By Gordon Hecht, Serta Simmons Bedding

“You take it on faith, you take it to the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.” — Tom Petty

Ask someone to describe a rice cake and they’d probably tell you “It’s about the same diameter as a CD, only 10 times thicker, and the CD tastes better.”

Ten years ago I would have agreed. But starting in 2018 I got in touch with my inner hippie, went to the back corner of my local Mega Mart, and saw that rice cakes are no longer plain — there’s now chocolate, caramel and ranch flavor.

Everyone likes a snack now and then and I got hooked on spreading apple butter on a caramel cake. At 50 calories each and twelve to a pack, it’s a tasty, healthy and low-cost way to quell the craving to munch. All was well with the world … until May 2020.

It was then that I noticed that there was an empty space at Mega Mart where my beloved cakes of rice used to reside. Other food stores like Wally-World, the Frugal Hoosier, and even my local Stop’n Rob convenience store no longer stocked them either. How can we run out of rice cakes?! There are only four component parts: rice, caramel, a cellophane bag and a plastic twist tie.

I don’t have to tell you — whether you’re selling little crunchy disc cakes, frosty stainless-steel chests, or large fluffy white rectangles (a.k.a. mattresses) — the supply chain is daunting. First there’s the challenge of gathering dozens of component parts and the labor to assemble them, and that’s just at manufacturing plants. Then reach back to the folks who supply the component parts and you’ll see they can’t get their raw material nor the employees to convert it into components.

The result industrywide is that you retailers are selling it faster than we can make it. What used to be a seven- to 10-day turnaround is now four times longer.

See: Serta’s Sales Chief Details Production Delays

The good news is that your shoppers still want our product. But retail shoppers are an odd lot; they will sleep on a sub-standard mattress for years, research their selection for months, delay the shopping trip for weeks, and then demand next-day delivery once they buy!

Your New Friend ‘When’

You may have been lucky or foresighted enough to order multiple truckloads of merchandise before this COVID thing started. If not, or if your warehouse is getting bare, here’s how to sell and keep your sanity in the current merchandise reality.

Selling is a series of asking the right questions and actively listening for the answers. A good place to start is with “The Reporter’s Questions.” Journalists are taught to answer these six questions in the first sentence of a news story: Who, what, where, why, how and when. (Good salespeople add “Tell me” to the list.)

Today, the most important question you can ask your shopper is when, as in “When do you need your new mattress delivered?” The nifty thing you will learn is that when people are shopping, they are not in a hurry. It’s once they decide to buy that they want immediate gratification.

Ask the “when” question early and you’ll probably hear “I’m not sure” or “We just started shopping.” That’s when you can explain the current short-term delays in production. You can put the positive spin on it by noting that the delay gives the customer time to prepare for their new product, whether it’s finding someone who can use the old mattress, ordering new bed linens or even painting the bedroom.

During some sales encounters you’ll hear “Whatever we choose, we need it right away.” That’s the time to change from being a salesperson into being an artist; you’ll need to paint an expectations picture. Start with “Imagine finding the perfect mattress, everything you wanted. Comfort, support, cooling, and all at a price right in your budget. Something that would feel good when you buy it and great every night for years to come. If you found a mattress like that, would you be willing to wait just a little bit for a bed like that?”

Very often phrasing like that will push aside the time-frame objection and allow you to present the right sleep solution instead of the fast sleep solution.

Under-Promise, Over-Deliver and Communicate Often

It’s never a good idea to short-quote order-and-delivery time to a retail customer. If you quote three to four weeks, the customer only hears three weeks and will probably start calling you in two for a status update. Savvy restaurant greeters know to pad expected seating times by 10 minutes — if they tell you it’s a 30-minute wait for a table and fetch you from the bar in 15 or 20 minutes, it makes you feel special. Padding an extra seven to 10 days on your order time will rarely fail you and can take you from zero to hero.

You can also avoid some messy situations with weekly updates. Just sending a note to let the customer know that the finish line is getting closer and it will be worth the wait can reduce incoming phone calls.

Prepare for War!

One final note: Labor Day is about six weeks away. Be prepared with well-stocked shelves by placing stock orders today. Even if you’ve never considered ordering a truckload, now is the time to do so. (I’ll bet you wish you had a full truck pulling up to your warehouse right now). If you normally order in volume, then it’s time to double-truck it. Demand promises to be high for the rest of this quarter and the extra inventory will help you win the availability war in the future.

Gordon Hecht is Senior Regional Manager/Strategic Retail Group at Serta Simmons Bedding. You can reach him at ghecht@sertasimmons.com.