The resolute Freedom Tower, the shining Chrysler Building, gay Broadway. These are but a few of New York City’s most popular cultural icons. I have seen or visited many of them in the past during my annual trips to Manhattan.
When I came to New York City at the beginning of Summer to explore and further my writing, I wasn’t so interested in going to these places again. Instead, I wanted to understand better what makes New York City so grand, so alive—even after a devastating pandemic knocked the wind out of it—by meeting and getting to know some of the people that make this city such a global beacon.
Surprisingly, I’ve met New Yorkers who, contrary to popular belief, are approachable, helpful and, yes, welcoming—even if not overtly warm at first. By New Yorkers I mean people who live in New York City regardless of tenure.
The City is as much host to people from all over the world who have made New York their home for generations as it is to recent immigrants and transient people who are constantly beckoned by the City’s allure, seduced by her vivacious avenues and gentle parks, taken by her excitement and promise of riches.
New Yorkers are storied people, and New York City is often a main character in their personal stories.
If you just want to watch raindrops, go somewhere else
To be a New Yorker you must have a passion. That is what I recently learned from Craig Frutchman, known as the guy who sells mattresses and takes photos in New York City. “If you’re in New York City and you don’t have a passion,” Craig said, “you’re wasting your time and spending too much money.”
Originally from New Jersey where he spent this youth, Craig moved to New York City in 1998. “If you have a passion, you must be on a mission to live in this city,” Craig said. Just walking around the City on any given day, “even if it’s a tough one,” makes Craig feel “energized with the many opportunities here.”
“If you just want to watch raindrops, go somewhere else,” Craig said. Such sentiment reflects a core aspect of his character, his pragmatism.
It’s a combination of ingenuity and pragmatism that led Craig to start selling mattresses online in 2009 well before large stores learned how, to open his somewhat obscure showroom a year later in Midtown Manhattan clashing with those same big retailers, to then launch his own brand of mattresses a year after that, and later to use his New York City photographs to improve online search ranking for his bed website.
Disrupting conventional retail
I recently met Craig at his showroom after I had a disastrous experience with Mattress Firm, a national store chain, that netted me one exchange, one return, one month of back pain, and a $121 loss on a mattress I originally purchased from one of their website chat agents.
Craig’s showroom disrupts conventional retail best practices. The showroom’s location is on the 6th floor of a rather grayly weathered prewar building in the middle of a block on West 38th Street in the Garment District. The building’s entrance is flanked on one side by a shop selling sewing machine parts and on the other by a psychic.
Of his unconventional showroom, which is located across the hall from where his father’s textile business used to be for many years, Craig said, “from my experience with the internet, I felt that customers would find me online, not from the street—and the rent is much cheaper.”
The showroom lacks the pressure of shadowing sales people, customers competing for their attention, and the distraction of elaborate product merchandising often deployed by retailers who try to make an “experience” out of rather contrived selling techniques.
In his showroom, Craig delivers a shopping experience in which customers can test and buy quality mattresses without pressure, without crowds, all while viewing his cinematic photographs of New York City.
Two serene rows of neatly dressed mattresses face each other in formation along the narrow showroom. Hanging above the beds on flanking walls, Craig’s photographs adorn the space. Two large windows in the back of the room let in plenty of natural light, a real luxury in New York City.
Craig services one customer at a time, by appointment, dutifully asking them about their sleeping preferences and guiding them through the different mattress options that could potentially match their needs. He covers each bed with a large freshly cut silky fabric, so that customers may lay down freely and test for comfort.
He then steps away to give them time to settle, toss around and get a feel for the mattress. This experience model was in place well before the pandemic, “but Covid helped me not to have to explain it anymore,” Craig said.
Delivering that experience consistently for 10 years helped him earn 5-star reviews, repeat customers and a life line during the pandemic.
Covid, a never-ending snow storm
“In March 2020 they announced that the City was going to shut down,” Craig said. “I had no idea, like many people, what a shutdown meant.” He didn’t know if he’d be able to ship any product into the City, if he’d be able to delivery to customers’ homes. “Many buildings didn’t even accept food deliveries,” Craig said. The building where his showroom is located was closed for three months. He couldn’t meet clients, not even one at the time.
As a store owner, I wasn’t just afraid of losing my job, I was afraid of losing my business.”
Surprisingly he received quite a bit of orders from existing customers who just ordered the same product they already had. “A lot of our customers moved upstate or out of the city for a year,” Craig said. “I don’t know if they rented or moved in with friends or if they’re just wealthy and could afford to have two places.” Those orders helped Craig keep the business going. “I was fortunate that they remembered me and ordered their beds from me during that time,” Craig said.
Business started to pick up in the Summer, but then there were product shortages. The factories that Craig works with in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York couldn’t ship product for more than three months.
“Wood was scarce or prices went up,” Craig said. “There were foam shortages when companies were hit with a deep freeze in the Gulf Coast.” The record-breaking Arctic cold that impacted Texas in mid-February 2020 triggered power outages and foam supply disruptions that lasted well into that year’s Summer.
It felt like this whole Covid thing was a never-ending snow storm.”
Even though many of his customers left the City to quarantine elsewhere, Craig stayed in New York City. “This is the only place I want to live. This is the only place I wanted to quarantine in,” Craig said. Describing what he saw when we went out during those dreadful days of the pandemic, Craig said, “It was pretty grim to see the City shut down and quiet.”
The pandemic has been a surreal experience for Craig in more ways than one. “We did eat out in the Winter, under a heat lamp in 20-degree weather,” Craig said. “We went to Iceland in January 2020, our last big trip.” He and his “other half” wore their Iceland gear as if they were going skiing, just to eat outdoors in New York City. “As cold as it was,” Craig said, “I felt I needed to eat out a couple days a week just for my sanity, to be out of the house, out of the office.”
A creative background
Craig is no stranger to facing and overcoming challenges. Becoming a mattress entrepreneur wasn’t a straight path for him.
When Craig was a kid, he had a vision of one day owning a home that would be full of paintings. As a business major at Rider University, he took painting classes as electives whenever he had a chance. “Eventually I ran out of electives,” Craig said. “Then it was back to accounting and finance.” After he graduated, he took painting classes at the Art Student League in Manhattan and started painting at home.
It felt like painting was going to drive me crazy.”
“One day, I got an inspiration to paint a scene of Bow Bridge in Central Park from a picture that I had taken,” Craig said. “I started at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and I didn’t finish until 2 a.m. that night.” The experience proved to be too intense for him. “After I was done, I was ‘done’,” Craig said. “It felt like painting was going to drive me crazy.” He never painted again.
But Craig didn’t altogether leave the art scene. He became an art buyer working for his father’s textile business. “I’d buy designs to produce prints for garment manufacturers,” Craig said. “I’d go to art shows in Paris and London and would sell my prints to Macy’s, Bloomingdale's, Dress Barn.”
This period of working in the textile industry proved not only a fruitful time for creative exploration and growth but also a time of fighting design knock offs, manufacturing lawsuits and ultimately trimmed profits given the changes in global garment manufacturing. After 10 years of working with his father, he felt it was time for him “to do my own thing.”
It was a miracle: people really found the website.”
In 2007, he started a digital fabric printing business and learned how to use the internet. “I made a website called craigsprints.com on iWeb, an Apple computer program,” Craig said. “They had forums to teach you how to do websites.” He was surprised by how relatively easy it was to design his own. “I made a really cool website,” Craig said. “It was a miracle: people really found the website.”
Reminiscing about those early days of the internet, Craig said, “the internet has not been around for 100 years, and it has not been really useful for more than 10 years—it’s all relatively new stuff.”
Selling mattresses online
Printing people’s artwork two or three yards at a time was pretty cool, but it was too labor intensive and “it wasn’t good for me to breathe those inks,” Craig said. “There’s got be something else I can do now that I know how the internet works,” was Craig’s motivation behind the launch of his online mattress business and later his own mattress brand.
“I knew something about the mattress business,” Craig said. “It had such a bad reputation.” He felt that customers needed someone to just be good to them, for retailers to be more transparent. Moreover, retail models were changing in his favor.
About 10 years ago, customer reviews started to become an important component of retail. Websites like Yelp and Bizrate were becoming key players in informing and influencing consumers’ buying decisions, especially for online purchases.
At the time, drop shipping, wherein the seller accepts customer orders but does not keep goods sold in stock, was also a new concept. And Paypal gave online customers purchasing protection and a sense of security when shopping online was still in its adolescence.
My focus was ‘shop on our website’.”
Craig started to sell mattresses online by brands with which people were already familiar. “I was selling to people who knew the product and were trying to get it for less,” Craig said. Most websites for mattress retailers didn’t have an online cart then. They just had a menu of their products.
Their focus was to get people to come to their stores. “My focus was ‘shop on our website’,” Craig said. “I couldn’t compete on store sales because I didn’t have hundreds of stores. But I had a website, craigsbeds.com, that could be seen nation-wide with the same product as those large stores.”
“I was doing really well my first year in business,” Craig said. His success, however, didn’t sit well with “big guys who had more than 500 stores and eventually were bought by a bigger guy.” Rather than compete with Craig, they would call the manufacturers that were supplying him and tell them not to sell to him.
I was doing a good job and the traditional stores didn’t like it, period.”
“The more beds I sold, the more I was getting threatened, the more likely I was going to be dropped by the manufacturers,” Craig said. “I was doing a good job and the traditional stores didn’t like it, period.”
Like a big lawn in Central Park
Motivated by that threat, and with a background in manufacturing and contacts in the industry, Craig started his own brand of mattresses. “I felt I could make the same good beds for less and sell them for less,” Craig said. “And I’d have more control of my future.”
Craig chose his grandmother’s maiden name, Summerfield, as his new mattress brand name. “That’s what you want to sleep on, a Summerfield,” Craig said. “I imagined a big lawn on a big hill in Central Park.”
Summerfield was not the first name he considered though. “We did a round-robin during Mother’s Day with my family, my aunts, uncles and cousins to come up with a name,” Craig said. “Rest in Peace and Climax were a couple of the names they came up with.”
Photos for higher bed rankings
While Craig chose a more classic, less niche name for his mattress brand, he takes greater creative license when capturing dramatic scenes of New York City in his photographs. He started taking cinematic photos of the City about five years ago. In his photography, he aims to convey the feeling of living in New York City. “I want to capture how amazing the City is, how grand it is,” Craig said. “How grand life can be here.”
The first photograph of his that resonated with people was taken during the blizzard of 2016. “Most of the reporters and photographers were locked out of New York City because the subway was shut down,” Craig said. “I started walking and taking photos around the City at 6 a.m.” His photographs from that day showed the city blanketed in snow, subdued, yet majestic. “They went viral,” Craig said.
I want to capture how amazing the City is, how grand it is."
Much like with his approach to customer experience in his mattress showroom, Craig’s photographs capture New York City’s personality one moment, one feeling at a time. His Instagram feed shows photographs of New York City moody, shivering in the rain; exuberant, basking in crisp Spring light; hot and bothered, melting in the Summer heat; solemn, remembering September 11.
His Instagram handle is @craigsbeds. “It’s an organic way to let people know that I’m part of the community,” Craig said. “I feel if I post a picture of a bed, no one would care.” Referencing his bed business in his photography handle has proven to be a key success factor for his business’ web search rankings.
About five years ago, online advertising campaigns by “bed in a box” companies were negatively impacting his own web search rankings. “Some of these companies had $200M in venture capital,” Craig said. “They had huge budgets for PR, and they were knocking down my website.”
“I just wanted to keep running my business the way I wanted to.”
Craig knew he couldn’t compete with them and feared that they would push down his website from page 1 in search results to page 3. “I didn’t have $100M in venture capital. I didn’t want venture capital,” Craig said. “I just wanted to keep running my business the way I wanted to.”
To do that, he deployed his photography as a strategic marketing tool to gain greater awareness and digital traffic for his mattress website. The strategy worked, and his website rankings regained prime real estate on search results.
This creative strategy is not unlike what Apple does to promote its products—albeit at a different scale in very different markets. Outside of its launch campaigns that usually showcase product beauty shots, it’s rare to see actual product in Apple advertising.
Instead, Apple deploys graphic and photo driven campaigns: black and white images of historic disruptors for its ‘Think Different’ campaign that rebranded Apple as a product for independent thinkers; black silhouettes of dancers against vivid monochromatic color backgrounds that positioned iPod as essential to a care-free life style; cute black and white pet portraits for their latest ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign.
Without the support of an Apple-like budget or production teams, Craig achieves results for his mattress business by capturing and sharing the spirit of New York City in his photography.
“I celebrate every day we are in business and every customer that comes and visits us on the 6th floor.”
An optimistic pragmatic New Yorker
While he’s shared publicly a few of the photos he captured of New York City in the midst of the pandemic, Craig says he won’t share many of them for a while because, “we were beaten up so badly, and I think we need more uplifting stuff right now.”
“The toilet paper thing was real,” Craig said. “I saw someone in the middle of the street who made a big score of toilet paper.” Certain images from his walks around the City remain potent in his mind. “I saw one guy in front of Macy’s where it’s usually busy, all by himself sitting there in the middle, with all these empty tables around him,” Craig said. “It made me feel pretty isolated, alone, scared.” In a city where its residents habitually lament the lack of space, the lack of crowds felt dangerous.
"Not many people thought it was a good idea to open a mattress store in NYC. But here we are, still kicking even during a global pandemic."
“I think we’re going to be OK,” Craig said about his outlook for the Winter. “But we’re not going to have to think, we’re going to have facts to say that we’re OK, if we can get everything stabilized by the Fall.” Words of a true New York pragmatist.
Craig’s rapid-fire thoughts on mattresses
- A good mattress should get people at least 8-12 years of comfortable sleep
- It shouldn’t give you back pain
- It shouldn’t be too hot
- Its shape should hold up
- The foam mattress market is bullshit
- In trying to get a larger market share, they’re producing so much dammed waste
- There isn’t anything wrong with a foam bed in general
- The message that one bed is great for everyone, that’s what’s bullshit
- A mattress should be tried before you buy
- When people don’t try the beds in person, the return rate is 20-30% or more vs less than 5% for in-store purchases
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