The rise of Amazon, Netflix, and file-sharing has doomed many of the record, book, and movie rental and video game stores we all once loved, not to mention big-box electronics stores and entire shopping malls. What will fill those holes in the brick-and-mortar retail landscape?
The answer seems to be “Internet-proof” businesses, places where you either need to be present in person (hair and nail salons, massage parlors, restaurants, payday or title loan joints ), or those that have to exist in a physical building by law (liquor stores), or ones where it’s simpler to go in person thanks to all the questions you will have (cellphone stores).
More recently, a new type of business has cropped up. In both Houston and Austin there have been an astounding and alarming number of mattress retail outlets opening in the past few years.
The Houston sleep store invasion has easily been the real estate trend piece of the first half of 2015. Thanks in part to a sort of mattress retail singularity at the corner of Montrose Boulevard and Westheimer (once the nexus of decadent Houston cool), some are calling the whole neighborhood “the Mattrose.” Others have claimed that Houston’s Westheimer Street has now achieved Peak Mattress.
You have to wonder about Lewis Black’s thoughts on these developments. The comedian once deemed Houston the “end of the universe,” thanks to its twin Starbucks at the gateway to the River Oaks shopping center. Well, Lewis, including the one inside the Barnes and Noble, now there are three Starbucks on that corner. And about ten mattress stores within three miles, including a Mattress Firm and a Mattress Pro, both owned by the same Houston-based company, immediately next door to one another on what should be one of Houston’s hippest corners.
Is it because Houston is growing so fast? All those young Newstonians needing new beds? Does the bedbug renaissance have something to do with it? Does it have something to do with the fact that modern-day Houston makes folk heroes of mattress salesmen? (The Northwest has Paul Bunyan, the Midwest has Johnny Appleseed, the South has John Henry, and in Houston, Mattress Mack at I-45 North between Tidwell and Parker.)
No, no, and no. (And maybe yes, but that’s another story.)
The phenomenon extends beyond Houston, for one thing. There are now 52 Mattress Firms in the Austin area and a couple more Mattress Pros. There are 30 Firms within twenty miles of the Alamo, all but three of them on the north side with a heavy concentration on Highway 281. There are 94—that’s nearly 100!—Mattress Firms serving the DFW area.
It’s not just a Texas thing. Subredditors in Boise, Charlotte, and Tucson are equally puzzled and intrigued. New York has seen a similar boom among outlets of Sleepy’s, Mattress Firm’s northeastern rival. The phenomenon also recently spawned a feature in the Washington Post.
It’s hard to figure. Most of us only buy a handful of mattresses over the course of a lifetime. Passersby say they never see any customers in these businesses. And it’s not like you can’t buy mattresses at places like Sears, Ikea, and Costco. How does this abundance of mattress-only storefronts make even a lick of business sense?
NYC’s Bloomberg News examined the phenomenon from a business standpoint. Among their findings:
- Each storefront is a billboard. Even if each one isn’t a moneymaker on its own, it can earn its keep via advertising the brand.
- Like picture frames and eyeglass frames, mattresses are a very high-margin product: as much as 50 percent per mattress. With mattresses retailing for $1,000 and up, you don’t need to sell huge numbers to turn a profit, or at least come close enough to a profit when you combine it with the advertising aspects.
- Inventory, or lack thereof. These stores just funnel your mattress direct from the manufacturer rather from some warehouse they are leasing. Also, employee salaries are heavily commission-based. Low overhead all the way around.
Meanwhile, Mattress Firm has taken to the airwaves with devastatingly effective TV marketing campaigns, ones that attempt to reset the boundaries for America’s mattress culture. It used to be that kids starting out in life were given a second-hand mattress or even inherited one from an elderly ancestor. People would keep them until they lost their shape, or burned in a fire, or drowned in a flood, or the stuffing started coming out, or they were stained by the bodily fluids of man or animal, or somebody died in it. No longer. Mattress Firm would have you believe that if you keep your mattress for more than eight years, you might as well be wallowing on a pallet made of bodily fluid–drenched hay in the filth of some Dark Ages hovel, and each night you lay down your head on one of these pig-wallows is a night you are slumbering in years of your own dead skin, millions of creepy-crawly parasites, and gallons upon gallons of your own evaporated sweat. And the recent resurgence of bedbugs have given the mattress trade a boost. Mattress Firm delves into the bloodsucking abilities of these creepy-crawlies here, along with some fear-mongering about dust mites and microscopic spiders who love nothing more than to infest your bed and chow down on your dead skin.
Here’s a little bit from Mattress Firm’s Replace Every 8 campaign:
Over the years, your mattress practically doubles in weight from sweat, dead skin, and millions of dust mites. That doesn’t just sound unhealthy – it is unhealthy – especially if you have allergies or asthma. To find out how old your mattress is, check the tag. If it’s over 8, it’s time to replace. Let Mattress Firm’s professional Sleep Consultants help you find the right mattress for a great and healthy night’s sleep, tonight.
That’s why you need to get on a financing plan: they will even give you 48 months of 0 percent APR on every purchase of $2,498 and up.
So there’s the low overhead, the stores-as-billboards, the high markups on big-ticket items. And then there’s the “Internet-proof” factor. Like cars, mattresses are long-term purchases that people want to try out in person before they commit, a try-before-you-buy commodity. At least they are for Generation X and up.
As for Millennials, maybe not so much. They seem to grasp inherently that you can’t really judge a mattress by rolling around on it in a florescent-lit strip-mall storefront for a few short minutes, while under the hungry eyes and hair-gelled coif of an always-be-closing-sales associate. Can you really tell from that awkward little ceremony if that’s where you want to spend the remaining one-third of the foreseeable future of your natural life? Should mattress sales be as nerve-wracking and soul-crushing as a trip to the car lot?
Millennials are saying no. One such is Sugar Land native Philip Krim, a UT MBA and CEO of Internet-based mattress outlet Casper, one of several such start-ups vying to become the “Warby Parker of mattresses.” (Small wonder that, like industry-leading Mattress Firm, this upstart is helmed by a Texan. Brazos Valley cotton–stuffed Sealy mattresses were the wonder of their age and remain a byword for quality in the industry today, even if the company decamped for Chicago long ago.)
Krim is betting that people will buy Casper’s mattresses online, sight unseen. So are his investors, including such celebs as Nas and Ashton Kutcher.
Krim’s company and others like it compare trad, lame-stream mattress stores like Mattress Firm and its northeastern counterpart Sleepy’s to car lots: high-pressure places where you know you are about to pay too much for something you really need but are powerless to stop. Their prices are low: starting at $500 for a twin, they rise only to $950 for a California King. And they sell the mattresses primarily online, cutting out one more overhead cost. Granted, they do have a couple of showrooms—in NYC and L.A.—plus occasional pop-ups in trendy cities like Austin and San Francisco, but Casper sells online only. It’s their way of, as guru du jour Marie Kondo has put it, making mundane purchases fun, or, “fundane.” (SMH.)
Here’s a quick description Casper’s low-pressure, non-showroomy showrooms:
[The] two showrooms [are] designed to make customers feel like they’re at a house party rather than a retail store. The newest is in a midcentury modern home in Los Angeles, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Hollywood Hills. The New York showroom, a one-bedroom apartment on Bond Street, looks like a moneyed bachelor pad, with a minimalist leather chair, stacks of books, including five copies of Dune, and a pinball machine in the corner.
The showroom has two Caspers. One is a queen that sits in a windowed alcove. The other is a king, set up in the bedroom, dressed up in chambray sheets. You can try it, along with a mimosa and croissants, for however long you feel like, and no one will stand over you asking how it feels when you do. A chandelier above is made of old mattress box springs. “Keeping this really casual is important to us,” says Monica Brouwer, Casper’s director of experiential marketing. “We want to make it a local hub versus just being about selling the mattress.” She’s thinking of starting a “nightcap series” featuring different mixologists.
About 50 people stopped by on a recent Saturday; after one couple decided to buy a mattress, everyone celebrated with more bubbly. Later the couple invited the Casper team to a party at their place.
Two questions here: Which staffer gets to “curate” the mixologists for the nightcap series? Could you imagine a scenario like that at any of the many corner Mattress Firms near your house?
Once you order your Casper mattress, it arrives tightly compressed in a box in the mail (or by cargo bike in dense cities like NYC), and the unboxing ceremonies are so much fun, they’ve become YouTube sensations.
And if the mattress has you tossing and turning and waking with an aching back, you can send it back within thirty days for a full refund. Meanwhile, Casper staff strives to show you that your new bed loves you as much as you love it.
During a morning staff meeting before Valentine’s Day, Kaplan describes an upcoming promotion centered around the holiday. “We want to make it clear that Casper is a bed that loves you back,” she says. “We’re asking people to tweet us their dream Valentine’s Day, and we’ll try to help. So we’ll be sending stuff like movie tickets or Seamless gift certificates. Some people might even get a poem from their Casper.”
She riffs: “‘Roses are red / Casper is gray / Come back to bed / I want you to stay.’ I just made that up.”
Twee? Precious? Very much so.
Also, cheaper than your old-school mattress store and free of scare tactics and high-pressure sales pitches. All aboard the fundane train.