And so to bed

And so to bed

Colin Heal, who has been running one of the UK’s top independent bed sellers for 19 years, tells Brian Nicholls of his relief that people now appreciate a good night's sleep.

Whatever our other discomforts, many of us do seem to be sleeping more peacefully these nights. Despite the slash backs in our personal spending more customers are now buying bigger beds to spread out on. The trend has been noticeable even throughout the recession, according to Colin Heal who runs a major group of bedding stores throughout the North East.

“People are realising there’s a better quality of sleep to be had through buying beds that are a lot bigger,” he says.

“A standard double bed is four feet six inches and if it’s for two people of normal size, basically each person is sleeping on a two-foot, three-inch bed. That’s actually smaller than a cot.

“When you explain that to people and ask how they’re going to get a good night’s sleep on a bed smaller than a cot they now normally switch to king size – or super king, which is six foot, basically two single beds.

“You’re getting a comfortable sleep on those, and so is your partner, because you’re not kicking them or whacking them in the face. Even if you don’t waken them through the night you’ll disturb their sleep pattern.” He says many customers are already aware of these advantages when they visit, apparently picking up their knowledge on the internet.

The Monomarket group of which he is general manager is entering its 25th year in business noting also that in that time more customers are acknowledging the health aspect to bed buying. Heal explains: “Many people come in having wakened earlier with a sore back. They realise they need a new bed. Sadly, they’ve suffered too long. Beds should be replaced every eight to 10 years.

“You hear of people who’ve had their beds 30 or 40 years and you think: ’Oh, oh.’ “Our business is selling beds but we don’t do a hard sell, more a consultation. We try to educate our customers about beds. People who wake up in pain may not be unwell but only in need of a new bed and not a new back. Maybe they need a pocket sprung or memory foam bed.” Pocket sprung mattresses have individual springs sewn into linked fabric bags. Memory foam mattress moulds to the shape of your body. Under Heal’s direction – he has been with the firm 21 years, 19 as general manager – Monomarket has grown into one of the country’s biggest independent providers.

It employs 65 people and to shoppers it’s better known probably under the names of its individual stores in the region: New Bridge Street Bedding Centre in Newcastle, Portrack Lane Bed Centre at Stockton, Sunderland Bedding Centre and Northgate Bedding Centre in Darlington. About 800 beds are always on display on the four stores’ total floor space of 60,000sq ft. The group is also adding reach with a Mr Mattress website. Its head office operates cosily within the Newcastle store and it has its warehouse a couple of miles away, near Brough Park sports stadium. The Newcastle store, which has remained in the same premises throughout, was followed by Sunderland 16 years ago, Northgate 12 years ago and Portrack seven years ago.

Heal started as a salesman when managing director Geoff Gale took him on at 20. Heal recalls: “I’d worked for another bedding firm before, in Sunderland. It started getting into difficulties. I knew this company had a good reputation. I phoned Geoff on spec and asked if there were any positions going. He asked my background, and said he hadn’t any vacancies but asked me to come in and see him.

“I saw him that afternoon. A few days later he offered me a job selling on the floor. It was all hands-on and good. Two years later I was promoted. I was one of the youngest in the store, so I had a task on my hands. Geoff didn’t know the risk he was taking, having a 22-year-old as general manager of a store.” The truth is that Geoff Gale probably recognised personal ability. He had earlier been a director of Newcastle’s once famous East End department store, JT Parrish, which finally closed its doors on Shields Road in 1984 after more than 100 years of trading.

He and his wife Gill, his present co-director, launched their own business at New Bridge Street. Today the single shop unit which used the upstairs and basement for warehousing initially has expanded through four units on New Bridge Street, and the company prides itself on staff retention. Store manager Alan Scott, for example, has been with the firm 24 years. Heal says: “I grew up with the firm and had terrific mentors because I can’t praise Geoff and Gill enough. The company has moved on and on to what it is today. We don’t stand still. We’re very pro-active. That suits me because I like to keep my mind occupied.” Hence perhaps his cogitative leadership.

“A bed for us is not a quick sell,” he explains. “Buyers are going to sleep on a bed eight hours a day for 10 years. So we expect them to spend a couple of hours choosing a bed, or even up to a week. We’d rather you spent as long as you wish in the shop and be sure you’ve got the right bed. People I’ve sold beds to have actually said to me later something like ‘you’ve changed my life for the better’.” One past customer, unsolicited, whom BQ spot checked confirmed: “The service we got when we bought a bed there was brilliant – no big sell but lots of useful information. We took hours to make our minds up but came under no pressure. We’ve recommended the store to our friends.” The customers are advised to consider four things: Price, support, comfort and aesthetics. “A bedstead, after all, is a piece of furniture you can design the rest of the room around,” says Heal. “And, because it’s covered, some people think a bed’s just a bed. No. It’s the most important item in your house. You spend more time on that than you do on your sofa.

“If you have a good night’s sleep you have a good day. If you have a bad night’s sleep you can have a horrific day being tired and grumpy, feeling aches and pains and quite worn out.

One suspects he practises what he preaches because here he is, not having lunched yet still full of vitality despite his long daily walk hours earlier with his two labradors at Newton on the Moor, near Alnwick, where he lives. When he talks about changing beds he also means changing mattresses.

“Your mattress needs a good foundation as part of the whole – unless you go for a bedstead, and then you should still replace the mattress every eight to 10 years,” he advises. One of the most striking aspects of the merchandise is the advance in technology. There are now electric beds adjustable for people with mobility or circulation difficulties. Others with breathing difficulties can adjust these beds to lie more upright. There are airbeds; pillow top mattresses give an extra layer of soft cushioning, and single-sided no-flip mattresses are now common. Water beds, far from novel, were used in Persia more than 3,600 years ago. They were then made of goatskins. Heal reckons water beds are probably the healthiest beds. “The media has made a thing about them, and while not to everybody’s taste they are very healthy for comfort and support, and they can be cleaned.” A familiar story, sadly, is the decline of mass British manufacturing in yet another profitable and fundamental sector – this one going back 10,000 years.

“Twenty-five years ago 95% of product was from Britain,” Heal recalls. “The divans in general still come from Britain, but a lot of beds are being imported from the likes of Malaysia, China and Brazil. “It’s cheaper to manufacture there and sell them here despite the cost of shipping them over in containers. The workmanship in Malaysian beds is particularly impressive.” Whatever the origin, Heal believes that independent sellers must always have specialists at hand to inform the public authoritatively and educate. He says: “There’s always competition. But in our business if you have the right advertising, the right sales staff and the right stock you’ll do well. Yes, you have to be aware of what the competition is doing. But we concentrate on our own business first.” In line with the low profile the Gales themselves keep, company figures are not discussed publicly.

But the group does about 100 deliveries daily, five days weeks, its items ranging in price from a £30 mattress to a £5,000 bed. The firm prides itself on quick delivery because of its large stock. Heal says: “A lady recently phoned from Keighley wanting two electric beds urgently. By eight o’clock that night she had the two electric beds fully installed by two of our staff who drove with the beds to Yorkshire.

We’re always prepared for panic buys of any kind.” Of pressures existing on retail sales generally, Heal agrees: “There has been some easing off – that’s no secret. But hopefully we’ll be coming out of this recession stronger than ever. If you put your head in the sand you’ll falter. We’re positive and go out to get the business that is there. You have to give unprecedented service, though. If you don’t, your customer will go somewhere else.”