How do mattress stores manage to stay in business? They're all over the place, but the average adult buys a mattress once every 5 to 10 years. With high overhead and infrequent purchases, how do they stay around? (This question was inspired by a friend, Bethany.)
I see your query, NB, and raise you. To my mind, it's not just about how these stores manage to stay in business, but how are there so goddamned many of them—particularly right now? In June, a Texas Monthly article described the worrisome proliferation of mattress stores in Houston, where the venerably groovy Montrose neighborhood has become known as "the Mattrose" on account of all the new sleep shops. An April headline in the Northwest Indiana Times asked, apropos the town of Schererville, "Why the heck are so many mattress stores opening?" So, you and I aren't the only ones wondering. What gives?Running a mattress store doesn't cost much. Since each store is essentially a showroom, with the product delivered to your home from a warehouse, sellers don't keep a lot of inventory around. And the salespeople generally work on commission. So contrary to your assumption, overhead is actually pretty low. Plus, the uninhibited signage at these places provides constant free advertising.
One thing that jars about this state of affairs is that, in the age of Amazon, there's something very old-economy about mattress stores, beyond their relentlessly cheesy look. No one goes to bookstores to buy books anymore, right? Well, not exactly. A 2014 report by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney found that despite the digital hype, overall, a full 90 percent of retail transactions still take place in physical stores. And according to an investor presentation by industry giant Mattress Firm, dedicated mattress stores account for 46 percent of total mattress sales, handily beating out furniture stores (35 percent) and department stores (5 percent) for the largest share of the market.
So mattress delivery by drone is still a ways off. But again, these stores aren't just surviving, they're flourishing—that market share has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Why open a mattress store when there's another just down the street? Turns out the economics make perfect sense:
Certain ancillary factors are working in the mattress-pushers' favor too. Newspapers and lifestyle magazines provide great propaganda in the form of endless encomiums to getting a good night's sleep, and the well-publicized resurgence of bedbugs certainly plays nicely with the industry's attempts to get you to replace your mattress more often.
On the principle of Chekhov's gun, if I use a loaded term like "old economy" in the first act, we'll be talking about "disruption" here in the third. And lo: Some not-exactly-disinterested observers say it's high time to disrupt the mattress industry, which has been described variously as a "scam," a "racket," and, as suggested above, an "oligopoly." Critics are galled by a system wherein retailers charge exorbitant, and wildly variable, prices for products whose differences from one another are often slight and described in nonsensical language—e.g., "ComforPedic iQ" with "Ultra Cool Memory Foam" and optional "AirCool Memory Foam with Micro GelTouch." (Lots of product labeling is similarly nuts, of course; on the other hand, you're not dropping $2,000 on a razor blade.) They point to the eyewear business, which has similarly been called oligopolistic, where the entrepreneurial upstart Warby Parker found success selling cheap glasses to hipsters. Whence the white knight of mattress sales? I found an article profiling one contender whose cofounders show the right credentials—both have Silicon Valley backgrounds, one's got a great beard—but if I were a mattress seller, I wouldn't be losing any sleep just yet.
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