By David Gill
Not surprisingly, innovation is a crucial element in the operations at Sleep Innovations, the basic-bedding manufacturer.
The word “innovation” has become a favorite among manufacturers of home furnishings in a variety of categories. Executives place innovation high on their lists of what they feel they need to do to differentiate themselves from their competition.
But last August, Sleep Innovations took a step that was designed to go beyond talking the talk of innovation: The company opened its new innovation center in its headquarters in West Long Branch, N.J.
Measuring about 8,000 square feet, and called EOS after the Greek goddess of the dawn, the innovation center has a layout that emphasizes the close connection between the company’s marketing and product-development teams. Executives in both departments are seated near each other in a large open area. The center also includes equipment for testing new products and materials, and for creating new packaging and signage for the products that emerge from there.
Michael Thompson, Sleep Innovations’ president and chief executive officer, said the center reinforces the company’s commitment to innovation, and to raising the bar on revolutionary memory-foam products. “The passion and experience of the Sleep Innovations team, coupled with an open collaborative space, will ensure the development of products that deliver comfort, relaxation and rejuvenation, and a successful future for the company,” Thompson said.
Michael Loomis, vice president of business and product development, called the center “our laboratory of creativity. With a focus on developing products that promote comfort and address consumers’ needs and pain points, we needed a place that would foster creativity and innovation while providing inspiration.” The center “is a place we can all come together to brainstorm, create and ultimately commercialize the latest in comfort technology,” Loomis said.
The open environment enables product-development and marketing executives to bounce ideas off each other, said Sharon Miller, director of marketing and communications. “We need to have product development and marketing live together,” Miller said.
The process with which Sleep Innovations develops new products reinforces this marriage. “The product-development people will hand me a product they say will work,” Miller said. “I brand it by assessing the product’s benefits to the consumer, its purposes and its features.”
According to Miller, all of Sleep Innovations’ product development starts with the consumer and how these products help them sleep comfortably. “We do in-home usage studies followed by focus groups,” she said. “In terms of sleep, there are many types of consumers, including snorers and side sleepers. We ask all the time what are the issues for each type of sleeper. Our product-development people spend 50 percent of their time talking to consumers.”
Once a prototype of a new product is created, it goes to the center’s pressure-mapping area. This has a bed where the product can be placed and a mannequin weighing 165 pounds, which can be lowered onto the product. Next to the bed is a laptop computer with pressure-mapping software, which evaluates the mannequin’s pressure points while lying on the product.
New products will play a vital role in Sleep Innovations’ growth in 2011, a year in which the company wants to place even greater emphasis on its name. “The company is focused on building the Sleep Innovations brand, driving consumer awareness and utilizing an optimized go-to-market plan,” Thompson said. “In 2010, we focused on our infrastructure and processes to support the growth of the company. We are poised for even larger growth in 2011.”
Putting weight behind the Sleep Innovations brand will create more opportunities for the company this year. “We want to push the brand to bigger retailers,” Miller said. “At September market in 2010 (the New York Home Fashions Market in New York City), we unveiled a refreshing of the brand. Now we’re looking at end caps in department stores and trickling into Canada. We are also looking to enter smaller retailers, and growing our warehouse-club business.”
Miller also said Sleep Innovations is looking outside of its current box to enter new product categories. “We introduced bath mats at the September market, and this year we’ll be looking to get bigger in this segment,” Miller said. “We will probably introduce kitchen mats this year as well.”