If you’ve listened to a podcast in the past year, you’ve probably heard the presenter extol the virtues of ordering a mattress online: 100-night free trial, delivered to your door, memory foam. So much memory foam.
Sure, ordering food, razors, and even underwear to your home has become popular enough to sustain a wide variety of services. Things are so far advanced in the US that recommendations can come as niche as the “5 Best Mail-Order Bacon Companies”.
But buying a mattress is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty rare act. Sleep organisations recommend replacing a mattress about every seven years, and many rental properties in high turnover cities like London offer furnished rooms, in theory eliminating the need to purchase bedding entirely.
So what has fuelled the rise of mattress start-ups like Casper, Simba and Eve? And who is deciding to buy what is essentially a seven-year commitment online rather than in a store?
A recent Freakonomics podcast (it’s all about podcasts) provides one explanation: Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University, suggests that, “during the recession, for a period of five or six years, people just stopped buying mattresses, and so there was a lot of pent-up demand”. The release of this demand encouraged many mattress companies to open new stores.
This goes some way to explaining a broader rise, plus the fact that there’s apparently a pretty sweet mark-up on the product for traditional sellers. But the question remains of why mattresses have gone the way of Deliveroo and Uber, as well as whether the market is actually sustainable with so many start-ups getting in on the action.
It’s true that economic improvements post-2008 have contributed to the industry’s growth, according to James Cox, CEO and co-founder of Simba Sleep. But he adds that people have also become more used to the idea of shopping online: “It was only logical that if we started to offer better mattresses online at a more reasonable price, this would have wide appeal. As with any great product, competition appears and then you have a market boom.”
Constantin Eis, co-founder and global managing director at Casper, points to technology as a “huge driver of the boom”, and similarly believes consumer preferences have changed.
In particular, he sees the experience of purchasing a mattress in store as “shockingly out-of-date” and not a useful way to choose the best product. For Eve CEO, Jas Bagniewski, this process is “archaic”. He also sees the price differential as key, with traditional mark-ups creating an opening for online competition. All three companies offer a trial period as an alternative to testing products in a store.
Such low opinions of the usual mattress purchasing process make sense given that brick-and-mortar stores are still competitors. Yet no one seems too concerned by the size of the market. Cox sees it as being “very sustainable, in spite of the product lasting a relatively long time. There are still 68 million people in the buying cycle in the UK alone”, and people are also purchasing beds for spare and children’s rooms.
According to Eis, promoting innovation in the product’s design, manufacture and delivery has helped to generate “a surge in new mattress purchases. But that’s not to say the market isn’t sustainable. The number of mattresses people sleep on will not change, and so it’s rather about capturing those who are considering a new purchase.”
“Online can have several players,” Bagniewski believes. He notes that there are several multibillion dollar companies in the “offline” mattress world and doesn’t see why online should be any different, particularly in a global industry worth $30bn.
On the question of a customer base, he believes Eve’s are not too different to the industry standard, with a large portion consisting of homeowners over the age of 35.
However, he sees two types of consumer: one is more “rational”, following the seven-year replacement “rule”; the other is more attracted by the technological and branding elements of online mattress companies.
Eis claims that Casper has “seen huge interest from young, urban professionals” more eager to purchase online, while Cox adds that Simba also sells their product in John Lewis in order to meet other customers.
It seems, then, that branding has played a decent-sized role in attracting people to the idea of purchasing a mattress sight unseen – those podcasts and Tube posters have paid off.
But so have other trends, as all these companies believe (and promote the notion) that people are placing greater value on the importance of sleep as an element of their lifestyle and wellbeing. Casper has even gone so far as to launch Van Winkle’s, an independent publication that writes full-time about sleep.
And in a world that delivers everything from marijuana to production studios, why not mattresses? In the future, when mobsters decide to go to the mattresses, the mattresses might instead come to them.