As a past president of the waterbed manufacturers association and President of the Specialty Sleep Association (the Successor organization to the waterbed manufactures association) I have experienced many of the highs and lows of the waterbed industry. My companies, Boyd Waterbeds and Royal Waterbeds were recognized as the waterbed manufacturer of the year several different years and retailer of the year for many years after. My retail company, Royal Waterbeds Inc., was recognized by INC Magazine as one of the 500 fastest growing privately held companies in the US for 5 consecutive years (which very few companies in any industry have been able to achieve). So, I do know little bit about the waterbed industry from inception, thru the go-go growth years, all the way to its decline and its current state. I get asked all the time “Do people still buy waterbeds?” “What ever happened to waterbeds?” and “Why did people stop buying Waterbeds?” “Do they still make waterbeds?” Here is my insider’s response to those questions.
1. Waterbeds started as a counter culture product, and then their customers went mainstream
Waterbeds were the bed of choice for the Baby Boomers in the 60’s and 70’s. Sex, drugs, Rock N Roll - and waterbeds defined the free spirit of a generation. We called regular innerspring beds “dead beds” and threw them off balconies from our hotel rooms at waterbed conventions. We were the anti-establishment bed. We were rebels with a cause. We were AGAINST the dull existence of an old innerspring technology and FOR the fun and support waterbeds offered. We were all about Sleep and Sex.” Push once – get two free” is what the salesman told me when I bought my first waterbed in college. The sexual revolution played out on a waterbed. Then we went got drafted to go to Vietnam, got jobs, got married, had kids and bought a house. We started to act more like our parents, which we never thought would happen. Would our parents sleep on a waterbed? Probably not. We started to have an identity crisis.
2. No one wins a price war.
My first Royal Waterbeds store opened in 1977. No one came to my store. I had no funds to advertise and was economically embarrassed. I called the local newspaper to do a story on the new novel idea of opening a waterbed store. It made the front page as a tongue in cheek story. It worked. My first sale was to a paraplegic gentleman that bought a heated waterbed with no headboard for $500. He loved it and told all his friends. I began doing so many deliveries (after the store closed each night) that I had to hire my first employee. Luckily, I sold to a lot of people that had a lot of friends. Business was booming and life was good. Success breeds competition. Just as rapidly as I could gather enough cash to open another store, two more competitors would open near me. The war was on and we were caught in the crossfire. Instead of selling the benefits of our product, the mantra became “We will not be undersold”. Competitors would send secret shoppers into our stores to poke holes in our floor display waterbeds. They would plaster signs on our front door at night saying “We will crush you”. Life was crazy. Six years after I sold my first waterbed for $500, I was selling the same waterbed for $99. Fortunately, that was a starter model and we had about 50 other more expensive models to sell as the $99 model was a loss leader. Unfortunately, waterbeds were advertised as cheap beds, so they were then categorized that way by the consumer. The waterbed manufacturers association began a tax on the manufacturers to fund a national advertising campaign focusing on the benefits of waterbeds, but it was too little too late. The train was moving fast and it was off the track.
3. There’s motion in the Ocean…..Waterbeds Moved.
Of course they did! That was not only the fun part, but it was what enabled the bed to reach up and contour to every part of your body which reduced your pressure points resulting in less tossing and turning, creating an awesome night’s sleep. There is yin and yang with everything. What made the product great also turned some people off. It seemed like every customer that came into my store would say “Do people get seasick on waterbeds?”, and then they would have a wide-eyed nervous laugh. I would laugh with them then explain that the bed would stop moving shortly after they stopped moving but the great part about a waterbed is that it prevented tossing and turning so you didn’t move much anyway. I got into manufacturing because I had some ideas on how to resolve the wave management issue, so that we could overcome this onerous objection. I created at least a dozen different patented waterbeds which restricted the wave movement greatly while still allowing the contouring capability of the bed. We became the Industry Innovator. This was a worldwide game changer for the waterbed market. The waveless waterbeds were a hit.
The waveless waterbed innovation turned the consumer’s initial objections into an opportunity that would set waterbeds down a path of success for many years to come. It gave a great reason for people who normally wouldn’t be interested, a chance to come into the store and learn about the brand new technology that was making a splash. We had “street cred”. We began exporting to Europe, Japan, China, Australia, Canada and people were flying in from all over the world to see our new products. Waterbeds reached a 22% market share and we were becoming a pain to the dead bed manufacturers. Many of my competitors were bought by billion-dollar companies which ran these companies into the ground within 2 years. No self-respecting waterbed retailer wanted to buy from these “non-believers”. These business were turned over to number crunching CFOs that had no passion for the product or people in the industry. The company founders were quickly dispensed. We were beginning to become a victim of our own success.
In spite of our new innovations, our industry sold over 50% “free flow” waterbeds. In my experience about half of the customers who bought a free flow waterbed got rid of their waterbed within 5 years. There wasn’t an easy way to remarket to these early adopters who were dissatisfied with their initial purchase.
4. Waterbeds were user friendly – until it was time to move.
Having set up hundreds of hardside wooden waterbed frames and filling waterbeds I can say that it was not overly challenging but it did take about an hour from start to finish (sometimes longer if they wanted to squeeze a king size bed into a twin size room). Customers were always anxious to help and were excited to get their new waterbed and try it out.
Sometimes they would try it out before I was able to gather my tools and remove the boxes. The product lived up to its unadvertised reputation and was very “user friendly” until it was time to move. We would include a Blue Magic Fill and Drain Kit with every bed sold, which had waterbed conditioner to keep the water clean and a siphon pump which would connect with your bathroom faucet to drain your mattress. This worked well but sometimes it would take 90 minutes to drain a king size waterbed, so many people would then throw the hose out their window while draining. Sometimes the hose would then end up in the window of the apartment directly below them. This was not a good way to meet your neighbors. Many times screws, brackets, parts would be lost in the moving process making it next to impossible to set up your bed when you got to your new home. Moving was stressful enough for most people without adding another layer of complication.
5. We fought the law.
6. Hardside vs. Softside waterbeds.The waterbed industry began with Charles Hall’s college project of sealing 2 sheets of vinyl together, putting a valve on one side and filling it with water. This was a good beginning but not enough to create a viable consumer product. It required putting a safety liner, a 2” x 10” wooden frame to contain the waterbed mattress, a pedestal to lift the product off the floor and plywood decking to support the mattress.
I bought a small furniture factory in Anaheim, CA. and converted it to a waterbed frame and bedroom furniture factory called Accent Furniture. I also started a waterbed sheet manufacturing company in Missouri called Snuggles to manufacture waterbed sheets, mattress pads and comforters. These products were a great complement to the waterbed mattress. Consumers came into a waterbed store ostensibly to buy a waterbed, however the vinyl waterbed mattress was just a small part of what was included in their total purchase. Many of our customers bought a complete bedroom set, an upgraded semi-waveless or waveless mattress, solid state heaters, upgraded drawer pedestals and padded rails to help them get in and out of the bed. Of course you needed special size sheets, mattress pads and comforters because waterbed sizes were different than regular dead beds. The vinyl waterbed mattress would usually cost less than $300 for a good waveless mattress, however, all of the other accessories could total over several thousand dollars. The waterbed mattress was the engine that drove the explosion of accessory sales which drove the revenue of waterbed stores. Then something disruptive happened, the soft sided waterbeds. Now consumers could buy a waterbed mattress that looked like a regular innerspring mattress. The side rails were foam instead of wood. It used regular sheets, mattress pads and comforters so you no longer needed to buy them at a waterbed store. The average waterbed sale (including furniture and accessories) dropped from about $1700 to about $850. This product solved some aesthetic issues and was more practical because it used conventional bedding but it did not increase the unit volume or market share of waterbeds. It still had many of the challenges with filling and draining that was present with other waterbeds. Now you can buy them without the need for a heater.
7. Waterbed entrepreneurs were a different breed (and so were some of our customers)
Change, growth, innovation and profits were happening at an incredible pace. During the growth years there were many young entrepreneurs that were making vast amounts of money. Some were great marketers, some were great salespeople, some were very inspiring, some were very lucky and most all were great opportunists. Some of my retail friends that would purchase products from me would use a city map as a dart board for their location strategy for their next store. It actually worked well for several years. One of my most successful sales was a Pajama Party. We would hire a searchlight company to shine a light into the night sky while we blanketed the air waves with ads touting discounts for wearing your pajamas into the store. One Saturday night we sold enough to make a $50,000 profit. It was an interesting selling experience talking to people in see through nighties, G-strings, latex outfits etc. Everyone had fun and all our employees made a LOT of money. Since there was a great amount of innovation and new product development there were a lot of patents filed and granted during the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s. Most of the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s was spent in court for many manufacturers. Charles Hall sold rights to his waterbed patent to a legal syndicate that virtually sued the entire industry. He became “persona non grata” around our industry parties. Many waterbed manufactures were forced to defend themselves and pay outrageous amounts of legal fees, which resulted in them losing their businesses. No one wins those fights except the lawyers.
Waterbed entrepreneurs were the ultimate risk takers, who stretched their people and capital to the limit, while simultaneously enjoying life to its fullest. Why not? We never felt the waterbed wave would end. In some ways it hasn’t. We still manufacture waterbeds in our Fontana, CA factory and ship waterbeds all over the world. Life is still great! Could waterbeds come back? Maybe. Thousands of true believers buy waterbeds every month even with some the challenges that come with the product. What if you could get all of the benefits of sleeping on water without the hassles? I see the next disruption of the mattress industry coming to your front door (literally- via UPS).
The Evolution of Water
I am excited to announce that we are STILL innovating the watered. This is the best of the best and has already been awarded a US patent.
The izone bed is a hybrid of water, memory foam and air. It has 7 adjustable support zones on each side of the bed. Yes, these adjustable chambers are filled with water, but unlike a waterbed these 14 “calibrators” weigh only about 6 lbs. each and can be filled in just a few minutes from your bathroom faucet or kitchen sink. Each calibrator is filled to a designated fill level that equates to the desired firmness level that is ergonomic with your sleep style and body weight density. You can have a plush feel on one side of the bed and a firm feel on the other side of the bed. Each side of the bed can be adjusted to the desired firmness level in each of the 7 zones.
The bed offers amazing support and contouring and there is zero motion transfer from either side of the bed as each calibrator is individually pocketed. Each calibrator has a water conditioner tablet in it already and there is no need to ever change the water or add another conditioner tablet. The mattress is light enough that there is no need to empty the water to move the mattress.
We compress and roll the izone bed so it is conveniently shipped to your house in a box via UPS. It can be used with any foundation, platform bed or adjustable power base.
The izone bed has:
- Amazing comfort
- Unparalleled support
- Air flow throughout the mattress to keep you cool.
- Adjustable support on either side of the bed
- Adjustable support from head to toe on each side of the bed
- Ships conveniently in a box via UPS
- 100 night free trial with a money back satisfaction guarantee
- 10 yr. warranty
Our bodies consist of over 60% water. This is the most comfortable, convenient and compatible sleep system in the world (we are not biased, just proud of what this mattress can do for you).