Surviving And Thriving , Rising Star Futon Specializes in Quality


Bend, Ore. -- The story of Rising Star Futons reads like a condensed history of the American futon industry. Starting out as a part-time occupation, Rosamond Blok and her daughter, Leslie Blok, began making and selling futons out of Rosamond's home. They then moved into a combination showroom/factory in an old converted sawmill. Eventually Rising Star Futon became a thriving company employing ten people who made and sold futons out of their own big, sunny showroom in Bend, and through some direct-mail customers nationwide. Rising Star also sells futons wholesale through other retailers.

Like the futon industry, Rising Star has survived many changes and challenges. Today -- like other futon stores elsewhere in the country -- it's facing a new challenge: the arrival of "big-box" retailers offering deep discounts on futons and other home furnishings.

Bend, a popular resort town in central Oregon, has seen explosive growth in the past seven or eight years, which has lured in just about every major national and regional discount chain -- Costco, Wal-Mart, Shopko, Target and Fred Meyer, to name a few.

In the face of such competition, Rising Star Futon has not merely held its own but has thrived, continuing to win new customers and increased futon sales. The main secret, say Leslie and marketing director Bill Kurtz, is a deceptively simple formula: create a strong identity and stick with it. For Rising Star, "identity" means a futon store that appeals to an upscale and environmentally conscious customer base. "We never thought of our market as just people who were looking for something cheap to sleep on," says Bill. "We saw our main competition as the traditional hide-a-bed, and our main competitors as furniture stores and not another competing futon retailer. We always designed our showrooms to display our futons as attractive pieces of furniture." To enhance the "fine furniture" image of their futon store, Leslie and Rosamond started offering a wide variety of designer futon covers and attractive hardwood futon frames, many of them built by Leslie's brother, Bill Blok, a futon frame manufacturer who also owns several futon stores in western Oregon.

Environmental consciousness is the other major ingredient of Rising Star's marketing mix. It's an approach that grew naturally out of the personal philosophy of Rosamond, Leslie and Bill. "We developed the WellSpring™ futon mattress (stuffed with white, fluffy fibers derived from recycled two-liter plastic soda pop bottles) because we were looking for a good use for the recycled fiber," says Leslie. "But we also discovered a lot of customers were looking for something softer than the traditional cotton futon. The WellSpring™ quickly became our biggest seller."

Rising Star reached an agreement with the manufacturer to become exclusive distributor for WellSpring™ futon mattress and several related certified recycled poly fibers. "The environmental theme is carried over throughout the futon store," Bill points out. "We offer all kinds of home furnishing items made from recycled and/or natural materials -- like our futon covers and futon pillows made from organically grown hemp fiber." Other products that carry out the theme include bent-willow furniture, floral arrangements of dried flowers and grasses, floor and ceiling lamps made out of "found" objects, and outdoor furniture made of a material derived from recycled plastic milk jugs.

Rising Star Futon offers these additional tips for futon retailers facing today's marketing challenges:

1. INNOVATE. "We see our retail store as a laboratory," Leslie says. "We're always trying out new merchandise to see what customers will like or not like."

Rising Star Futon has its own informal, in-house market research department. "Our ten employees are continuously taking prototype models home, and we also have a few futon customers who do this," Bill says. "We've been doing this for six years. We track the comments and continuously improve our products."

2. OFFER UNIQUE LOCAL PRODUCTS. Besides a wide variety of futons, Rising Star fills their showroom with furniture and home furnishing items -- many of them one-of-a-kind -- made by local and Pacific Northwest artisans.

"Our rule of thumb is, first buy local; second, buy Oregon, third, buy Northwest," Leslie says. "Virtually every community has local artisans and craftspersons who are turning out really nice things. Putting them in your store helps give it a distinctive personality -- and people know this is stuff they can't get at Wal-Mart."

3. TAKE ALL THE HELP YOU CAN GET. Your futon wholesaler should be able to supply you with advertising ideas and other helpful materials and advice. "We give extensive support to all retailers who buy futon mattresses from us," says Leslie, "including ad slicks, point-of-sale displays and advice with publicity. We also give them the benefit of our experience as retailers. If they call us with a problem, we try to help solve it."

Finally, but most importantly --

4. BE A FUTON SPECIALIST. "There are some futon stores that put two or three futons in a corner and say, 'That's our futon department'," says Bill. "You have to become THE futon experts in your market area. You have to know your futon product lines and be there to help when customers have questions or problems."

"The big discount chains will always be with us," Leslie concludes, "but there also will always be a place for the futon specialty store that offers distinctive products, an attractive atmosphere, and a friendly, knowledgeable, helpful staff."


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