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Lying down on the job not an option for high-end mattress maker

Not content with status quo, Shifman's strategy makes it a status symbol for those who want a luxurious night's sleep

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Michael Hammer, left, and his son, Bill Hammer, on the Newark factory floor. The company uses natural cotton, not synthetic materials, to fill its mattresses.
Michael Hammer, left, and his son, Bill Hammer, on the Newark factory floor. The company uses natural cotton, not synthetic materials, to fill its mattresses. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Hand-stitched mattresses filled with natural cotton have been emerging from Newark's Shifman Mattress for 120 years. So when Michael Hammer bought the company in 1985, he kept the tradition of hand craftsmanship alive while making some key changes — expanding the factory, hiring more workers and signing up new retailers around the country — that are boosting sales to affluent consumers in search of a luxurious night's sleep.

From 18 workers when Hammer took over, Shifman now employs 70. Maine to Washington, D.C., had been the sales footprint prior to the 2008 factory expansion that enabled Shifman to extend its territory south to Florida and out to the Midwest and California.

Sales exceed $10 million a year, and after dipping 4 percent during the 2009 recession, were 49 percent higher in 2012 than in 2008, according to Bill Hammer, president, who runs the company with his father, who is CEO. The 24,000-square-foot expansion brought the total Newark facility to 84,000 square feet.

Prices range from $750 to $2,000 for an entry-level quilted mattress to the "ultra-luxurious" line that runs from $1,300 to $8,000. Most mattresses today use synthetic filler materials, but all Shifman mattresses are filled with cotton. For the higher-end mattresses, a worker will spend two hours hand sewing, with heavy thread and a long needle, the individual tufts that hold 14 layers of cotton in place. The company still produces traditional box springs: the top-of-the-line one has hand-tied coils.

The factory expansion came at just the right time for Shifman to expand production, sign up new retailers — and cushion the impact of the economic downturn.

"In 2009, we landed several new (retail) accounts — we got new business during the worst of economic times," Bill Hammer said. Bloomingdale's, which has been a Shifman seller for 26 years and is the company's largest retailer, began three years ago to sell Shifman products in its California stores. Shifman deals with upscale furniture retailers and avoids over-saturating a market by only selling to one retailer in a given territory. These retailers "are looking for a quality mattress equal to the quality of the furniture they sell," Bill Hammer said.

As Mike Hammer put it, "A retailer needs a manufacturer that not only delivers the product his customers want, but that also give him a profit." So Shifman seeks furniture stores "that are very strong in their market and that understand quality."

By targeting the upscale consumer, Shifman is in the right place at the right time, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm based in New York.

"Luxury is a terrific end of the business to be in," he said. "The top 1 percent, the top 10 percent, have never been richer — and the sale of luxury over the last few years has never been better." And he said Bloomingdale's is a very good retailing partner to have, because the department store chain has a strong presence in the home goods market at a time when retail "is having a tremendous turnaround in home — it is the perfect place to be."

Bob Chandley, sales manager of Brielle Furniture and Interiors, said entry-level Shifman mattresses compete pricewise with mass-market mattresses, but he said they deliver higher value. He said Shifman mattresses are two sided, so can be flipped periodically to increase their longevity, while Shifman's traditional box-spring design also increases the life of the mattress. Chandley said he's been sleeping on a high-end Shifman mattress for about 30 years: "Cotton is a very, very resilient product that puffs back up, and it's very comfortable."

Chip Hallock, president of the Newark Regional Business Partnership, said Shifman is an example of "a highly visible company that has been here, turning out good products, for a long, long time." He is working with city officials on a "Made in Newark" initiative that has identified several hundred manufacturers employing about 10,000 workers. The project "is analyzing the strengths and weaknesses and opportunities here in Newark for manufacturers, to figure out how to make the ones that are here even stronger, and see if there are opportunities to attract others."

Bill Hammer said the quality of the city's work force is a key asset. "We love Newark — that is why we expanded the facility here," he said. "It is because of the people, the culture of the workers. You have immigrants who come to melting pots like Newark, and they come with very good ethics, and they are very hard-working people."

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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