.