Once bulky beds have gone from being sold at the back of furniture stores to being delivered in easy-to-carry boxes to front doors
Many Canadians will remember two mattresses from their childhood — the one with the sheep and the one with the bowling ball — but the days of having only a few options to choose from are long gone.
Hundreds of companies now sell mattresses across North America, making choices nearly limitless. Some even promise quick delivery of once bulky beds that are packaged up tightly in easy-to-carry boxes, straight to customers’ front stoops. It’s the result of a mattress revolution that over the past decade has changed the way consumers shop for their ticket to a good night’s sleep.
Back in the early 1990s, buying a mattress meant weaving your way to the back of a store and picking one out from less than a handful of options. “You’d walk right through that furniture store and in some ugly section in the back were the mattresses,” said Stewart Schaefer, Sleep Country Canada Holdings Inc. chief executive. No one wanted to sell them, he said, even though everyone slept on one.
Freeing the mattress
The first shift in the evolution of the industry came when Sleep Country freed mattresses from those darkened corners and gave them their own store. “When we opened up 29 years ago we were the disrupters, although that wasn’t the word that was used then,” Schaefer said.
With more space to fill, mattress retailers started offering consumers more choice. The first increase in mattress types was aided by technological evolutions, such as memory foam, along with retail strategies that emphasized the value of a personalized sleep experience.
Then came the bed-in-a-box transformation. In 2006, an inventor in the United States created a machine capable of compressing and rolling mattresses into a fraction of their original size. From there, the BedInABox company was born. It began marketing mattresses online and shipping all-foam mattresses direct to consumers.
But it took almost a decade later for the now well-known e-commerce mattress model to gain traction. Jamie Bliss, director of marketing for Canadian sleep product retailer Goodmorning.com, said online sellers had many hurdles to overcome. “The tricky thing with trying to sell a mattress online was first, trying to basically take what Tempur-Pedic had done, which costs thousands of dollars, and produce a mattress for $1,000 that was not necessarily equivalent but a great quality product, and then sell it online to someone who’s never tried it before,” he said.
Companies like Novosbed, the predecessor of Goodmorning.com, which began its e-commerce operations in 2009, mounted the first hurdle by looking to Asia for manufacturing machinery that could compress more complex, multi-layered mattresses. They then cleared the second hurdle by offering customers a 120-day trial in their homes, a feature that’s now a mainstay of online mattress retailers. “That kind of kicked off the industry,” Bliss said.
Sleep Country’s Schaefer agrees that innovation in creating more high-quality products helped shift bed-buying online, but he said the real innovative play was in marketing. “Sleep was kind of always used as a pun like ‘the sleepy part at the back of the furniture store,’ but here were these dynamic companies that were great marketers,” he said. “They created a greater awareness around sleep than a lot of the other brands had in a very, very long time.”
Early online companies started reshaping the discussion around mattresses, shifting to health and wellness from coils and foam, Schaefer said. Mattresses — and all associated sleep products like pillows and sheets — became tools for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
And it wasn’t just what companies were selling, it was who was selling it. Mattresses were marketed to consumers through social media: a filtered, perfectly staged Instagram post here, a YouTube review hitting the key product points there. Big-name celebrities and influencers such as Kylie Jenner were seen unboxing mattresses. “That (marketing) made sleep cool again,” he said.
The combination of tech, assurance, convenience and millennial-friendly marketing worked. The number of online mattress retailers exploded from just a handful in 2015 to more than 175 internationally in 2019, with combined sales accounting for around 12 per cent of the then US$16.5-billion industry.
One would think the online proliferation would spell doom for brick-and-mortar retailers. Indeed, some U.S. companies, such as Mattress Firm, have filed for bankruptcy citing over-expansion and competition from online competitors. But in Canada, the industry is undergoing yet another shift: it’s consolidating.
On one side, store-based mattress retailers have moved online or partnered with e-commerce businesses, a move that accelerated during the pandemic after physical stores were forced to close during government-mandated lockdowns. Sleep Country, for example, began acquiring direct-to-consumer retailers starting with Endy in 2018, and most recently, in early 2023, it bought the Canadian operations of Casper, along with the net operating assets of Toronto-based mattress and accessory brand Silk & Snow. In 2022, e-commerce represented 19.6 per cent of the company’s revenues. Sleep Country also continues to open new stores each year.
“The pendulum has swung one way too far, then it swung the other way too far, and now it’s come back,” Schaefer said. “As a retailer you think you know what you’re doing, but a good retailer knows that it has to adapt to what the consumer wants. There is that happy medium in between that allows for it all.”
Endy’s acquisition by Sleep Country speaks to the strength of online mattress sales, according to the company’s president and general manager, Alexandra Voyevodina-Wang. “Sleep Country was recognizing that, while it did an amazing job selling mattresses in-store, it didn’t at that time have a significant online presence. They were seeing a significant consumer shift to online,” she said. “Since Endy was the leader in online mattress shopping, then and now, Sleep Country approached us to team up.”
E-commerce gets physical
On the other side, e-commerce companies have begun opening pop-up stores or creating a physical presence inside established retailers. Silk & Snow, a company that previously operated almost exclusively online but had a few showrooms in furniture retailer EQ3, is looking forward to its own brick-and-mortar stores. Co-founder and chief executive Albert Chow sees the company’s sale to Sleep Country as a chance to be everywhere all at once. “The advantages for us are the ability to offer our products to the customer at a better price, because we’ve got the efficiency of working with a much larger company, but also being able to push our brand and be accessible to our customers wherever they chose to be,” he said.
Along with hedging where they sell, retailers have also diversified what they sell. For one, the number of mattress options continues to grow. Consumers can now choose biodegradable options, mattresses made from hemp, or a smart mattress that monitors your sleep and adjusts to alleviate snoring.
In addition, many online retailers now offer pillows, blankets, sheets and even bed frames alongside their bed-in-box mattresses. Sleep Country, too, has broadened its product line and partners, and now sells more than 50 different accessory brands alongside its 15 mattress brands. In 2021, it acquired weighted-blanket company Hush Blankets Inc. and sleep accessories now account for 23.8 per cent of Sleep Country’s revenue, up from 20.7 per cent in 2020.
The mattress industry has come full circle. Instead of hiding beds in the back of a store and telling consumers what’s right for them, retailers are playing to the plethora of different tastes, health needs, budgets and shopping preferences. The strategy seems to be paying off, with Canada’s market expected to grow annually by 5.75 per cent in the next decade.
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An everything-sleep-to-everyone approach is here to stay, said Endy’s Voyevodina-Wang, at least for now. “I think we’re in a pretty healthy balance of different types of shopping,” she said. “We’ll see how the market changes but for now I think we’ll be in this place for a little while.”
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