The OG of the mattress industry’s dramatic transformation

Since I moved to Bengaluru from Delhi (after I got married) in the year 2000, I have bought just two mattresses for my/our own bed (besides very, very few/occasional mattresses for the beds in the other bedrooms). The one we were sleeping on was a Kurlon mattress purchased more than a decade ago. I have no idea what kind of mattress it was – it was most probably the standard coir/spring type mattress that seemed ‘firm’ and ‘thick’ when I saw it in a shop back then and bought it.

I use ‘was’ for that mattress since I took a giant step recently to buy a new mattress!

We have thought about changing the mattress multiple times in the past few years but were sufficiently demotivated by a few factors – the inertia to order such a huge thing (that needs to be seen, tried at the shop, ordered, lugged around by a mini-van type vehicle, and two people dragging it with great difficulty across 3 floors to our house and plonking it on our cot), the ‘how bad is the current mattress, really?’ assumption, among others.

The last 2 years of COVID made the inertia particularly acute – to even think of going offline to pick a mattress and it getting laboriously lugged around to our house seemed pointless.

But when I was changing the bedspread last week, I noticed that the top cover of the mattress had worn out quite a bit and some fluffy thing was very eager to come out and fly. I thought this was a sign that I need to join the new-age crowd and order a mattress online since so many brands seem to be vying for our attention these days!

A quick check online led us to zero in on Wakefit (after considering a few more brands).

We got the new mattress in a day and the experience has been surprisingly very good! I was slightly worried about the new mattress not being firm enough and probably sagging too much, but while it seems softer than our earlier ‘firm’ mattress, it doesn’t sag either and stays comfortably firm enough.

I was looking back on what really changed our stance and inertia from ‘why bother?’ to ‘Let’s buy a new mattress’ and arrived at a couple of specific reasons.

The older mattress wasn’t really in any bad/tattered condition – it seemed/looked in perfectly serviceable condition. So that wasn’t the impetus.

Instead, I’d nail the change in stance to,
a. the ease of researching, selecting, and ordering online
b. the mattress could arrive via courier/free ‘shipping’ as they say
c. that we can ‘assemble’ it ourselves with very little effort
d. the fact that most online mattress brands offer a 30-90 day free trial!
e. 10-20 year warranty!

Considering we had ordered a king-size mattress, even the boxed mattress was fairly large, but definitely not as unwieldy as a king-size mattress fully expanded/open that one cannot even lift, drag or move without stupendous effort. What we got was a tidy roll, neatly packed in a black cover and we could easily drag it to our bedroom after lugging it on our apartment elevator relatively easily.

The unrolling was an enjoyably interesting—and easy—process after we had watched a couple of online mattress unboxing videos 🙂

This experience forced me to trace the origin of this fascinating shift in the mattress category – who really started this amazing transformation of something so intricately offline in reality and perception, into something that can effortlessly be ordered online?

(Related read: the transformation of the Indian mattress industry)

Much of the credit for transforming the mattress industry now goes to two American brands – Tuft & Needle (launched in 2012) and Casper (launched in 2014). These two brands, armed with generous venture funding (particularly Casper), went on to transform the mattress industry as we know it into something that can fit perfectly into the e-commerce zone.

From a selling point of view, the 30-90 days trial is pretty well-known and common to most ‘boxed’ mattress brands, but to even come to that point, the first need was the ability to pack a massive mattress into a small box.

That incredible transformation happened long before Tuft & Needle or Casper. Bill Bradley, a Tennessee-based machinist first came up with the idea of a machine that can compress foam mattresses and reduce their size to about one-third of the original size way back in 2004. His machine was operational in 2006 and he launched BedInABox, the original bed-in-a-box concept in the same year.

The idea is very widespread now. Take a look at how they compress a huge mattress into a tiny box!

Now, every other online mattress brand is using the same technique/machine!

This is the original masterstroke. Without this basic concept, the rest of the innovations simply do not flow. The core problem with mattress selling was the size – it was literally massive and even from a purchase decision point of view, weighed ‘heavily’ (pun intended adequately) on consumers’ minds given the effort involved.

But compressing it into a box changes the perception dramatically. It removes the mental block as well as the physical effort required and allows an otherwise huge item to be moved around far more effortlessly. On a practical basis, it also reduces shipping costs!

After BedInABox, the other players that entered the market were not mattress manufacturers and were more well-funded digital marketing companies that outsourced the production of the core product. The game was to attract customers through intelligent selling – pitching the need, enticing with attractive offers, and sale-related features.

This is where the pioneering ideas by brands like Casper – order online, free trial period, no-questions-asked returns (upon which a brand like Tuft & Needle claims that they give it to charity!), free shipping, etc.

Add to it the fact that most online mattress-in-a-box brands usually have a very limited variety to choose from – from just one model to about 2-3. That makes buying a mattress an easy affair, particularly because the prior experience has been extremely strenuous mentally and physically.

But the true game-changer is the compression and packaging innovation by Bill Bradley.

BedInABox LLC: (from left) Melissa Thomas, CMO; Judy Bradley, co-owner; Bill Bradley, CEO; and Susan Chase, ED.

That paved the way to radically rethink how mattresses can be sold and an entirely new version of the industry sprouted using the internet as the conduit. Every other innovation was built on top of that first big idea.

There’s no doubt that sales-level innovations are crucial. The 10-20 year warranty, easy returns (unheard of for mattresses), 30-90 day/night trial period could nudge an otherwise uninterested potential consumer to try it out (like me). But without home delivery and self-assembling, all these don’t stack up at all. It’s easy to forget the start of the category’s big shift by focusing only on the sales-level innovations by the better-funded start-ups. The actual idea that kick-started it all was a product innovation.

Related read from Bedtimes Magazine: E-commerce pioneer BedInABox evolving

While most mattress brands focus on themes like sleep, comfort, and functional benefits (trial, returns, etc.), I assume they could also focus on the inertia in existing users of old-style mattresses who may be loathed to change because of reasons I was going through. To some extent, the category needs some more market education too, like how Flipkart made e-commerce easy enough for even a grandpa in the family buying online (in their early-mid 2010 campaigns).



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